The Horror!? and occasionally at WTF-Film. You can also follow him on Twitter. Today, though, he’s right here; enjoy!
When our gracious host Pauline first asked me to contribute a post to her blogging anniversary on Triple P, I was in a bit of internal panic. After all, what business does a guy who hasn't even read all Aubrey/Maturin novels have on a blog as encyclopaedically knowledgeable about all things nautical and piratical as Pauline's is?
Obviously, the business of talking about a movie that takes place on the sea, because if there's one thing I can go on and on and on about, it's movies. But even here, I found myself confronted by a problem: talking about some classic swashbuckler would be a bit boring, but going the other way - in the direction of true non-classics - would only lead directly into the arms of Ship of Zombies, the by far worst of the Blind Dead movies, and that's not a film I want to inflict on anybody via a guest blog, especially not on an anniversary.
Fortunately, one of my secret favourite movies came to the rescue in form of Val Lewton's production of Mark Robson's The Ghost Ship, made in 1943. Now, Lewton's stint with the b-movie arm of RKO studios has resulted in a small but fantastic corpus of horror films of a type that was much more psychologically oriented and ambiguous than its contemporaries (and much less ruined by comic relief and an obvious hatred of the audience for such films as were - for example - Universal's films of the same type at the time). Today, the most well-known film of these is of course Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, but The Ghost Ship's Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim (also made in 1943) is just as fine a movie.
The Ghost Ship for its part is not quite up to the standards of mood and subtlety of those films, although it is still a fine and thoughtful piece of work.
Orphan Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) arrives at his first post at sea (beyond duty on training ships) as the 3rd Officer of the Altair under Captain Will Stone (Richard Dix). Though their journey together starts with a bad omen in form of the death of an older seaman, Tom is quite happy with his new position and his new Captain. Stone seems to have taken an instant liking to the young man, and delights him with quite a few fatherly monologues about the nature of authority. Actually, someone less positive (or naive) than Tom could argue that Stone is somewhat obsessed with the concept of authority and tends to the monolithical side of the idea that sees a captain at sea taking on a role comparable to that of an absolute monarch or a dictator on land.
When push inevitably comes to shove, Tom learns that his Captain's much-loved "authority" is one that is only interested in bathing in its own perceived perfection and has little time for minor quibbles like the life and limbs of his crew. At first, it is only minor (yet, the sea being a dangerous place, still dangerous) things that could make Tom doubt the Captain's competence or - perhaps - even his sanity, and it's really more the spin Stone puts on things than what he actually does or doesn't do that keeps the viewer more uncomfortable with him than the young man is.
But when Stone isn't able to make the necessary incisions in a (radio-supported) appendix operation on a crewman, and Tom has to take the scalpel, the young officer begins to doubt his new-found father figure. Even so, Tom still asks the only witness to the whole affair, his (just as new-found) friend the radio operator Sparks (Edmund Glover), not to tell anyone who really took on the operation in the end. Not everyone can take looking at blood, after all, and there's no shame in that.
Stone explains the situation to Tom a bit differently, though: as somebody without any expertise in medicine, he was afraid to fail in saving the crewman's life. Although he's not completely able to ignore the fact that not trying the operation would have damned the sick man to death in any case, and though he probably perceives that the unspoken undercurrent of Stone's behaviour suggests he's much more afraid of being seen as fallible than of failure itself, Tom still seems to waver in his opinion about Stone.
Things change rather quickly when the ship's resident sea lawyer is crushed by the anchor chain shortly after he delivered a minor complaint to his captain. The audience knows this death is at least caused by Stone's negligence (and might just have been murder), but that's not something anyone else in the crew realizes - except for Tom, who meets Stone practically next to the dead body. The Captain is all too ready to deliver a slightly deranged monologue that would convince anyone that he had something to do with the sailor's death. Tom at least is now sure that Stone is a homicidal maniac, and he's not afraid of telling him or anyone else about it. Alas, nobody on board the ship does believe him.
Once back in port, the young man tries to convince the authorities of his shipping line of Stone's guilt, but - not surprisingly - only loses his position on the Altair.
And that could be the end, with a slightly damaged career for Tom and Stone still captain of his ship, ready to crack any day now, if an unfortunate accident would not leave our young hero back on board the Altair. Tom's inability to keep his head down and Stone's growing paranoia mean that the whole affair will end in violence.
As the synopsis should make clear, Robson's film isn't exactly the horror film one would suspect. The ghost ship of its title is a metaphorical one, describing the state of isolation that is the part of his position as a Captain that is responsible of driving Stone to the brink of madness, but also describing the comparable isolation Tom - as an orphan and a man without friends or companionship on land - is in, as well as the young officer's later isolation on board the Altair when nobody wants to believe what he knows to be true about Stone until it is nearly too late for him.
The film uses its sea-bound setting as the perfect place to take a close look at the horrors that arise from a blind trust in authority (obviously quite timely in 1943, and unfortunately quite timely again today) in a way that reminded me at times heavily of Joseph Conrad. The isolation and strict structures of life at sea are a backdrop that makes the film's themes all the more clear.
The Ghost Ship isn't satisfied with only using Tom and Stone as elements to build an allegory from, though. The film is also an early example of the psychological thriller, and as such, it is actually interested in its protagonist and its antagonist as people, and not just as parts in its philosophical machine. Not only is Tom a much more believable hero than one is used to from films of its era, but Stone, too, is more than just a eye-rolling maniac, which is not at all what I expect to find in a film made in 1943 (or today, for that matter), even though Val Lewton's productions were often more willing to admit the humanity of the mentally ill than any of their peers.
The Ghost Ship takes its time to show Stone as a man who knows he's losing touch with reality, but just can't find any way to get his grip again; asking for help is obviously right out for someone with his particular mental problems.
Given how loaded the film is with subtext and ideas (I've actually left out a whole line of thought about the complicity of people under authority with the abuse of authority in this post, among other things), it's not much of a surprise that it does from time to time waver under this weight. The Ghost Ship's first two acts are somewhat slow and ponderous and very talky - a state of affairs that isn't exactly helped by a certain theatricality of the acting I haven't seen in any of the other Lewton productions I know - and the "thrilling" parts (as well realized by Robson as I'd expected him to) only begin once Tom is back on the Altair. The surface excitement is just the sugar to let The Ghost Ship's themes go down more easily.
My most heartfelt appreciation goes to Denis for this wonderful addition to my humble blog’s repertoire. If you liked it as much as I did, hop over to The Horror!? and hit the follow button. Trust me; there’s plenty more where that came from.
Finally, a big thank you to all who have supported Triple P over the course of her evolution, which is still in progress. Let us spread all canvas, Brethren, and sail forth into another piratical year! After all, there is not a moment to lose.
Header: Poster for The Ghost Ship