The greatest seafaring movies of all time

Pretend for a moment that we are out on the fantail under fair skies after the chief cook has turned out an especially good meal. The crew shoots the breeze as the sun goes down. The talk turns from food to women to food and women and finally to movies.

What, someone ventures, are the greatest seafaring movies of all time?

The Caine Mutiny, from 1954, Humphrey Bogart’s last great film role as a Navy captain obsessed with the theft of strawberries?

“I just saw Caine again the other day. Having lived through a sadistic captain or two myself, Bogie’s Capt. Queeg has got to be right up there,” said Mike Rawlins, a former merchant marine officer and documentary filmmaker.

“I think my favorite scene is the one where Queeg runs over the towline while he’s berating one of the sailors out on the bridge wing,” said Rawlins, whose most recent film is Porampo: Pirates of the Malacca Straits.

How about Edward G. Robinson as Wolf Larsen, captain of a seal hunting schooner, in The Sea Wolf, adapted from the great Jack London novel of the same name?

Perhaps a young ordinary mentions Pirates of the Caribbean — you can’t deny Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards impersonation in the starring role — and is laughed back to his forecastle.

Perhaps not. A lot has changed at sea and in Hollywood since China Seas, a 1935 Taylor Garnett film in which Clark Gable navigates between Hong Kong and Singapore with a cargo of gold while charting the more treacherous waters of a love triangle with Jean Harlow and Rosalind Russell.

The American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the Top 100 films of all time includes just two features that might be construed as sea movies: Jaws, at No. 56, a fishing movie; and Titanic, the 1997 version, at No. 83.

For the purposes of this discussion — and to acknowledge that, unlike westerns, there is not a treasure of sea movies to begin with — possibilities will extend to submarines, rivers and lakes but the line will be drawn at On Golden Pond.

The obvious titles are trotted out: John Huston’s Moby Dick, with Gregory Peck as Ahab and screenplay by Ray Bradbury, of all people; Captains Courageous from 1937, starring Lionel Barrymore and a young Spencer Tracy — who 20 years later would star in The Old Man and the Sea — as a Portuguese fisherman.

Amistad, Stephen Spielberg’s 1997’s movie about a shipboard slave rebellion, is mentioned for its use of Pride of Baltimore II, an authentic reproduction of a type of 19th-century ship known for speed and maneuverability.

And then the engineers bring up The Sand Pebbles, the 1966 flick starring the coolest man in the world — dead or alive — Steve McQueen. Even deck officers give the film high marks.

“It has a good feel for engines and crappy duty up a Chinese river,” said Carl Nolte, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who holds a captain’s license and is partial to The Caine Mutiny and Mister Roberts.

Based on the 1962 novel by Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles casts McQueen as Jake Holman, an American Navy man on a 1920s gunboat in war-torn Shanghai.

Holman’s life depends on the boat’s fickle steam engine. Although the young Candice Bergen is afoot as a comely missionary, the more McQueen works to keep the engine running, the more he seems to fall in love with it.

(Thus an insight into so many jokes about engineers.)

An unforgettable scene involves a Chinese worker, a glorified wiper who does menial labor in exchange for food, or his “rice bowl.” When he goes down with a wrench to work on the triple expansion steam engine crank, a lock gives way and the Chinese worker is crushed to death.

There’s Mutiny on the Bounty, both the 1935 Charles Laughton version and the 1962 vehicle for Marlon Brando, and a lot of affection for Two Years Before the Mast, the 1946 adaptation of the Richard Henry Dana classic.

And then there is Das Boot from director Wolfgang Petersen, the 1981 German sub movie with a strong antiwar message that got high marks in this subjective discourse, applauded as forcefully as Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander was booed.

“I saw Das Boot for the first time after serving in the Navy. It really visualizes what life on a sub is like,” said John Zeidler. “Other sub movies (can be) cute. Das Boot brings back the emotions of the at-sea life I experienced on the USS Lafayette.”

Said Mick Betancourt, a television writer from Chicago: “The (Das Boot) crew left home as boys and came back as men.”

The master on a ship is the captain but the master of suspense is Alfred Hitchcock.

In 1944, Hitchcock made Lifeboat, a psychological drama in which a group of strangers — from royalty to steerage, including Tallulah Bankhead in a fur coat — bob together in the Atlantic after their ship is hit by a U-boat.

“That kind of situation has always terrified me,” said Eric Mithen, a Silver City, N.M., resident who sailed as a pleasure boat deck hand in his youth. “You’re just out there, floating in oblivion.”

Finally, a couple of notes from 20,000 leagues of seafaring trivia:

One of the first interracial kisses on the American screen took place in the 1958 seagoing adventure The Decks Ran Red, based on the book Infamy at Sea.

The smooch is between Stuart Whitman, a murderous crewmember, and Dorothy Dandridge, an African-American sailing with her husband, Pete the cook.

And a little known fact about cinema giant Stanley Kubrick:

One of Kubrick’s earliest films was The Seafarers, a 1953 propaganda vehicle for the Seafarers International Union.

In it, a cafeteria scene is photographed in a long, sideways dolly shot at the old SIU hall in Brooklyn, N.Y. That shot is shown in film school as quintessential Kubrick, calling to mind his mentor, Max Ophuls.

And you thought Stanley was just known for that other movie about space.

Rafael Alvarez is a member of the Writers Guild of America and the Seafarers International Union. The son of a chief engineer, he works for NBC prime-time dramas.

By Professional Mariner Staff