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Souls At Sea
cast: Gary Cooper, George Raft, Frances Dee, Harry Carey, and Robert Cummings

director: Henry Hathaway

89 minutes (PG) 1937
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
[released 10 November]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens
Despite its big-name actors and a leading director of the studio years, and despite its Oscar nominations (best art direction, best assistant director, and best music score), Souls At Sea has become a rarely-seen film in the UK. Before this DVD release, there was no entry on the BBFC website for it, which may indicate (not conclusively as the database is known to be incomplete) that it may not even have been released in the UK at all at the time of its making. The BFI database, itself far from complete, only has a record of one British television showing, and that was back in 1966. Made for Paramount, owned by Universal since they bought some 700 of Paramount's 1930s and 1940s catalogue sometime in the 1950s for TV showings, it comes to DVD from Eureka in their classics line.

It's the 1840s. Captain Michael Taylor (Gary Cooper) is on trial for the murder of passengers who died when their ship burned and went down. One lifeboat remained and he had to decide who to save. However, as we learn through flashbacks, the true story was far from simple. Taylor and his friend Powdah (George Raft) were crewmen on a slave ship. When the slaves kill the captain, Taylor puts them back ashore and then gives up the ship to the British navy. Then he is recruited on an undercover mission to bring down the dead captain's slaving business.

Souls At Sea is based on a true story, well told and acted and culminating in a convincing disaster at sea. Six decades before the term 'political correctness' was invented, the film does seem a little too revisionist. Slave trading may have seemed abhorrent in the 1930s, as it does now, but that wasn't a universal belief in the 1840s, as a war would later be fought over the issue. Taylor does get to say that for large parts of the world slaving was simply business, but you can't avoid the feeling that the film is playing down uncomfortable truths - no doubt for the sake of entertainment, as this was a major-studio film which would play across the USA and overseas.

Encoded for region 2 only, Eureka's release of this black and white Academy ratio film is pretty good, and contrast seems what it should be. The sound is the original mono, and is clear and well balanced. There are no DVD extras.
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