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Long before Arthur Hailey and Irwin Allen made sprawling disaster soap operas the staples of paperback racks and twin-screen movie houses, The Last Voyage (1960) plowed uncharted waters with a realistic, non-Titanic-related story of a family struggling to survive aboard a slowly sinking ship. Unlike its successors which relied on trickery involving miniatures and rear screen projection, this early endeavor earned its place in the history books by utilizing a real luxury liner, France's S.S. Ile de France (which was slated for demolition after being retired in 1959), and partially flooding its interiors for the most convincing spectacle possible. Christened the U.S.S. Claratin within the film the ship (in real life a veteran rescue vessel from the famous Andrea Doria disaster in 1956) had to be completely resurfaced and returned upon completion of filming, after which it was dismantled and consigned to the scrap yards. However, its immortalization on film earned a justifiable Academy Award® nomination for Augie "A.J." Lohman, only to lose out to the more fantastic visuals of George Pal's The Time Machine. Undaunted, Lohman temporarily relocated to Europe for the following decade and lent his talents to a number of opulent productions including The Bible (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), and Barbarella (1968) before returning in the 1970s for a few high-profile titles like Three Days of the Condor (1975) and The Shootist (1976).
In another break from the disaster conventions to follow, The Last Voyage begins with impending disaster in its opening moments as Captain Adams (George Sanders) is informed of a malfunction in the boiler room that soon leads to pandemonium across the entire ship. The dramatic focus rests on the Henderson family husband Cliff (Robert Stack), wife Laurie (Dorothy Malone), and daughter Jill (Tammy Marihugh) who must navigate a series of increasingly perilous obstacles. The actual shooting proved equally perilous to the two leads, who had already appeared together in a top-notch pair of Douglas Sirk films (1956's Written on the Wind and 1958's The Tarnished Angels, with Malone earning an Academy Award for the former). As Stack recalls in his autobiography, Straight Shooting, "Long before Irwin got the idea to turn an ocean liner upside down, a character named Andy Stone thought of using the real thing. No special effects for Andy; he actually planned to destroy a liner and photograph the process. Thus began a film called The Last Voyage, which was shot on location and, for yours truly, very nearly lived up to its title."
The Ile de France was rented from a Japanese salvage company for a 1.5 million dollar fee; however, according to Stack's memoirs, the Osaka businessmen continuously threw up roadblocks to prevent the ship from being seriously damaged and caused shooting to fall seriously behind. Furthermore, the company sent threatening letters contradicting its own obligations according to its agreement with Stone and MGM.
Then the story took an even more frightening turn. Their Japanese interpreter reported that his own daughter had been attacked and raped on the way to school by men threatening grievous bodily harm to anyone who refused to comply with the shipping company. While Stone concocted methods to keep his cast and crew safe while finishing the film, a cautious Sanders arranged to cut two portholes on the side of his cabin providing easy escape should any disasters arise.
On the day of shooting the big flooding of the ship, the uncooperative insurance representative who had already asked for bribes and was in cahoots with the Japanese shipping company was contractually required to be present but threw up constant roadblocks. Undaunted, Stone set up a beautiful Japanese girl to seduce the agent and cart him off for the weekend, freeing everyone to film as planned. The stunning sequence was accomplished by shooting hundred-feet jets of water from fireboats, and according to Stack, the water gushed "with such ferocity that we literally were thrown head over heels. Electricity combined with salt water to produce a small electrical storm on board. Great waves poured through the ship." Other perils continued even under controlled conditions: Malone nearly drowned in a set built on a swimming pool, Stack and Marihugh (who developed a friendship during filming) were perilously held by wires over an eleven-foot drop, and actor Edmond O'Brien stormed off the set after being submerged in thousands of gallons of water. Even the camera equipment was held hostage by Japanese thugs armed with knives and saws, with Stone and his wife and editor, Virginia, physically fending off the marauders to retrieve their property. Incredibly, everyone survived the experience and lived to work on other projects.
A Hollywood veteran, Stone (who also produced and wrote many of his films, including this one) had already earned his name with such films as Stormy Weather (1943). With his wife he formed Andrew and Virginia Stone Productions and became known for his dedication to realism on reasonable budgets as often as possible; together they produced a number of small but effective films released through United Artists including the 1956 Doris Day melodrama Julie, and 1958's taut suspenser, Cry Terror!. Though his career ended with a pair of ignoble Hollywood musical busts (an all-too-common fate of the early 1970s) with two disastrous biopics, Song of Norway (1970) and The Great Waltz (1972), the bulk of his filmography still stands the test of time.
Stone's color-blind casting decisions, already cultivated in his earlier films, led him to cast soon-to-be familiar character actor Woody Strode, a former sports hero of football, track and wrestling fame, as the heroic Hank Lawson. With his imposing stature and distinguished features, Strode earned supporting spots in a number of Hollywood films like the previous year's Spartacus before achieving icon status in a number of European productions, such as his brief but unforgettable appearance in 1968's Once upon a Time in the West. Like his co-stars, Strode had a once in a lifetime experience on the ship, for better or worse: "The dikes broke, the walls shifted, and 5,000 tons of water rushed in. The ship took on a twenty-seven degree list; it almost turned over in the harbor. You see it all happen in The Last Voyage; it's unbelievable."
Upon its release, critics tended to agree, with Variety exclaiming that it would "probably not be surpassed as pure excitement very often during the coming months." Though many filmmakers have tried in the following decades, The Last Voyage still stands as one of the most successful of its kind and a unique example of filmmaking spectacle where reality may not quite be stranger than fiction but is often just as exciting.
Producer: Andrew L. Stone, Virginia L. Stone
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Screenplay: Andrew L. Stone
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Film Editing: Virginia L. Stone
Music: Rudy Schrager
Cast: Robert Stack (Cliff Henderson), Dorothy Malone (Laurie Henderson), George Sanders (Captain Robert Adams), Edmond O'Brien (Second Engineer Walsh), Woody Strode (Hank Lawson), Jack Kruschen (Chief Engineer Pringle).
C-92m. Closed captioning.
by Nathaniel Thompson