(Don’t) Carry on Cruising
by Helen Cox
Now. I think you’ll agree that all of the films mentioned in Film Conspiracy and the Deep Blue Sea: Part 1 relied heavily on the premise that once a potential victim had reached a boat or dry land that they were safe. PIRANHA 3D (2010) is perhaps the noted exception where boats are actually more of a hindrance than a help. Getting your hair caught in a propeller never leads anywhere good. Neither, for the record, does naked jet-skiing or any unscheduled sinking into Piranha infested waters. On the whole though, underwater creature features are all about getting back to boat/land before you are maimed, eaten or maimed and then eaten by whatever lies beneath. It’s okay to go out on the ocean, you might think, as long as I’ve got a big enough boat. The film industry has other ideas… Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) starring Clark Gable is as decent a starting point as any.
You know things aren’t going to end well when your captain, Charles Laughton playing the tyrannical Bligh, flogs a man who is already dead from flogging before you even leave the harbour. What else could you expect, after that send off, but to constantly hear about how you are a “disgrace to salt water,” to have your cheese ration stopped and your shore leave refused. In all honesty the loss of shore leave may not be a terrible thing when the only people waiting to greet you once you reach dry land are cardboard, MGM interpretations of Tahiti Islanders: cue the grass skirts and the coconuts, but the cheese! What kind of man takes away another man’s cheese? There’d only be one thing for it: to break every law of the seven seas and stage a mutiny that history will never forget. Not exactly what you expect when you sign up for an all-expenses paid island cruise is it?
It’s difficult to say whether or not I’d prefer to be cooped up on the Bounty with Clark Gable or stuck on the SHIP OF FOOLS (1965) where you’d be forced to have your life-story introduced by an awkwardly dressed “little person.” You’d also have to listen to the tear-jerking soliloquies of a taut-faced, embittered Vivien Leigh as she plays the ultimate aging divorcee who is inexplicably drawn to go off on a pleasure cruise. Of course when you are as cynical about life and love as Vivien Leigh is in this film the term “pleasure cruise” can only be used in the loosest sense of the words. Being on the SHIP OF FOOLS won’t kill you, unless you get to the point that you’d rather jump overboard without a life jacket than listen to another one of Leigh’s little pep-talks about the fact there is no such thing as love, but this film teaches us that there are so many worse things that can happen on a boat than death by shark or sinking: you can become so apathetic that you lose the will to live. Death by indifference must surely, by definition, be much slower and thus more painful. The only slight upside to travelling on the SHIP OF FOOOLS is that when she’s drunk Leigh spontaneously breaks into a brief but entertaining cha-cha to a short blast of rag-time jazz.
Of course that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. One thing I can say: I’d rather be on either of these fated vessels than on Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT (1944). As you might imagine with a Hitchcock film the “Life” part of the title turns out to be ironic. When a ship and a U-boat sink each other British and American civilians share the last remaining lifeboat with a single rescued German survivor…for the whole film. Hitchcock doesn’t give the audience a moment’s respite from the claustrophobic atmosphere on board where an aptitude for speaking foreign languages does not go down well but instead opens you up to an impromptu inquest fraught with accusation and reprimand. Also, one might at any time drown, dehydrate or get one’s leg amputated after a bad case of gangrene. Worse still: one might have to sit there looking sullen and bedraggled whilst Tallulah Bankhead remains unnervingly and inexplicably well-groomed throughout and there’s just nothing fair about that. The message of this film is clear: even if you make it to the lifeboat there’s still no hope of survival. Serves you right for boarding a boat in the first place, doesn’t it?
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) is possibly one of the most iconic boat-related pictures and certainly one of the most memorable disaster flicks in film history. Few who watched THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE growing up on some cleverly scheduled, early Sunday evening slot will forget the breathtaking moment when the SS Poseidon capsizes beneath the force of a huge tidal wave and all of the passengers, enjoying a New Year’s Eve party in the ship’s ballroom, cling, clutch and clamour for their lives as the boat turns completely upside down. This film didn’t receive an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for nothing. Even though it pre-dated the alleged rebirth of special effects, STARWARS (1977), by 5 years the turning of the boat and the flooding of the ballroom are thoroughly convincing. The fact that anyone would put Leslie Nielson in charge of an ocean liner, however, is much less believable. As is the idea that anyone, let alone Gene Hackman, would think that sporting a white polo necked jumper was in any way a good plan. Producers were clearly of the opinion that if a style calamity wasn’t enough to keep punters out of the water nothing, ever would be.
Seven years later however film-makers noted that people were still getting on boats, despite their warnings of freak tidal waves and white polo necked jumpers, and had to up the ante. If there was a risk of meeting Michael Caine at sea, they theorised, any sensible person would become reluctant at best to book themselves onto a cruise and thus BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979) was spawned. This film opens with the SS Poseidon once again being tipped by a tidal wave, just in case you’d forgotten the terror of the first film, before cutting to a slightly less impressive shot of a small cargo boat with Michael Caine at the helm. So unconvincing is this scene that you can almost see the runners, just off-screen, throwing buckets of water up at Caine’s ship, The Jenny, to simulate a turbulent and unforgiving ocean. Shortly after this Sally Field appears on screen in a fetching yellow anorak and delivers the line “I’m sick.” We’re not surprised Sally: 90 minutes of Caine’s misogynistic back-chat is more than enough for us. You probably had to put up with him for days. On discovering the toppled ocean liner Caine decides to chivalrously board the ship and pillage what’s left of the Poseidon for loot but not before Telly Savalas, better known as Kojak, randomly appears on the scene. Things continue on a surreal note as Kojak is revealed to be a terrorist masquerading as medical rescue… Naturally, of course. From then on in we’re in the familiar territory of labyrinthine pipes, ventilation shafts, iron railings and rickety ladders that people are just bound to fall off into a watery grave. Explosions at regular intervals mean that at any moment the ship could sink and the viewer is only hoping that Caine is on the ship when it does. Sorry my friends but when Michael Caine’s on screen viewers are rarely given what they really want. Unlike some of the other characters Caine was not at any point given an “I know I’m going to die confessional monologue” by the script writers so it’s fairly obvious that his character will be inexplicably chosen as one of the survivors from early on.
