In the 1952 adventure The World In His Arms, Gregory Peck is a boisterous sea captain in the Pacific Coast, circa 1850, who has a plan to buy Alaska from the Russians… if they don’t kill him first.
It’s not the kind of role that we immediately associate with Peck. He’s the man of principle, the dedicated father, the unbendingly loyal leader, protective and modest and unyielding in face of injustice, and still quite charming under all that poised decency. That’s the man we know from films ranging from The Yearling to Twelve O’Clock High to The Big Country to To Kill a Mockingbird. He could be stiff but his stiffness was part of the charm.
But he was also a studio star who made his share of westerns, war films, adventures and romantic comedies, and he could put that smile and poise to work as a man of action with the best of them. The World in His Arms, adapted from the Rex Beach novel by Borden Chase (Red River) and produced by Aaron Rosenburg, Universal’s man for dynamic outdoor adventure, lets Peck be the maverick entrepreneur in the wild far west of the Barbary Coast and the Bering Straight.
Imagine the rebellious kid brother of Peck’s Horatio Hornblower (another Walsh collaboration), rejecting the discipline of Her majesty’s Navy and gone to the New World for the freedom of free enterprise in a country without limits. The captain of a fast ship and a lovably roughneck crew that he gives free reign to let loose in their San Francisco shore leave between trips, he’s “the Man From Boston,” the nickname that the Russians have given him (along with the brand of “pirate”) for his wildcatting success in their waters. He’s still got that educated diction and East Coast culture in his voice and his bearing, but he’s also happy roughneck. He leaps into bar brawls, arm wrestles Anthony Quinn and romances Ann Blyth, Hollywood’s tiny porcelain doll of a leading lady playing a pampered Russian countess who comes alive in Peck’s big arms.
The story is terrific Hollywood hockum, with the bad boy Peck as the spirit of American can-do action and a model of respect for the natural balance—he’s not just the most successful seal trapper on the West Coast, he’s also a proponent of responsible thinning of the seal herds, in stark, proto-ecosavvy contrast the Russians who are decimating the population—and this two-fisted adventurer is the perfect mate to bring the Russian aristocrat into the great American melting pot. There are larger than life accents (Anthony does his lovable rogue as “the Portugee,” a genuine crook who is still somehow welcomed into the brethren and invited to fight side by side against the “true” crooks of imperial despotism), lively clashes between the classes and revolutionary action as a fun-loving brawl that the Americans are destined to win.
Raoul Walsh is Hollywood’s great director of men in action; his characters are defined by what they do and how they do it and Peck is nothing if not a man who acts from his heart. And while the film resorts to some clumsy back projection for a number of the more exotic backdrops, the film’s most thrilling sequence — a race to Alaska between rival sailing ships — offers us the real thing with dramatic photography of men and vessels fighting the choppy seas.