Happy March, classic film fans! For many reasons, this month has been making me think of getting away and of long ocean voyages. For one thing, we’re only weeks away from the TCM Classic Film Festival, and I’ve been daydreaming about California’s coastlines ever since I left last year’s fest. Each tedious work week brings me one week closer to a world of classic movies and stars, but every year it doesn’t feel real to me until I’m there. In addition to that, one of TCM’s themes this month is Life at Sea, which will be showcasing an astounding 51 ocean-themed films on Mondays in March. When I first found out about this fascinating topic, I couldn’t help but think of The Out to Sea Blogathon, hosted by the great Debbie of Moon in Gemini. I’m not sure whether TCM’s theme inspired her or whether it was the other way around, but I’m loving the continuity and I’m glad that I’m able to celebrate maritime life on my blog as well as in front of my TV.
NOTE: Due to the nature of the film’s events, this review is not spoiler-free. Please read at your own risk!
Abandon Ship (1957), also known under the alternate titles Seven Waves Away and Seven Days From Now, opens with a bleak view of the wreckage of the luxury liner S.S. Crescent Star, which we soon learn has sunk only seven minutes after accidentally striking a naval mine in the middle of the Atlantic. Out of ship’s 1,156 passengers, we only see thirty survive: three onboard a makeshift raft and twenty-seven onboard a captain’s ship’s boat. The situation quickly turns from hopeful to dire as we find out that no SOS was sent out during the seven minutes it took for the ship to sink, and that the compact boat carrying twenty-seven passengers is only equipped for nine. Out of the remaining twenty-seven, several are wounded, the worst of which are the ship’s captain and Kelly, one of the ship’s mechanics (Lloyd Nolan). As the captain dies of his injuries, he gives command of the boat to executive officer Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power), who has never been in command of a vessel before. Many of the other passengers resent this decision, but Alec attempts to take control of the situation, sending his girlfriend and ship’s nurse Julie (Mai Zetterling) around the boat to tend to the passengers and scheduling shifts for those in the boat to take the places of those tied to the side of the boat by their lifejackets.
As hopeless as it seems, Alec decides that the best course of action is to attempt to row for Africa, which lies 1,500 miles away. Meanwhile, we also learn a bit about each of the passengers, which include an elderly opera singer, an older haughty general, a seasick playwright and his dog, a ship’s steward, a boy of eighteen, a family of three which includes a small boy and two injured parents, a racketeer, a sailor with two broken wrists, and a beautiful, sarcastic heiress who has brought along her cowardly lover. As their predicament worsens, Kelly warns Alec that there is no possible chance of all of the passengers surviving as the rations are extremely limited and the boat is likely to capsize under the excessive weight of so many people. Knowing he will not survive the night himself due to his wounds, Kelly jumps off of the boat, reminding Alec of his promise to the captain to save as many as he can. As a menacing storm approaches, Alec feels pressured to make drastic decisions. Should he sacrifice the weak so the strong might live, or should he risk losing all of the passengers in an attempt to keep everyone alive? Who will stand by his actions in the end?
Over the years, many comparisons have been made between this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Both stories take place completely in the ocean and revolve around the survivors of a shipwreck, and much of the focus is put on the differing backgrounds of the survivors in both films, but to me that’s where the commonalities end. Lifeboat may be more well-known and spoken of in higher regard than Abandon Ship, but I actually prefer the latter for many reasons. For one thing, I think the suspense is far greater and the stakes are much higher here. Not only are the Crescent Star‘s passengers faced with a serious overcrowding problem, they also have far less chance of being rescued or reaching shore than the survivors in Lifeboat. While I admire the political undertones in Hitchcock’s wartime masterpiece, Abandon Ship stands out to me because there’s no deciding factor that places any one survivor’s life above another, which adds to the tragedy of deciding who must live and who must die. On that note, another part of the reason why I love this movie is because of how dark it dares to become.
This is a harrowing chain of events that is unlike anything else onscreen around this time, and I have to give writer and director Richard Sale praise for bravely depicting this largely true story based on the sinking of the William Brown in 1841. Not only are the injured, the elderly, and the sick killed off without much of a second thought, several healthy and strong souls are murdered as well by Tyrone Power’s character. This easily ranks among the darkest roles that I’ve seen Power in, but he handles this part with ease and portrays Alec with more logic and less morality. In fact, all of the performances in this film are first-rate and unforgettable, which also proves to make Abandon Ship difficult to watch at times since over half of its cast perishes by the end. Power and newcomer Mai Zetterling, whom Ty was having an affair with at the time, exude a real chemistry throughout the picture despite their characters’ differences in morals. Out of the other passengers, I have to give props to Moira Lister, who plays the wealthy Edith Middleton, as she steals all of her scenes and is stunning to look at even after a shipwreck. As a whole, I’d completely recommend this film to any Tyrone Power fan, or really anyone who seeks a picture that verges on the darker side of what was being released during Hollywood’s golden era. It’s worth noting that this film, which is one of six Tyrone Power films to not receive a US digital release and is considered one of his rarest works, is being shown for the first time in years on TCM as part of its Life at Sea spotlight today, March 9th at 1:30pm ET. It’s a screening that may not come around again for a long time, so definitely watch it and get your DVRs ready to enjoy this gloomy seafaring tale!