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Abandon Ship

Abandon Ship(1957)

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teaser Abandon Ship (1957)

Alfred Hitchcock's WWII-era drama Lifeboat (1944) paints such a vivid portrait of disaster survivors, many film fans take at face value any assertion that it is the only feature film that was ever set in the extremely confining space of a small boat on the open sea. It is not; adding to this decidedly small subgenre is the British film Abandon Ship (1957), known as Seven Waves Away in its country of origin. The drama is based on an actual maritime incident, and turns into a rather bleak study in survival. It also serves up a plum part - and ultimately a daring one - for Tyrone Power, who also produced the film.

The opening credits run over a shot of a rusted, floating derelict mine in the ocean. The soundtrack features a mournful harmonica. At the end of the credits there is a fiery explosion superimposed on the screen, followed by shots of debris floating in the water; no ship is seen. An off-screen narrator informs the viewer, "On the morning of September 27th, the super liner Crescent Star, en route across the South Atlantic Ocean on the first leg of a round-the-world cruise, exploded and sank in seven minutes. There were 1,156 souls aboard at the moment of disaster. In seven minutes, 1,119 perished. 37 survived."

Amidst the flotsam of the ship's wreckage, Executive Officer Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) hoists himself up on a floating raft, occupied by survivors Mr. Wheaton (Finlay Currie), Arthur J. Middleton (Robert Harris), and two others. Determining that the steward on board is dead, Holmes pushes him overboard. He confirms for the others that the explosion was caused by a derelict mine that lodged under the hull of the ship: "plain bad luck." Holmes rescues a dog, and then sees his sweetheart - the ship's nurse, Julie White (Mai Zetterling) calling to him. Holmes swims out to rescue her but they drift too far from the raft. The couple splashes the water to deflect a shark, then swim for the only other refuge: an overflowing boat. Holmes recognizes that it is not a lifeboat, but rather the Captain's shore boat. It is eighteen feet long and designed for nine men, but it carries twenty-seven, including several in the sea who hold onto ropes on the side.

The Captain (Laurence Naismith) is dying, and he hands command to Holmes. The gravity of the situation becomes clear to all; there is only one gallon of water on board and no distress signal was sent because the ship's radio was destroyed in the blast. Despite challenges from Maj. Gen. Barrington (Clive Morton) and sarcasm from socialite Edith Middleton (Moira Lister), Holmes takes on the role of commander and has the support of another shipmate, Will McKinley (Stephen Boyd). The ship's engineer (Lloyd Nolan) is also dying from his wounds, and he gives Holmes some grim advice: to save the able-bodied among the survivors, he will have to set adrift the sick, wounded and elderly among the passengers.

Abandon Ship was produced by Tyrone Power through his Copa Productions; this was the first and only film Power produced to star himself. The other two projects turned out by his company were Count Three and Pray (1955), a western starring Van Heflin and Joanne Woodward, and the notable Film Noir Nightfall (1957), starring Aldo Ray and directed by Jacques Tourneur. Power's casting of himself as the lead in Abandon Ship was quite a daring move; the moral ambiguity of the character was not typical Leading Man territory for any actor. Since the film is not set during wartime, the hard choices of life and death that are made are not influenced by allegiance to country and duty, an aspect that sets it apart from Hitchcock's Lifeboat. The script by Richard Sale is loosely based on the sinking of the American ship William Brown in 1841, although the real-life incident was on a much smaller scale; the William Brown hit an iceberg 250 miles off Newfoundland and lost 31 of its 65 passengers. Two boats with 17 crewmen and the remaining passengers escaped the wreck, but more than a dozen passengers were sacrificed from the crowded longboat. One of the crewmen, named Alexander Holmes, was convicted on a manslaughter charge after the jury threw out a charge of murder.

Writing in the New York Times, A. H. Weiler calls Abandon Ship "a grim but absorbing adventure" and has high praise for writer-director Richard Sale, who "...wastes no time on false heroics or flamboyant dialogue." Weiler also writes, "Mr. Power, favored by the camera throughout, acquits himself nobly. He makes a strong, efficient and genuinely human leader, who adequately projects the tortures of his awful assignment. Unfortunately, Mr. Sale has not drawn full characterizations from the rest of the cast but there are convincing, if brief, portrayals. ...[The filmmakers] may not have created a masterpiece but they have come up with a thoughtful and often gripping drama that mirrors man at his best and worst."

The last act of the 1937 Paramount picture Souls at Sea, starring Gary Cooper, also seems to reference the William Brown incident. A full-blown retelling of the story can be seen in the made-for-television movie The Last Survivors (1975), with Martin Sheen as Holmes.

Producer: John R. Sloan; Tyrone Power (uncredited)
Director: Richard Sale
Screenplay: Richard Sale
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction: Raymond Sim
Music: Sir Arthur Bliss
Film Editing: Raymond Poulton
Cast: Tyrone Power (Alec Holmes), Mai Zetterling (Nurse Julie White), Lloyd Nolan (Frank Kelly), Stephen Boyd (Will McKinley), Moira Lister (Edith Middleton), James Hayter ('Cookie' Morrow), Marie Lohr (Dorothy Knudson), Finlay Currie (Mr. Wheaton), John Stratton (Jimmy 'Sparks' Clary), Victor Maddern (Willy Hawkins).

by John M. Miller

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