Abandon Ship (1957; Richard Sale) is a grim and monumental tale of survival, specifically of Tough Choices in Bad Seas—and is another new favorite, and a front-runner in the sweepstakes for “Best Old Film Discovered This Year.”
“The weaklings must go… I want only the strong… I want only the strong who can make it, and not those who can’t.”
After hitting a floating mine (that sort of thing was somewhat common for a while in the post-WWII years—at least in melodramas), a luxury liner has sunk about 1,500 miles off the coast of Africa, drowning more than a thousand, and leaving 26 people in a boat built for 12.
Many of the people are injured, there’s little food or water, the boat is continuously swamping in shark-infested waters, and there’s no way of knowing when—or if—they’ll be rescued.
The highest-ranking officer left, Commander Holmes, must start making tough, ruthless choices on who will stay, and who must be set adrift….especially when it looks like a heavy storm is on the way.
“It’s the long haul I’m thinking of.”
Tyrone Power’s performance as Holmes is the hard-hitting golden lynchpin that makes Abandon Ship work so well: a fearless, almost-heartless performance that’s gut wrenching.
He’s an efficient, logical and serious naval officer dealing with a bunch of spoiled, whiny brats.
Someone will have to die…
Extreme and unsentimental, it’s like Holmes has been subconsciously waiting/training for this moment/opportunity for his whole life: this massive, brutal and unmerciful test.
And he’s absolutely true to his philosophy till the bitter end.
Although she later asks,
“Why are the wicked so strong?”,
adulterous and sardonic shipwreck survivor Mrs. Middleton (played by the lovely Miora Lister) does say about Holmes, “He has the guts to make a decision which all your civilized hypocrisy couldn’t manage.”
“We can’t eat you.”
Abandon Ship is cramped and claustrophobic, but also overwhelming because of the sea—and wet, wet, wet.
Although shot in a studio tank, the flick does everything to convince you otherwise—
and succeeds: I bet audiences in the 1950s were getting seasick.
Writer-director Richard Sale is to be praised (and nothing else in his career suggests that he had this sort of hardcore story in him!).
The inverse of Inferno (another recent discovery and instant LERNER INTERNATIONAL favorite), where that film had a willful man isolated in a hot, dry desert; here we have Tyrone Power trapped in a sinking lifeboat with a crowd of hypocrites in a turbulent sea.
He can’t be sappy or emotional: “I’m responsible,” he states bluntly.
And as dying shipmate Kelly (Lloyd Nolan) warns Holmes before throwing himself overboard, “Don’t get to know them too well.”
This is a world of Zero Slack.
Of course, you know these civilized weaklings will eventually turn their back on the Jack London-esque Holmes—but it doesn’t matter: he knows he’s right.
Like Inferno with its lead character (played excellently by Robert Ryan), Abandon Ship is wise in not showing Holmes before the shipwreck—the film is existential in that it’s what he does that defines Holmes—we only need to see him on this lifeboat; you can assume that he was a good officer, one who knew how to laugh at the guests’ terrible jokes, and not anger the rich folk—but also knew how to earn the respect of the men; you can tell that Holmes was an officer who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. (It’s never mentioned, but like Captains Queeg and Morton, did Holmes work his way up to XO from cabin boy?)
But the utterly logical ruthlessness he shows on the stormy seas is only shocking if you think he holds something else higher than his code as a naval officer.
Churchill was right when he said that British Navy tradition was nothing more than “rum, sodomy and the lash,” but people like to forget that that certainly got the job done! The Sun didn’t set on the British Empire for a reason (at least until the US and Germany started to carve it up).
There’s also a delicious psychosis/pathology at work here: Powers never shows anything but a conflicted man driven by circumstance to make “tough calls,” but the energy that he throws into this task! It’s like the actor’s subtext is, “Fuck it, these people are going to hate me no matter what I do: Might as well be a cold killer—my cause is right.”
And the “man against nature fight for survival” is made more Jack London-esque by the refusal to give some mythological sky pilot any credit.
Sure, prayers are made (there are never any atheists in foxholes), but when it’s done, it’s man and man alone who’s survived the elements.
The story becomes a pre-Christian/pre-“civilization” tale.
Bringing up Inferno again (these two films are yin-yang/fire-water of men becoming supermen through harrowing journey): Damn, guys like Ryan and Power were handsome, sure, but there was something else about their faces… A power, a strength, especially in these movies—tough choices have to be made—and they can make them. You might not like what they do, but you can trust them to do it.
This will leave them perhaps lonely, too.
But their unspoken, perhaps undefined philosophies make them strong—strong enough to be alone.
BTW, maximum mondo-giganto THANX!!! to Dave’s Classic Films for recommending Abandon Ship during the course of the recent blogathon “The Best Hitchcock Films Not Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.”
Dave has plenty more photos, a detailed synopsis, and plenty of praise for this almost-forgotten movie.
The movie is tough to find via conventional methods; I watched it via the Tubes of You HERE!!!
Almost a mean-spirited movie, Abandon Ship makes the audience suffer (like a Hitchcock film, which is why Classic Dave picked this film for the recent Hitchcock/Not Hitchcock blogathon).
As such, it’s a must-see!
And after you’ve watched Abandon Ship, get back to me—because what about the people on the first raft Power is on, at the beginning of the film?
They’re completely left behind! And because one of those survivors on the raft was Mr. Middleton, when Holmes meets Mrs. Middleton, and learns of her alley-catting around, he tells her curtly, “I met your husband.”
So he remembers the unfortunates, but mentions nothing to anyone, not even himself.
Whew, that’s cold. (And another opportunity to congratulate writer-director Sale for not trying to “soften” or “humanize” Holmes; I think Sale knows we can take it: we’re grown-ups, and this is absolutely a film for those willing to deal with questions of morality and ethics).
Tyrone Powers as Commander Holmes, a man we should admire and emulate:
“I can make it alone.”