“You are now prisoners of Captain Vallo and his scurvy crew!” [Burt Lancaster as Captain Vallo in “The Crimson Pirate” (1952)]
As mentioned in my previous post, I was going to have three different posts discussing a particular form of “transportation” in the movies. This second post will discuss transportation in water for the movies and for television. Water transportation, whether over or under the sea; on rivers, lakes or oceans; or during modern or ancient times is a common element for many different types of films. Numerous films and TV shows were made of individuals involved with water in war and in commerce. It was also utilized for such varied subjects as exploration, espionage, science fiction, disaster, comedy, romance, and even psychological character studies. With so many variables, it would seem almost impossible to categorize such a large variety of films and TV in a coherent way. So of course, I’m going to do it anyway. Therefore, “Hoist the Yardarm, Matey ” (Whatever the Hell that means…) here we go!
You may think that commerce or stories about individuals working on water would be a boring subject for the movies. Well, wrong, Moose Breath! Several classics from literature were made into films which explored work at sea such as Kipling’s “Captains Courageous” (1938) and Melville’s “Moby Dick” (1956). Films like “Down to the Sea in Ships” (1949), “Reap the Wild Wind” (1942), and “Wake of the Red Witch” (1948) further explored this theme. However, there are two movies that I particularly want to praise. They are “The Sea Wolf” (1941) and “A Perfect Storm” (2000).
“Wolf” was based on the classic Jack London novel and it has been made many times but this version is still the best. The story takes place in 1904 and concerns two individuals (Alexander Knox and Ida Lupino) rescued after their harbor ferry is struck by another vessel and sunk. Unfortunately, their rescue vessel is actually a seal-hunting sailing ship manned by a sadistic and deliberately cruel skipper named Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) with a crew consisting of the worst elements of society who, instead of returning them to shore, keep them both as additional members of the crew. From that point on the movie is a psychological character study with an adventure backdrop consisting of Larsen, who is actually quite educated and intelligent vs. the cultured but soft spoken Humphrey van Weyden (Knox), a successful writer and their philosophical battle of wills over the nature of humanity.
This powerful film was directed by the always great Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) and his direction of the entire cast, as well as the film itself, is exceptional. However, despite the equally imposing cast of fine actors like Lupino, Knox, John Garfield, Barry Fitzgerald, and others, none of them can stand up to Robinson’s incredible dominating performance as Larsen. It’s the finest performance of his career and how he didn’t win an Oscar (he was never nominated for any role) was an outrage. Curtiz’s direction aided by the dark forboding fogbound cinematography of Sol Polito (they did 11 films together) and Robert Rossen’s fine screenplay make this movie must see viewing!
“A Perfect Storm” was based on the non-fiction true story of the doomed fishing crew of the Andrea Gail which sank with no survivors after being caught in a storm caused by Hurricane Grace in 1991. The all star cast starred George Clooney as the doomed skipper along with Mark Wahlberg, John Hawkes, John C. Reilly and others as his fellow crew members along with Diane Lane, Karen Allen, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and others involved in different roles tied into the tragedy. This movie, while it was big hit, only received mixed reviews by critics so it might have been dismissed except for one thing: The critics are full of S&*t! It’s a fine movie!
Wolfgang (Yep, it’s another Wolf everyone!) Petersen directed and he did a terrific job both at the visual and at the intimate level. Visually, the various action scenes in the film along with the storm itself are breathtaking (it was Oscar nominated for best special effects). However, Petersen also shows the human side of the individuals involved. He portrays each character’s distinct personality along with their overall economic desperation and how that can lead one to make fatal choices, not just about one’s livelihood, but about one’s life itself. Ultimately, you can both understand and sympathize with these individuals while at the same time shake your head as to why they took such a risk, and failed.
TV shows could also explore work and adventure on the water in shows like “Sea Hunt” (1958-61) and “The Aquanauts” (1961) about scuba divers, “Riverboat” (1959-61) about adventures on a riverboat in the 1830s, and “Waterfront” (1954-55) about a harbor tug boat captain (OK! This one I will admit is boring!). However, there is one TV show I particularly want to praise which is “Adventures in Paradise” (1959-62). “Paradise” starred Gardiner McKay as Adam Troy, captain of the schooner Tiki III who sailed the South Pacific carrying either cargo or passengers while having various adventures on a weekly basis. McKay at the time was age 27, 6’5″, 200 pounds. and, to quote the immortal words of actress Tuesday Weld when asked what she thought of McKay replied, “I HATE him!” When asked why, she replied, “I hate anyone who’s prettier than I am!” And folks, he was! He really was!
