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In 1892, the crew of the seal hunting vessel The Ghost rescues James Van Weyden, the sole survivor of a ferryboat crash. Jim, a literary critic from a wealthy California family, is taken to the captain, Wolf Larsen, who is overseeing a perfunctory burial at sea of the first mate. Jim demands to be returned to San Francisco, but Larsen refuses, stating that the ship is destined for seal hunting and is en route to Japan. Larsen then orders several changes in the crew positions due to the first mate's death and, to Jim's amazement, he is made a galley assistant. When Jim protests indignantly, Larsen savagely strikes him and Jim reluctantly joins the unkempt cook, Mugridge, below deck. Over the next several days, Jim struggles with the unfamiliarity of life at sea and Mugridge, resentful of Jim's educated, moneyed background, bullies him at every opportunity. Another crewman, Johnson, offers Jim sympathy and advice on the grueling work and also cautions Jim to avoid contact with the cruel, sadistic Larsen. Some days later, upon being ordered by Larsen to clean his cabin, Jim is surprised to find a number of books on a wide range of topics, including poetry. Larsen derides literature, however, claiming that poets know nothing of life and that all men are selfish and brutish by nature. Later on deck, Johnson and crewman Louis ask Jim about his conversation with Larsen and Jim reports that the captain is full of hate and fear. Louis offers Jim a knife for protection, but Jim refuses until Louis describes how Larsen callously killed his brother after claiming that he was insubordinate. Several days later, Jim is dismayed when Larsen forces young novice seaman Leach to climb the mast and untangle ropes at the very end of the yardarm. Although terrified, Leach complies, urged on by first mate Matthews. As Jim tidies the captain's cabin that afternoon, Matthews brings Johnson to the captain. Larsen then accuses Johnson of rescuing Leach against orders and, commanding Jim to watch, beats Johnson severely as punishment. After Jim has been on board The Ghost over a month, Larsen promotes him to a regular member of the crew, yet derides him for his morals and ethical behavior. When Jim wonders how Larsen can be both brutal and intelligent, Larsen proudly informs him that without a formal education he has designed a highly complex method of plotting a sea course using only a single star. Larsen also describes his harsh childhood working on Norwegian fishing boats before joining the British merchant marines where abuse was a common form of discipline. Larsen claims the abuse made him not only vicious, but convinced of mankind's ultimate worthlessness. When Jim notices that Larsen is suffering from a painful headache, Larsen relates how he was nearly killed by an assailant who cracked his skull. Although blinded for several weeks, Larsen recovered and murdered his assailant, but still suffers severe headaches and diminishing eyesight. After another month, Jim comes to appreciate the stark, severe life at sea, but the crew grows restless when there is no sign of any seals. Unknown to Jim, Johnson and Leach plan an attack on Larsen with the rest of the crew's tacit approval. One afternoon, the pair succeed in throwing Matthews and Larsen overboard, but Larsen is caught on some ropes and spared. When the captain goes below to confront his attackers, the crew jump him, but he succeeds in escaping to his cabin where Jim treats his wounds. Larsen then orders Jim to assume Matthews' position of first mate, but Jim refuses until Larsen threatens him with violence. Larsen remains in his quarters several days, suffering from increased headaches and a temporary loss of vision, which Jim does not relay to the crew. When a seal herd is finally sighted, the men's restlessness dissipates and Larsen resumes command. A few days after Larsen has recovered, Louis secretly asks Jim for the course to Japan and reveals that Johnson and Leach intend to flee in a lifeboat. Larsen soon discovers Johnson and Leach's disappearance and determines to find them. The following afternoon, a small boat is spotted, but it is a lifeboat from a recent shipwreck, carrying three men and a woman. Larsen brings the survivors on board and orders the men to be taken on as crew, while Jim offers his cabin to the weakened, exhausted woman, Kristina Carlson. Meanwhile, the search for Johnson and Leach resumes and the following day the men are spotted. When Jim pleads with Larsen not to harm them, Larsen perversely runs over the lifeboat with The Ghost . That evening at dinner in the captain's cabin, Larsen scoffs at Kristina's story that she has been hired to dance with a renowned troupe in Yokohama. Larsen reveals that Kristina is the likely victim of a scam to lure unsuspecting women into white slavery, then rejects her request her to be dropped off at Yokohoma, which is two days away. Kristina, Jim and the crew are later mortified when Larsen orders the filthy Mugridge dragged in the ocean and the cook's foot is bitten off by a shark. Struggling against the ceaseless, blinding headaches, Larsen grows gradually more and more violent until one evening, he drags Kristina to his cabin. Outraged, the crew plans a mutiny, but Jim intervenes, forcing the men to promise to lock Larsen unharmed in his cabin. The men rescue Kristina and, delighted to find Larsen blind and helpless, chain him in his cabin. When Mugridge later attempts to torture Larsen, the captain strangles him to death and breaks loose. Struggling topside armed with his pistol, the blind Larsen overhears the new course toward San Francisco and, brandishing his gun, orders a course change. Larsen is then shot dead by a crewman. With little ceremony, Jim supervises the burial of The Ghost 's captain at sea.
Forrest T. Butler
Lindsley Parsons Jr.
The opening title card reads "Jack London's Wolf Larsen." As noted elsewhere in the credits, the film is based on London's novel The Sea-Wolf. in which Larsen is the main character. A September 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item indicates that producer Lindsley Parsons initially intended to produce an original screenplay by Turnley Walker, focusing on seal-hunting. That project, which was to be entitled The Far Wanderer, was to have starred Sterling Hayden and to be shot on board Hayden's yacht.
There have been numerous film versions of London's novel, beginning in 1913 with The Sea Wolf directed by and starring Hobart Bosworth. The most popular version was Warner Bros.' 1941 release starring Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Alexander Knox, directed by Michael Curtiz. For more information on other productions of The Sea Wolf please see the 1941 entry in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50.