Ships in the Movies: When the Leading Lady Wore a Coat of Steel, Pt. II

By Bonner, Kit | Sea Classics, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Ships in the Movies: When the Leading Lady Wore a Coat of Steel, Pt. II


Bonner, Kit, Sea Classics


Few man-made objects have the ability to inspire the drama, action, danger and awesome beauty that is evidenced in a

ship set against fearsome conflict in today's movies.

EUROPEAN SEA FILMS: THE GENESIS OF A GENRE

The wedding of ships and motion pictures first achieved critical acclaim in Europe with Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 classic "Potemkin." Based on a true naval mutiny that occurred in Imperial Russia in 1905, Eisenstein's directorial flair and clever manipulation of action imagery transformed this otherwise quasi-- documentary silent film into an award-winning masterpiece of film-making magic. Using many of the actual turn-of-the-century ex-Czarist warships as the dramatic setting for the revolt in Odessa that presaged the Soviet revolution, Eisenstein deftly proved how a warship's towering hull and the menacing authority of large-caliber naval guns made ships a most imposing setting for virtually any form of cinematic story-telling.

Quick to realize the artistic and financial success of "Potemkin" even though in the final analysis it was a Soviet propaganda film, European film makers began to look for scripts where the plot abounded with sea-going action. They didn't have far to look. With so much of its Empire tradition tied into the belief that `Britannia Ruled The Waves' it was only natural that Great Britain's emerging movie-makers would capitalize on the dramatic advantages of ships as adventurous or comedic cinematic backgrounds with strong appeal to movie-goers. Literally dozens of long forgotten shipboard comedies and romance films were produced in British studios well known in the '20s and '30s for their stodgy drawing room dramas. Although stock footage of the giant liners was generally intercut with sound stage scenes shot in replica liner staterooms, the few movies which survived that era feature very rare and exciting footage of classic liners such as the MAURETANIA, AQUITANIA, LEVIATHAN, NORMANDIE and QUEEN MARY.

The introduction of sound further expanded the potential for ships to thrill audiences. However the complexities of the early photographic equipment, booms, lights, microphones and the weighty cameras themselves made it more economically feasible to shoot sea films entirely on indoor sets where lighting and sound could be better controlled. England's notoriously poor weather did little to foster out-door shooting schedules, a blight that stereotyped all too many early English films into being little more than stage productions shot on film. Indeed, Noel Coward's most memorable wartime epic about the crew of a corvette sunk in battle - "In Which We Serve," made in 1942 - was entirely filmed on indoor sets using giant water tanks, models and studio mock-ups of the warships. Director Coward (with David Leans help) won a special Oscar for this masterpiece, which still plays well nearly 60 years later.

Over the decades a succession of brilliant British directors proved how well they mastered man against the sea themes in such memorable films as 1951's "Captain Horatio Hornblower" starring Gregory Peck and an all-English cast; 1953's "The Cruel Sea," the gripping story of a convoy escort fighting U-boats, the admiralty and storms at sea; 1958's "A Night To Remember" based on Eric Ambler's screenplay of Walter Lord's classic tale of the TITANIC sinking; and 1962's Cinemascope epic "Billy Budd" which was a joint British-American production of Melville's classic morality tale of good versus evil.

While Germany did not develop the international marketing ability of its movie-industry to the post-WWII level achieved by Great Britain, France, Italy, and Denmark, the 1981 production of "Das Boot" (The Boat) directed by Wolfgang Petersen, deserves to be recalled as probably the finest, most realistic U-boat film ever produced. Though shot as a multi-part quasi-- documentary for German TV and later edited into a theatrical release, the film makes effective use of fullscale mock-ups, convincing characterizations and nailbiting action sequences. …

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