Great Movies Featuring Ships
Since ancient times, people have been fascinated with ships. Dreams of running away to sea, of sailing around the world, or of simply sailing off into the sunset; reveal the idea that a ship offers an escape from the world of routine drudgery. Filmmakers have used this romantic obsession for life at sea in many terrific films.
Obsession aboard ship is a common theme in film. A lengthy voyage and the closeness of life aboard can magnify disagreements and hostilities. In 1789, a mutiny took place on the British Royal Navy ship Bounty. This mutiny was lead by Fletcher Christian, who with the backing of the crew, took over the Bounty from the tyrannical Captain Bligh, setting Bligh adrift in a small boat with a handful of followers. This true story was the basis for The Mutiny on the Bounty, filmed in 1936 with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton; and then remade in 1962, with Marlon Brando. Both versions of the film are well worth seeing.
Lengthy voyages and claustrophobic quarters led to another famous mutiny, this one fictional, portrayed in the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny. Set during WWII, it stars Humphrey Bogart as the paranoid Captain Queeq, a US naval captain who believes that his crew is out to get him, and slowly cracks up, to the horror of his officers.
Another terrific film about obsession was the 1956 film, Moby Dick. Starring Gregory Peck as the tortured Ahab, Moby Dick tells the story of a Nantucket whaler, the Pequod, which sets out on what appears to be a normal whaling trip, but becomes an obsessive hunt for the great white whale, Moby Dick. This is a salty story of revenge and madness, and a must-see film.
The ship as a setting for disaster has always generated interest. In 1912, the luxury cruise liner Titanic made her maiden voyage, a passage from Europe to New York. Trying to set a speed record across the Northern Atlantic, Titanic struck an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the Ocean. More than 1500 passengers lost their lives in this tragedy. This terrible story has been portrayed in film numerous times, most recently in 1997. That version of Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, won 11 Academy Awards.
Art, of course, imitates life. The Poseidon Adventure was a 1972 film starring Gene Hackman, in which a tidal wave capsizes the luxury ocean liner Poseidon, forcing survivors to make their way through the sinking ship. This is a view of life aboard, but with a twist – everything is upside down, and filling with water.
A boat may also become a means of escape, or even survival. In the classic film The African Queen Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn play a rough necked river boat captain, and a starchy upright missionary, who escape from the Germans in East Africa during World War I. They escape by traveling downriver on Bogart’s broken down vessel, the African Queen, and are both forever changed by the voyage.
Alfred Hitchcock directed the suspenseful film, Lifeboat. Based on a John Steinbeck story, Lifeboat tells the gripping tale of a handful of ocean liner passengers who survive a German torpedo attack only to end up crammed into a small open lifeboat. They must try to survive, with few supplies, and without going mad, until they can be rescued.
Boats that sail beneath the waves have had their place in film. Starting with the Jules Verne’s Classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, submarine films have made their mark. In the 1954 film starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason, life aboard the Nautilus was an imaginative science fiction adventure, envisioned when ideas of traveling underwater were pure fantasy.
When submarines crossed from fantasy to reality, stories of life aboard became darker, reflecting the claustrophobia of extremely tight quarters, and the rampant fear when sailing in water thousands of feet deep. Das Boot, a 1981 German film, told the gripping story of a German U-Boat during WWII. Perfectly capturing the combination of monotony, tension and terror of life in a U-boat, Das Boot is one of the best submarine films ever made.
In 1990, The Hunt for Red October became another title to add to the lineup of thrilling submarine movies. Based on the Tom Clancy novel, the film stars Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, and tells the tale of a Soviet Commander who attempts to defect with a nuclear submarine, and an American CIA agent who tries to make contact with him. A terrific story, it highlights the awesome capabilities of a modern submarine.
Wars have served as fodder for many tales of courage, and sea battles are particularly thrilling. The 2003 film Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World starring Russell Crowe takes place on the HMS Surprise, a ship of the British Royal Navy, during the Napoleonic War. Bravery, grit, cunning and sheer skill in handling a ship in all kinds of adverse conditions play a huge part in this exciting film.
Sea fights and battles are a natural backdrop for pirate movies. The hugely popular Pirates of the Caribbean films follow the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow, a colorful character well played by Johnny Depp, who sails the pirate ship, Black Pearl, through harrowing adventures, while being pursued by the Royal Navy as well as phantasmagoric creatures of the deep.
The most classic pirate movie of all time is Treasure Island, based on the Robert Louis Stevenson book. It tells the story of young Jack Hawkins, who finds a pirates’ treasure map in a dead man’s chest. Setting out to recover the treasure with some trusted adult companions, Hawkins and his friends hire the ship Hispaniola to search for the treasure. Once they’ve set sail, Hawkins finds that he has unknowingly set sail in a ship manned by bloodthirsty pirates. This marvelous tale has been made into film many times, perhaps captured the best in the 1934 classic starring young Jackie Cooper, with Wallace Beery as the pirate Long John Silver, who immortalized the line “Them that dies’ll be the lucky ones.”
Fishing boats have also played a role in books and movies. The Perfect Storm, the George Clooney film based on Sebastian Junger’s book of the same name, told the story of the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat out of Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts. The Andrea Gail set out with a small crew in the fall of 1991 for a fishing expedition of a few weeks. A perfect storm of monstrous dimension blew up, with disastrous results. The movie, made in 2000, is an edge of your seat thriller.
A boat need not be large; it need not even have a name, in order to play a central role in a movie. The classic tale of man against the elements is Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which is about an old Cuban fisherman, who, while fishing in his small dory, hooks the big fish he has always dreamed about. Refusing to give up the struggle to land the great fish, he is towed out to sea. Made into a marvelous film in 1958 with Spencer Tracy, it was remade in 1990 with Anthony Quinn.
Madness, adventure, treasures, cutthroats, monstrous creatures and monster storms will always be the subject of films. And for this reason, filmmakers will keep setting their films aboard ship, for the ship is a small world which contains all the elements of danger, daring, and tests of character, that make a good film into a great one.