The Wreck of the Mary Deare
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Sometimes even Ben-Hur has to play second fiddle. That's the lesson Charlton Heston learned when he signed on to star opposite Gary Cooper, in a memorable seafaring thriller called The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Although Heston had just completed work on Ben-Hur (1959) - actually, he was still shooting occasional close-ups for William Wyler's epic while filming Mary Deare - it didn't take him long to realize that you don't steal the scene from an old-school hunk of granite like Cooper.
Heston plays John Sands, a boat salvager who, on a rough English Channel, finds the floating, still-burning wreck of a ship called The Mary Deare. Sands assumes the crew has abandoned ship, and is ready to call it his own. But, upon boarding, he finds a man named Gideon Patch (Cooper), who insists that he is still piloting the vessel. Sands, however, grows convinced that Patch is trying to wreck and sink The Mary Deare on a reef. This all evolves, somewhat surprisingly, into a courtroom drama, during which the reasons for Patch's strange behavior become evident. Although rarely shown today, The Wreck of the Mary Deare is a unique picture featuring two of the more powerful actors in screen history, and it contains a couple of thrilling action sequences.
Over the years, Heston has written extensively about his career. Consequently, his thoughts on The Wreck of the Mary Deare are a matter of public record. He described his fears of acting opposite Cooper in an April 27, 1959 diary entry, when he wrote "...I wonder how well I can possibly come off in this. It's more and more clear this is Cooper's film." However, Heston amended that entry when the diary was published years later, under the title The Actor's Life: "Well, of course it was Cooper's film. After having borne witness all my moviegoing life to the enormous presence he brought to the screen, I should've been able to figure that out. I was lucky to be in it. The experience of working with him and the friendship it created is one of the most valuable I've had in film. He was a lovely gentleman (that sadly outmoded word) and a total professional. There aren't many like him."
The Wreck of the Mary Deare was well received by most critics when it was released, although it didn't fare well at the box office. Several critics praised the opening sequence, during which Heston's character boards the ship in a torrential rainstorm. Heston described the shooting of this difficult sequence in his diary: "All my practice rope-climbing in the Paramount gym didn't mean a damn thing when I had to do the shot today, climbing from the deck of the tug in the big tank at MGM, up to the deck of the Mary Deare. What with the wind, spray, wet rope, and the rolling ship, it was a hell of a lot different from the gym. I popped a ligament or something on the first take and barely made it the last ten feet up and over the rail."
When director Michael Anderson asked Heston for another take on the rope, the actor moaned that that would be his one and only attempt. Nurses immediately applied heat to his injured shoulder, and he was able to work again before the day was finished. But viewers could argue that Heston's commitment was well worth it; the scene is all the more exciting because you can clearly see that it's Heston climbing the rope during the "storm," and it immediately kicks the movie into high gear.
Even with all that, Heston was right - the star of The Wreck of the Mary Deare is Gary Cooper. Heston admired Cooper enough to write glowingly about him in yet another of his books, In the Arena: "There's a great deal to be said about Coop. For one thing, he was a far better actor than he was given credit for, with a deft comic touch, and an understated impact in serious roles. Within his range (defined in part by his size and formidable presence) he was a riveting actor." He goes on to lionize Cooper, as did much of the movie-going public, stating, "If this wasn't what the American man was, it was what he was supposed to be."
Producer: Julian Blaustein
Director: Michael Anderson
Screenplay: Eric Ambler (based on the novel by Hammond Innes)
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editing: Eda Warren
Music: George Duning
Art Design: Hans Peters, Paul Groesse
Set Design: Henry Grace, Hugh Hunt
Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie, Lee LeBlanc Makeup: William Tuttle
Cast: Gary Cooper (Gideon Patch), Charlton Heston (John Sands), Michael Redgrave (Mr. Nyland), Emlyn Williams (Sir Wilfrid Falcett), Cecil Parker (The Chairman), Alexander Knox (Petrie), Virginia McKenna (Janet Taggart), Richard Harris (Higgins), Ben Wright (Mike Duncan), Peter Illing (Gunderson), Terence de Marney (Frank).
C-105m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara