05 March 2010

Ahoy Movie! 10 Seafaring Film Adventures For Old Salts and Landlubbers Alike

Among the growing list of film types in the they-don't-make-em-like-they-used-to category is the seafaring adventure story. Over the last half century adventure stories have been mostly set in outer space or featured other worldly magic. Far as I'm concerned you can't get much more magical than men at sea in often flimsy vessel  in close quarters. Add other people with fearsome weapons and you've got yourself some rip roaring adventures. Magic wands and space aliens not required. The ship is its own universe with the captain as God. Sometimes he is a harsh and capricious master, on other occasions he is wise, benevolent and reliable. Sea life is one of extremes. Weather can range from freezing, to sultry with gale force winds or not a wisp of  breeze at all (a dreaded state for sailing ships). There are also extremes in routine with day after day of tedium interrupted by terrifying peril. Shipmates may be the best of friends or sworn enemies. Ports of call can be exotic, offering gorgeous beaches and flora with exciting nightlife and women aplenty. Or they can be rife with enemies or hostile natives. In other words sea voyages are ideally suited for movies and Hollywood used to take full advantage. Used to. I offer a list of ten outstanding films set at sea with only one from the past 50 years.

"We joined the navy to see the world
And what'd we see?
We saw the sea
We saw the Pacific and the Atlantic
But the Atlantic isn't romantic
And the Pacific isn't what it's cracked up to be."
        From the song 'We Saw the Sea' by Irving Berlin.

The Long Voyage Home (1940). This is a recent discovery of mine and it was a case of love at first sight. From the standpoint of depicting life at sea it may be unparalleled. Okay John Wayne as a Swede is a little odd but the rest of the cast is near perfect. Forget plot points, this is a story of men at sea, their bonds, their conflicts, their fates. Director John Ford focused on the faces. The first five minutes of the film has no dialogue, just the visages of the crew, some busy and expressive,others blank and apprehensive. The cast features Thomas Mitchell, John Qualen,Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields and Ian Hunter. There is boozing, fist fights, enemy planes, heart breaking loss and surprising truths revealed. It's a story rich in metaphor and life lessons.

Master and Commander (2003). The only film from the past 50 years to make this list. It recalls much of the best of efforts from Hollywood's Golden Age. There is a bit of swash in the buckle. Disparate personalities pitted against one another, opposing forces and Ma Nature. Russell Crowe is tailor made to take the helm of the ship and the movie. The action (and there's plenty of it) is aboard a British naval vessel during the Napoleonic wars. One heart breaking scene of men lost at sea is particularly memorable capturing as it does the cruelty of the briny mass.

Action in the North Atlantic (1943). One reason I really appreciate this film is that it's an ode to the allied merchant marines of World War II. My dear old dad was one such hero (my older brother was also a mariner though in considerably more peaceful times). Any discussion of merchant marines during the war must be accompanied by the word unsung. Their contribution to defeating the Axis was inestimable and they made their contribution at great risk and gained little glory. This film, from director Lloyd Bacon, has a stellar cast led by Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey and Alan Hale. It was clearly war time propaganda, but like a lot of such films it not only served its purpose but was a good yarn in the bargain.

In Which We Serve (1942). This is rather an odd duck. Imagine a film co-directed by David Lean and Noel Coward. Now further imagine Coward as a ship's captain (no cocktail hour for witty repartee) in war time. Also ponder that this is a tribute as much to a ship itself as it is to those who serve on it. But peculiarities aside this is a cracking good film about men at war on ship, in the water. We know from the outset that the ship does not survive the war. We can guess that neither do all the men. It all adds up to a surprisingly effective look at the war at sea, especially considering that is was made while that very war raged on.

The Sea Wolf (1941). Edward G. Robinson is fantastic as the biggest stinker to ever captain a ship. The time is 1900, the port of call San Francisco. The crew includes a nasty Barry Fitzgerald, a drunken and pitiful Gene Lockhart and a brusque Howard DaSilva. But this is a Edward G vehicle all the way. He's a martinet and a sadist and surprisingly complex one at that. Based on a Jack London story, The Sea Wolf is utterly uncompromising and unsentimental in its portrayal of ship board life.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Based on the true story of an 18th century mutiny aboard a British ship in the South Pacific. In addition to powerful performances from its stars, Charles Laughton as the notorious Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as Mr. Christian, MOTB is a veritable primer on ship board life 200 years ago.

Follow the Fleet (1936). Why not include some dancing, music and light romance at sea? Especially when the the dancing is being done by the likes of  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. While not a particularly revealing look at naval voyages it's good clean fun and a refreshing change of pace from grim tales of cruel captains and ship board mishaps.

The Sea Hawk (1940). Mr. Swashbuckle himself, Errol Flynn stars as a pirate who takes to practicing  his craft on behalf of the British crown against the hated Spanish enemy. And who better to play the villain than Claude Rains? Flora Robson is Queen Elizabeth (the first,silly). It's lightweight stuff but great fun. The quintessential Golden Age pirate flick.

Lifeboat (1944). Okay it's true this story does not take place aboard a ship.  The entire setting is a boat and a lifeboat at that. The characters spend the entire running time at sea in one of the most precarious and frightening states imaginable. People on lifeboats could well imagine death by any number of means including starvation, thirst, shark attack, drowning, disease or by their own hand. Succumbing to madness was also a danger. Once dead a person might be cannibalized. At the same time rescue at any moment was always an ever present hope. Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat captures this with the added dimension of the story being set during World War II. Thus there is the added worry of being rescued by the enemy (still, it beats being shark meat). The passengers on this particular boat are from an allied ship but lo and behold they've got a Nazi aboard. What fun.

Moby Dick (1956). It's a whale of a movie (pause while readers enjoy a hearty laugh at my delightful pun). But seriously folks...considering that director John Huston had the weighty task of taking a celebrated and weighty novel and trying to spin cinematic magic out of it, this is a fine film. It doesn't hurt when you have an actor of the stature of Gregory Peck to play Captain Ahab.

1 comment:

Mark Dombek said...

Excellent choices, all!
The opening scene in Master and Commander, when the crew is called to 'quarters' (general quarters in modern USN) with that rolling drum beat, litterally raised the hairs on the back of my neck. It instantly brought back the real deal, when that claxon sounds out and you hear the words, "this is NOT a drill!". This is truly a sailors' film. Glad to see it included and to read your assessment.