With the re-make Poseidon opening today, I've got water on the brain.
Or, to be more specific, water, boats and thrilling adventures aboard luxury liners, U-boats and my favorite, frigates. Cinema’s shown a longstanding interest for movies at sea with plenty of variances within the genre, movies that please even those who’ve never picked up a book about Horatio Hornblower. In honor, I’ve listed ten favorite sea-faring sagas (in no order)-- a veritable (sorry) bounty of (sorry again) treasures.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
This movie is supremely cheesy, sure. But with its eclectic all star cast, its 90 foot tidal wave and a straight-faced Leslie Nielsen as the captain of the S.S. Poseidon, it's buckets o' fun. The titular Poseidon is a luxury liner that will entirely flip over—literally bottoms up—and the group of survivors who must climb upward through the ship. Ex-preacher Gene Hackman leads the colorful bunch, which includes a boorish Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowall being very, well, Roddy McDowall, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley, and a terrifically annoying (yet sympathetic) Shelley Winters. Produced by the ‘70s Master of Disaster Irwin Allen and directed by Ronald Neame, the film has always been considered high camp. Gene Hackman is fantastic especially when he screams at people. I never tire of watching that.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
The 1935 seagoing adventure starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable is considered a true studio classic, but I find the 1962 version (directed by Lewis Milestone) an equally fascinating work that deserves much more credit than it gets. Leaving Portsmouth in 1787 to sail to Tahiti, Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard) is ceaselessly brutal to his Bounty crew who, as the title explicitly states, will turn mutinous. Even after a bucolic stay in Tahiti. Officer Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando) will lead the mutiny -- and in one of the film’s more controversial (and I say, intriguing) elements, Christian loses his mind as well. The production was noteworthy for Brando’s insistence on a weird accent (and a rather, well, swishy demeanor), but I think it makes the picture all the more compelling. And it’s a treat for the eyes.
OK--so the movie is annoying. And Billy Zane is so over the top he may as well be twirling the end of a mustache. But a personal favorite for so many crush-laden teenage girls (Oh Leonardo!) and James Cameron himself (“I’m King of the World!”--Oh wait, Di Caprio says that too), Titanic boasts some terrifyingly first-rate special effects. And I love Kate Winslet. We may have gotten sick of the hype through time, but Titanic is the Gone with the Wind of boat movies; Really, it’s the Gone with the Wind of the 1990’s.
Das Boot (1981)
I won’t ruin the ending of this film for you in case you haven’t seen it but I will say this—you will be heartbroken. You might even be angry. But you’ll never forget it. Wolfgang Petersen’s then-controversial movie chronicled a 1942 German submarine fleet engaging in the "Battle of the Atlantic"—something that becomes questionable to the characters throughout the movie. Shot in cramped quarters, the picture really gives you the claustrophobic feel of the U-Boat and is so visceral; you can almost smell the sweaty crew’s surroundings. You can also feel their plight which again, gives you that all for not feeling by film end. Wonderful but potently sad.
Master and Commander (2003)
Who would’ve thought a 2003 nautical movie, a serious nautical movie about a British frigate, could be so thrilling? Not I. Certain that I’d be bored by first deck-swabbing, I was pleasantly surprised by this exciting picture. Thanks to some masterful naval battle sequences and a stellar performance by Russell Crowe, the travails and triumphs of Captain Jack Aubrey or “Lucky Jack” (Crowe) during the Napoleonic Wars were riveting.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is one of his earlist forays in a certain kind of experimental filmmaking. A masterful example of confined tension, the picture opens with a handful of people climbing aboard a lifeboat (after their ship has been torpedoed by a German U-Boat). When a German is pulled on board the group’s cramped little boat, they have to work with the enemy while keeping a wary eye on the fellow. An excellent study of understandable fear, mob mentality and those who resist it, the picture is both cinematically exsiquiste and psychogically intriguing. And who can forget a stand-out Tallulah Bankhead? She's lost at sea in her mink coat, no less.
Captains Courageous (1937)
Every little brat should get a chance to board a boat manned by a Portuguese fisherman played by Spencer Tracy and a salty sea captain played by Lionel Barrymore. But the brat in this movie is the devilishly ill-behaved Freddie Bartholomew, whose spoiled shenanigans land him on a fishing trawler after he falls off the luxury liner he’s boarded with his rich father (Melvyn Douglas). Does the brat learn a few things and grow up in the hands of these manly, crusty men? You bet. Is he entertaining as a whiny little bully? Yes indeed. So much so, that the pint sized actor got star billing above Tracy! An exciting, fun movie, this is definitely one for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Or better yet, for a kid who needs a “time out.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Is this really a nautical movie? Well…pirates? You can’t get any more a-hoy matey than that. Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow--steals the entire picture from everyone and everything in his path.
Knife in the Water (1962)
Roman Polanski’s first feature film is also one of his best. Unsettling and filled with Polanskian themes of jealousy, bitterness, fear, sex and violence, the effectively claustrophobic movie features three characters all in one small boat. A couple (Jolanta Umecka and Leon Niemczyk) invite a young drifter (Zygmunt Malanowicz), to sail with them. The sea cruise turns positively toxic as a power battle ensues with the older husband attempting to assert control and bully the young drifter. But things get very, very ugly and these are some dangerous head-games, particularly on a boat. The film is unforgettable and influential in that it appears to have inspired another terrific nautical thriller (which boasted an impressive, underrated performance by Billy Zane)—Dead Calm.
The Sea Wolf (1941)
Not quite a faithful adaptation of the legendary Jack London novel but a compelling picture nonetheless, The Sea Wolf is a grand mixture of tense social study, film noir and stimulating action sequences. The formidable Edward G. Robinson plays the famed Wolf Larsen, a pitiless captain sailing his boat, aptly called The Ghost. The five people aboard are thrown together quite by chance, and all vary in personality. But they do have one thing in common—they’re running from something. Gorgeously atmospheric (with all that fog), scary (especially in Robinson’s hands) and splendidly acted, the film remains a remarkable study of human behavior. A major plus is the great, great John Garfield and Ida Lupino who add both sex appeal and nervous depth to the proceedings. Lovely, but unpleasant all at once.
P.S. I love Errol Flynn.
Tweaked from my column at Fandango.