Saturday, July 7, 2012

Abandon Ship (1957)

Hi Kids, this is my entry for "The Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made" blogathon sponsored by Dorian at Tales of the Easily Distracted and Becky at ClassicBecky's Brainfood.

Abandon Ship aka Seven Seas Away/Seven Waves Away stars Tyrone Power, Mai Zetterling, Lloyd Nolan and costars Stephen Boyd, Moira Lister and James Hayter.  It was released by Columbia Pictures, written and directed by Richard Sale, produced by John R. Sloan (and co-produced by an uncredited Tyrone Power), with music by Sir Arthur Bliss.

From the opening credits and a harmonica solo playing a lonely little seafaring tune this film grabs you and just does not let go.  While the credits are still rolling we're shown the setting for the entire film, a vast expanse of open ocean.  Slowly becoming visible through the thick fog we see a derelict World War II mine bobbing up and down in the waves.  The mine drifts closer and closer, slowly, until it's filling the entire screen.  Then an explosion, alarms, chaos, screams, smoke, fire and the final order to abandon ship.  All this and we're less than two minutes into the film.

The narrator informs us that the ship, the "S.S. Crescent Star", was on it's first leg of an around-the-world cruise in the south Atlantic when it exploded and sank in seven minutes with 1,156 souls aboard at the "moment of disaster".  In those seven minutes 1,119 perished.  If you survive you begin to notice there is more wreckage than people,  Then if you are still able you begin to notice two things.  You become aware of the living ... you become aware of the dead.

With the ship unable to launch any lifeboats the captain's shore boat is the only refuge for the desperate survivors of the disaster.  Shocked and injured survivors cling to floating debris as they helplessly wait to be rescued.  A dying captain's final words to his next in command help set the scenario for the remainder of the film -- "Save as many as you can ...".

So the story begins to unfold.  Twenty-seven people in, and clinging to, a boat intended for nine.  Faced with having to make one agonizing, and mostly unpopular, decision after another Alec Holmes (Power) assumes command of the craft and the survivors.  One of the first orders he gives is to allow a dog to stay aboard instead of letting one of the survivors in the sea come aboard.  When someone objects to his decision he matter-of-factly states the reasoning behind his decision -- "We can't eat you."

As Holmes takes inventory of the supplies and the injured, nurse Julie White (Zetterling) tries to attend to those who need immediate attention.  With the boat constantly on the verge of capsizing, and 1,500 miles from the nearest land, Mr. Holmes orders alternating shifts of people to take their turn in the boat and in the sea.  The group is then confronted with even more bad news.  No S.O.S. was ever sent, the equipment was damaged in the explosion and there was not enough time to send a distress call.  The only thing Holmes can do is set a course for the nearest land.

After a conversation with Kelly (Nolan), one of the injured survivors and a ship's officer who's trying to give Mr. Holmes some friendly but very sobering advice, he soon realizes that he may have to do the unthinkable, or more like the unimaginable, and cast some of the survivors adrift in order to give the others a chance to survive.

As tempers begin to flare and ideals, morals, and personalities conflict, Holmes has more than enough problems to deal with. But still, other challenges arise.  Sharks, storms, and just hopelessness in general seem to plague the survivors with every attempt at making any progress towards being rescued.  When one of the survivors, Mr. Cane (Moultrie Kelsall), suggests that the group get to know a little bit about each other to pass the time, Kelly advises Holmes again -- "Don't get to know them too well ...".   Kelly is fully aware, and I think Holmes is too by this point, that the time has come for a very serious command decision to be made.

Glancing down at the ring that was passed down to him by the captain, and surveying the situation confronting him, with two words -- "it's time" -- Holmes gives the command decision (at gunpoint) that no one in their lifetime would think they would ever have to make.  Even to the extreme of separating a child from his parents.  As the castaways disappear in the swells of the rising ocean waves the gradually decreasing number of survivors in the boat prepare for a pending rescue without knowing if it will be hours, days, or weeks away.

Some of the dialogue in the film seems to be dubbed, probably do to production issues.  Most of the scenes were filmed in a large tank and between the wave machines and wind machines it must have been difficult to actually hear the cast speaking their lines.  But the combination of acting talent and the musical score used to punctuate the peak dramatic scenes make this film a roller coaster ride with the suspense and anxiety at some points building to an almost intolerable level.

Add an ending that will leave most viewers shaking their heads in disbelief, Abandon Ship is one of those films that once watched, has such an impact on the viewer that it will never be forgotten.  I have no problem saying that this rates as one of the best films I've ever seen. 

This film is based on the true story of the William Brown which was an American ship that sank in 1841 in which a crew member named Alexander Holmes forced some survivors out of an overcrowded lifeboat.

Similar in theme to Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) this film portrays a much darker and realistic tone.  I know Hitchcock is the "master of suspense".  But as I said this film is relentless in its storytelling from its opening credits to its final thought provoking question.  And it's most definitely not for the faint of heart.  "Why are the wicked always so strong?".