McKay was almost the perfect choice for the role. He was an accomplished sailor in real life and, even if he wasn’t much of an actor (although he might have improved had he stayed in the business), he had a real screen presence and a likeability that was appealing to both men and, especially, women. “Paradise” was helped by having top-notch guest star acting talent throughout the show’s run along with having both established and up and coming film directors doing different episodes. It was one of the highest rated TV shows during its run and it was popular even though the show was filmed in black and white, not color. Sadly, for both TV and film fans, “Paradise” was McKay’s last TV series. A few years later he quit acting for good and, in an example of art imitating life, went into other areas of art like photography, sculpture, and writing (both novels and plays to critical acclaim) while having adventures all around the world. He married late in life, successfully, had two children and passed away in 2001 at age 69. He might have been, to coin a phrase, “A life well lived!”
Next up, numerous movies were made covering adventures on various seas both before, and during the “Age of Sail” (1571-1872). A couple of films which took place before the age of sail were the Viking adventure dramas’ “The Vikings” (1958), a terrific action adventure film with Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine hamming it up while stealing every scene, and “The Long Ships” (1964), with skinny, clean shaven, and short haired Richard Widmark and Russ Tamblyn running around as Vikings (???). This last one looked like an unintentional Monty Python comedy sketch! However, there were other films that took place during the Age of Sail that didn’t have such problems. They almost always had two elements which made them successful: (1) they were swashbuckling adventures based on novels by (bad) author Rafael Sabatini; and (2) they almost always involved, Pirates! These large scale sea going action spectaculars like “Captain Blood” (1935), “The Black Swan” (1942), “The Sea Hawk” (1940), and the more recent “Pirates of the Caribbean, The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) were all big hits. However, maybe the best of the bunch, and a pretty good lampooning of the genre as well was “The Crimson Pirate” (1952).
“Pirate” starred Burt Lancaster as Captain Vallo a Caribbean buccaneer ably assisted by his mute lieutenant Ojo (Nick Cravat) who, after capturing a frigate of the King’s navy, strikes a bargain with the King’s special envoy onboard to capture a rebel leader on a nearby island for a large reward. Of course, whenever you make a bargain with the principal “bad guy” at the beginning of any film you should know that it is not a particularly good idea. From that point on we are off and running with more double and triple crosses, acrobatic swordplay and action sequences, and more mugging for the camera by both Cravat and Lancaster who must have had a case of lockjaw from how much grinning he did throughout the entire picture.
For anyone who didn’t already know, Lancaster and Cravat were long-time close friends who, before either became actors, were top notch acrobats and trapeze artists that performed in the circus. Lancaster and Cravat did nine movies together and because Cravat had a thick Brooklyn accent he played a mute (which maybe Tony Curtis should have done when he co-starred with Douglas in “The Vikings”). For “Pirate” they both did their own stunts and they are a sight to behold. They look like they are moving at a different speed than anyone else and the outrageous storyline is no barrier to the overall fun. They are ably assisted by director Robert Siodmak who originally gave Lancaster his big break in the role that made him a star in the noir classic, “The Killers” (1946). Here Siodmak directs in a fast, semi-sloppy, frantic style which fits the silliness to a T. If you are looking for seriousness and historical accuracy, well, this ain’t the place to find it. However, if you are looking for the most childish fun you may ever have watching a film, this is it!
During the “Age of Sail” another popular subject for films were different stories about British warfare against the French. Good movies like “Billy Budd” (1962), “Damn the Defiant” (1962), and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) all popularized this specific type of seafaring action adventure. However, if I have to pick just one to recommend above all the rest, well then I’d have to select “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951). Author C.S. Forester’s popular series of novels were perfect for dramatization [a later series of “Hornblower” TV movies starring Ioan Gruffudd were also dramatized to popular acclaim (1998-2003)]. However, this movie is terrific in its own right. Originally, for Hornblower, a number of actors such as Errol Flynn (too much of a burned out troublemaker) and Burt Lancaster [With a British accent (???), Yeah, right!] were considered and dropped. Briefly, even Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were considered for the film (now that would have been a great team-up) but it never materialized. Ultimately, Gregory Peck got the role with Virginia Mayo as his love interest.
