Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mariners In Review: The Popcorn Edition

When asked what my favorite "boat movies" are, it's hard to answer. I try to stick to facts in this blog, but there are few films that capture the flavor of going to sea, and many are downright inaccurate when it comes to portraying nautical affairs. So, leaving aside the dozens of "Navy" movies and Erroll Flynn-type "sea pictures" that have come out over the years, here are a few to out in your Netflix queue. Films with an * are based on true events.

Action In the North Atlantic (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1943). Humphrey Bogart stars in this tale of merchant mariners in World War II. Modern mariners will find much familiar here, from the crew complaining about the food to the boatswain who longs for retirement while simultaneously trying to get others to re-enlist. Portrays the hazardous duty American merchant mariners faced and portrayed them as heroes long before their contributions were widely recognized.

*Lake Boat (dir. Joe Montegna, 2000). Playwright David Mamet wrote this play based on his service aboard a Great Lakes freighter. No slam-bang action sequences here: this is life aboard ship as routine, with the most excitement being speculation as to the fate of a crewman gone missing on shore leave.

The Long Voyage Home (dir. John Ford, 1940). Another World War II merchant mariner tale, this one featuring John Wayne only a year after his breakthrough role in Stagecoach, also directed by Ford. Less action than in Action In The North Atlantic, but a good look at the camaraderie a ship's crew can form, as well as the rumor mongering, drinking, and petty bickering that go on.

*Lord Jim (dir. Richard Brooks, 1965) Peter O'Toole stars as the disgraced merchant sailor who finds redemption among an isolated people in southeast Asia. Based on the novel by mariner and author Joseph Conrad, which was in turn based on true events.

*The Perfect Storm (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 2000). Based on Sebastian Junger's "creative nonfiction" book on the events leading up to the loss of the fishing boat Andrea Gail.

The Sea Chase (dir. John Farrow, 1955). John Wayne again, this time as an anti-Nazi German sea captain on the eve of World War II, trying to outrun the British Navy and get his freighter safely to port. Although a bit melodramatic at times, it accurately portrays some of the problems of navigation and ship operations of the time. Also showed the Germans as sympathetic only ten years after the war and twenty years before Das Boot.

*The Sea Wolf (dir Michael Curtiz, 1941). Edward G. Robinson stars as the brutal captain of a seal hunting schooner in this adaptation of Jack London's novel, based on London's experiences at sea.

*Titanic (dir. James Cameron, 1997). Based on the latest scholarship of the time, this may be the last Titanic movie ever made. Although the central romantic plot is fictional, the sequence of historical events is largely accurate.

*White Squall (dir. Ridley Scott, 1996). A mariner friend of mine calls this "a two-hour Abercrombie and Fitch commercial," and while it does feature some of the hottest young male stars of the mid-'90s (Scott Wolf, Ryan Phillippe), it also tells the true story of the 1961 sinking of the school ship Albatross.

Comedy Relief. A few movies capture some aspects of life at sea through their humorous treatment of it. The title character in Captain Ron (Thom Eberhardt, 1993) is often quoted by many real life mariners, but the movie also accurately shows how much work even a small boat, and especially a wooden one, can be. The Coast Guard crew in Disney's The Boatniks (dir. Norman Tokay, 1970) has a much more casual attitude about boating and drinking than their counterparts today (the same could probably be said about Disney executives), but anyone who's spent much time around a large marina will recognize many of the characters and mishaps portrayed here. The challenges of running an older ship with limited funds provide some of the comic moments in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (dir. Wes Anderson, 2004), with Bill Murray as the Jacques Cousteau-esque Zissou.


  1. Great list.
    One I would like to mention is “The Cruel Sea” a 1953 British film. It was directed by Charles Frend and starred Jack Hawkins in his first film.
    It was based on the bestselling novel The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat. It is an eerily accurate portrayal of the war between the British Royal Navy and Germany's U-Boats from the viewpoint of the British naval officers and seamen who served in escort vessels during World War II. The movie did omit some of Monsarrat’s grimmest images that were portrayed in the novel.

  2. I've never seen "The Cruel Sea," although I loved the book. There are so many war at sea movies based on true stories, which is why I left military stories out of the mix. The topic probably deserves a post of its own; any favorites among the readers?