by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 15, 2020
Last week I was lamenting I couldn’t find any shows to watch because my mind wouldn’t stick with anything for more than five minutes. Well, right after writing that I discovered a movie that grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go — Abandon Ship! — a British film from 1957 originally entitled Saven Waves Away. I love movies about sinking ships, or people trapped on lifeboats or stranded on deserted islands. And Abandon Ship! is a humdinger.
I caught Abandon Ship! on Turner Classic Movies. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale, rent, or streaming. If you have YouTube TV it’s still available on video on demand until 3/18, and if you have TCM Watch, it might be available there. There is a 480p resolution version on YouTube to watch. It’s a shame such a great flick isn’t widely available — I’d love to own a Blu-ray copy and have friends over for a two-film festival with the other classic film about shipwreck survivors, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film, Lifeboat. That’s an old favorite of mine. But then, maybe the lack of availability for Abandon Ship! is telling me something about my taste in films.
Abandon Ship! is a gripping tale of a luxury liner striking an old mine and quickly sinking. The ship began with 1,157 passengers and crew, but only twenty-seven people survive. With only one lifeboat afloat, the captain’s launch, there’s only room for twelve to survive. Many of the survivors must cling to the side of the lifeboat in shark-infested waters. Tyrone Power plays Alec Holmes, the ship’s executive officer. Before the captain dies he tells Alec to save as many people as he can but warns he won’t be able to save them all. As the reality of their situation unfolds, Alec realizes he will have to condemn many to die, and does. The others consider his action murder even though they survive.
At the end of the film, the voiceover informs us that this film was inspired by a real event, and the man whose character Alec Holmes was based was convicted of murder but only received a minimum sentence of six months. This made me want to find out more. It turns out the story was based on the 1841 sinking of the William Brown. However, none of the details were the same. Abandon Ship! is all fiction, and so is the first film based on the same William Brown incident, Souls at Sea. It’s another hard-to-find film in a lo-rez video available on YouTube. Unfortunately, that film focuses mostly on the trial, with only a few minutes devoted to the horrors of the lifeboat. Plus it invented a whole storyline making Holmes another kind of hero.
The William Brown also inspired a third film, the 1975 TV movie, The Last Survivors, again only available on YouTube in low resolution. This version of the story is modernized, and not really a historical account. I haven’t watched all of this film, but it involves both scenes at sea and the trial.
It’s kind of amazing that one historical incident inspired three movies and none of them even attempted at being historically accurate. The key point retained is a crew member kills some survivors of a shipwreck to save others. I guess that ethical conundrum is what really fascinates us. Coincidentally, the day after the movie, I began reading a science fiction novel One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh about a man who gets to pick ten people in his small town of three thousand to survive the end of the world. In this case, Earth is the sinking ship, and a spaceship is their lifeboat. Having one person decide who lives or dies in a critical situation is an engrossing plot device.
All of this makes me wonder why these stories grabbed my attention when so many others didn’t. Do I need such extreme situations to focus my mind? Do I abandon so many other shows because their ethical issues feel too lightweight? Or do I need plots that are rarely filmed?
I also admired these stories because there was a limited number of characters trapped in an extreme situation. This is a challenge for writers. They are generally forced to make do with caricatures of types, rather than real individuals. It’s fascinating to compare the types in Abandon Ship! to Lifeboat and One in Three Hundred. For example, women get divided into three types. The useful woman (nurse, teacher, mother), the innocent demure good young woman, and the experienced aggressive older sexy woman. There’s always a working stiff guy, an intellectual (sometimes effete and sleight-of-build), and a heavy (mobster-like guy with a weapon), plus there’s always a demanding older male who expects to be the leader that no one likes. Lifeboat stood out by having a Nazi superman that challenged the all-Americans.
As much as I was thrilled with Abandon Ship!, it could have been even better. I would have enjoyed another 20-30 minutes of story complications, with more ethical issues. It hints at some at the end, but just barely. And it forgets several people trapped on a raft from the very beginning of the film. Were they saved? There a fuzzy out-of-focus hallucination that may have told us, but I’m not sure. I liked this movie so much I’m even thinking about watching it again before YouTube TV dismisses it from its VOD.