C.S. Forester adapted three of his books for the film and Raoul Walsh directed. Unfortunately, there were problems with Walsh’s direction. According to Peck, Walsh seemed to lack interest in directing acting scenes involving dialogue and it showed in the performances of nearly everyone in the film. Peck, while certainly looking the part, comes across as somewhat wooden in his performance and Mayo, while pretty, shows little dramatic range here. However, if there was one thing that Walsh could always do really well was exciting action scenes. Here it really shows in battle sequences when Hornblower’s smaller outgunned ship takes on a much bigger adversary and later on when his ship sails into an enemy harbor to attack a group of French ships. Walsh is also ably assisted with spectacular cinematography by the great Guy Green and this film, despite Walsh’s fumbling with the actors, was a big hit and is still regarded highly to this day.
The last group of films that I want to discuss regarding transportation across water are, well not necessarily across on top of the water but rather, underwater! You have numerous genres of films concerning transportation underwater such as:
(1) Science Fiction:
- “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954) with Kirk Douglas, James Mason and Peter Lorre and winning Oscars for art direction and special effects, (and you’ll never look at eating calamari the same way after seeing this film).
- “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1961) with Walter Pidgeon and Peter Lorre (he must really like being underwater) along with a later successful TV series (1964-68) which I used to call “Voyage to the Bottom of the RATINGS” (because it was cheap, stupid, and generally awful).
- “Waterworld” (1995) with Dennis Hopper and fake merman Kevin Costner and the most expensive bad movie ever made at the time (the budget sunk, and Costner’s acting stunk!).
- “Fantastic Voyage” (1966) with Stephen Boyd and Raquel (the Mannequin) Welch and also winning Oscars for art direction and special effects (and it is kind of underwater)!
- “Thunderball” (1965) with Sean Connery and (does it matter) and winner of the Oscar for best special effects. One of the best and most successful “Bond” films of all time (even though it looked like his toupee was about to come off underwater).
- “Ice Station Zebra” (1968) with Rock Hudson (Bad), Patrick McGoohan (Good), and Jim Brown (What the F*&k) on a rescue mission to the North Pole. Best film scene is when the surfaced sub sends a rescue team on a dangerous trek to the Arctic station in a blinding ice storm. Otherwise, skip the rest and just read the book.
- “The Hunt for Red October” (1990) with Sean Connery and Alex Baldwin (before he got old and fat) assisting Connery to defect with his Russian sub. Actually this is a top notch suspense film.
- “Crimson Tide” (1995) with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington on opposite sides of a mutiny onboard their sub over an order to fire their missiles at Russia. Despite the movie’s title sounding like the name of an updated brand of laundry detergent, this is also a really good movie too!
(3) World War II:
- “The Frogmen” (1951) with U.S. frogmen fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. With Richard Widmark.
- “The Silent Enemy” (1958) with British frogmen fighting Italian forces in the Mediterranean. With Laurence Harvey.
- “Destination Tokyo” (1943) with Cary Grant fighting to maintain his suntan while leading his sub into Tokyo harbor on a spy mission.
- “Operation Petticoat” (1959) with Cary Grant fighting to not only save his suntan, but to also transport 5 female pinup nurses and his “pink” (!!!) submarine to safety (Yes folks, this one is actually a comedy!).
- “The Enemy Below” (1957) with Robert Mitchum vs. Curt Jurgens as a U.S. destroyer Captain vs. a German U-boat Captain hunting each other in the Atlantic. Terrific action suspense film and Oscar winner for best special effects.
- “Run Silent, Run Deep” (1958) with Clark Gable vs Burt Lancaster in a battle of wills (and scowls) onboard a sub with (Ahab) Gable obsessed in hunting the Japanese destroyer that sank his former sub. This is another terrific film anchored by two powerhouse performances (even if they both hated each other’s guts during filming).
As you can see, the list of films involving transportation underwater is almost as numerous as those films on top of the water. Anyway, I hope that you all enjoyed this post and I also hope that you can all keep your heads above water during these trying times.
(OK! OK! I know it was a cheesy pun but Hey, it did fit this post!)