Speaking of people you hope won’t survive it’s a great rebuff to us all, and to film history, that Sandra Bullock’s character: Annie Porter survived her first appearance in the SPEED (1994) franchise as it enabled her to recur in SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL (1997). Hot on the heels of the “success” of TWISTER (1996) Jan De Bont, clearly thinking he had this action thing down, directed the sequel to his 1994 original whilst simultaneously forgetting to include everything that made the first film great: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper and the bus. The trade to Jason Patric, Willem Dafoe and the boat turns out to be a trade down and audiences were doubtlessly more spooked by Sandra Bullock’s seemingly endless supply of midriff-flaunting outfits than any of the inconceivably over-technical devices Defoe uses to…well I think he’s trying to blow the ship up. I think. This film was supposed to remind us of the good old days of 1994 when terrorist situations in tight spaces provided a solid source of spectacle and a guaranteed snog with a heartthrob. In fact all this film really reminds us of is how much we didn’t care about Annie Porter. If we’re honest, we couldn’t even remember her name. Sorry Sandy; turns out it was all about Keanu.
A far more convincing boat drama released in the same year was, of course, Cameron’s star-crossed lover saga: TITANIC (1997). Perhaps more convincing because it was actually based, in that a big “unsinkable boat” sinks, on real events. Still, did Cameron have to hit home quite so hard with his critique of cruising? Yeah so DiCaprio dies, we were over that faster than we ate our popcorn. But did we have to have the band play one last time before they went under to an icy death? Was it totally necessary to see third class passengers begging unyielding ship officers for their lives? Was it absolutely crucial for Rose to age so badly? Her face is a warning against stewing in ice-cold salt water for an hour if ever there was one. The premise for the film, I will concede, was based on reality as was Mutiny on the Bounty but the film industry’s constant exaggeration and embellishment is a clear conspiracy to keep us out of the water – even if we’re on a boat. You’d think these people made money off of sensationalist fiction or something. Why am I the only person who sees this?
The best, and probably the most sneaky, boat conspiracy film is THE PERFECT STORM (2000). Besides the fact that he insists on wearing his cap backwards in an “old dude” kind of a way Mark Wahlberg is exceedingly credible as a reluctant sailor joining sea-hardy captain George Clooney on a fool’s fishing trip with the promise of a massive payoff. There’s many an omen that things might not end well: a shark boarding the boat and fulfilling many a lonely housewife’s dream of nibbling at Mark Wahlberg’s feet, a man-overboard in a horrible fish-hook-snags-hand incident and the, clearly insidious, meteorologist who almost climaxes at the coming of a change in the weather that he describes as “The Perfect Storm.” Still, despite these warnings, this is a truly sly narrative as it has you believing, just a little bit, that the characters will somehow win out at the end. Mainly by making you like them much more than you expected to. THE PERFECT STORM tells us, in no uncertain terms, that you don’t have to be an ex-hooker, an out-of-work pole dancer or a useless old hack to die on a ship. The ocean doesn’t discriminate; nice people die too.
Of course the problems associated with boats are not restricted to the oceans. THE RIVER WILD (1994) is a prime example of the terrors that can befall you whilst out for a leisurely row with your family. Puzzlingly, I have a real soft spot for THE RIVER WILD. It’s not that I’m wowed by the use of child actor Joseph Mazzello, who was fresh from his success in Jurassic Park and is soon to appear in THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), or the pacing of the piece, some points – like the fact that Meryl Streep knows her way down the river wild – are a little bit laboured. It’s the casting of the piece that is really the triumph in this film. Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon can both act. And that’s all that really needs to be said. Still the fact that it’s good doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s part of a grand conspiracy to keep you away from the water. After all, if you venture out on the river wild and end up being held hostage by wayward thieves you might not be so fortunate as to have a faithful dog who tracks your progress, or to speak sign language allowing you to communicate without your captors knowledge or even to fake your own death and still manage to keep your glasses on.
I leave you with this final thought: all this conspiracy is not only a slight to us as film goers and human beings but it’s also a slight to the big man himself: Roy Scheider. Their constant upturning of bigger boats makes a mockery of his well-known message to the masses when dealing with aquatic adversity. If they can’t think of a new way of doing it they just re-use old material: a re-make was made of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE – ingeniously titled POSEIDON (2006) – but added nothing to the original since we didn’t care a jot about any of the characters. Do these oh-so-powerful producers think it’s funny or clever or both to make the guy who defeated the king of sharks out to be a liar? If so they’re probably going to wind-up with six oxygen tanks stuck up their conspiracy-crunching asses. Roy Scheider seems like a nice enough guy but I really wouldn’t cross him.