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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Sea Stories on Film

Here's a list of my favorite movies about the sea, with a brief description and review, in no particular order:

Titanic. This is Cameron's version and no doubt one with a sophomoric, fictionalized inner story about Jack and Rose and unrequited love. Ugh! Nevertheless, Cameron's attention to detail combined with his knowledge of the sea provide superb visuals and a realistic account of the physical aspects of the actual disaster. Very dramatic but also manipulative emotionally.

A Night to Remember. Can't leave this one out if we're mentioning the one above. A faithful retelling of the tragedy as originally described by eyewitness and written accounts. Based on the book of the same name by Walter Lord and including the dramatic stories of real passengers. Not a tear jerker in the modern sense but a movie that leaves an indelible mark on the brain.

The Abyss. Cameron cut his sea teeth on this one. A sci-fi underwater flick with great character interactions, a decent love story, and fantastic underwater scenes. Worth watching, except for the very end, where Cameron presumably ran out of money and had no choice but to feed Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio one of the dumbest lines ever recorded. Still, a great popcorn flick with lots of exciting scenes.

Perfect Storm. Wolfgang Peterson's movie version of Sebastion Junger's book of the sinking of the Andrea gale, a swordfish longliner out of Gloucester, MA. Movie depicts some real personalities (as we see in the bar scenes) and has a few decent scenes but is over the top in both action and it's speculative reasoning as to the exact cause of the tragedy. (More on this at a later date.) Not so much Peterson's failt as it was Junger's, who overdramatized his book and gave us way too many of his unqualified opinions.

Das Boot. Can't leave out Peterson's terrific U-Boat movie.

Moby Dick. The Gregory Peck version. Nuff said

Master and Commander. Underrated. With Russell Crowe. Opening scene is worth the price of admission.

The Caine Mutiny. Humphrey Bogart leads a great cast in this dramatic and telling tale of disloyalty, dishonor and failed leadership on the high seas. None better.

Mutiny on the Bounty. Two version worth seeing, the original with Laughton and the remake with Mel Gibson.

The Wackiest Ship in the Army. All right. Not the greatest movie ever, but if you're a fan of sea stories, you have to watch it. Jack Lemmon finally gets command of a ship, but it's a rotten old schooner. His mission: To spy on the Japanese in the South Pacific. Not much plot but a great premise and lot's of good boating scenes.

Down Periscope. Kelsey Grammer plays Thomas Dodge, a modern Navy sub captain who gets his first command, a rusting diesel sub. Sound familiar? Instead of spying on the Japanese, Dodge must engage his own Navy in a war game that requires him and his crew to infiltrate a gauntlet of U.S. warships and blow up one of the mothballed derelicts at Norfolk. Low brow humor with more than a few laughs.

The Bedford Incident. Great cold war story with Richard Widmark in a cat and mouse game in the North Atlantic. Sidney Potier plays a liberal journalist-guest aboard ship. Bottom line: The most insignificant details can have most disastrous consequences.

Jaws. Almost deserves its own post. The movie that single handedly changed the film industry and also almost decimated a fishery.

Pirates of the Caribbean. Somebody knew a little about boats when they penned this Disney ride adaptation. They knew how to have fun, too, which is what most viewers will have when they sit down to watch it. Movie pays homage to pirate lore and other genre films that have come before it, including Polanski's Pirates, which is also worth a look. Check out Walter Matthau's performance as Captain Red. You'll be hooked, literally, in the first five minutes.

Mr. Roberts. What better movie of men aboard a Navy ship is there. Superb performances all around. One of the few films that succesfully blend laugh out loud humor and tragedy. Finale says it all. Perfection.
20000 Leagues Under the Sea. I wasn't going to include this at first but a friend reminded me of its Shakespearean qualities. Kirk Douglass plays it a little caricature-ish, as the yo-ho-ho-and-a-barrel-of-rum sailor, but James Mason is dark and foreboding as the idealistically sinister Nemo.

Crimson Tide. Insubordination and mutiny
(or is it?) aboard a U.S. nuclear attack sub in the vein of The Cain Mutiny. Very well executed and played by Denzle Washington, Gene Hackman and others.

The Cruel Sea. Film adaptation of Nicholas Monsaratt's excellent novel of war on the high seas. Novel came out in 1953 (year I was born) and is probably the best novelization of service in Her Majesty's Navy during World War II. Movie faithfully sticks to Monseratt's vision and includes superb performances by the all British cast.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Groundbreaking fantasy film with legendary special effects by master minaturist, Ray Harryhausen. Even cooler that it happens to be a sea adventure.

There are, of course, a great many more noteworthy movies with maritime or naval themes. I can think of several terrific war stories, including Sink the Bismark. Maybe later I'll add to the above list.


Poseidon: The Movie

Hollywood, and specifically Warner Bros., would really like to know why its remake of The Poseidon Adventure, renamed Poseidon, has failed to draw the crowds at the box office. If you ask me, although the movie is visually spectacular, it's a fairly unengaging adventure romp with what many critics agree is an uninspired script. Despite these qualities, or lack thereof, I think the poor showing has more to do with the fact the execs responsible for it misread their intended audience.

If we look back to the Great Depression, and the years during and immediately following World War II, we find a general audience more inclined to see movies about real events or movies with feel-good themes that make them forget, if only for two hours, the horror and pain of the world around them. This doesn't mean people want to avoid the full range of emotion, or want to ignore serious subjects (i.e. United 93), or don't want to learn about something new (March of the Penguins). What it means, I think, is they see certain catastrophic fictional stories as being too frivolous for the times.

Poseidon, the movie, exciting as it probably is, with huge sets and pyrotechnics and all manner of things blowing up left and right, should be doing better. It has a good cast, and it's helmed by an experienced director with two award winning sea stories under his belt -- Das Boot, and The Perfect Storm. But is it the wrong movie at the wrong time, especially going up against the real thing: United 93?

Mission Impossible III is doing well? The X-Men are kicking butt -- Biggest Memorial Day weekend opening ever! Why is Poseidon, excuse me for saying, sinking? Again, if you ask me, it's because MI3 and X-Men are pure fantasies about fictional characters overcoming obviously fictional situations with inhuman ability. Poseidon is, basically, a pseudo-fantasy, with fictional characters overcoming a semi-real situation by ordinary, and, in some cases, extraordinary means. Except . . . the situation is one that has never happened in real life, and yet the film makers need us to believe it can happen in order for us to suspend disbelief. In other words, the movie's a fake, but it's not fake enough.

In my opinion, at a time of war, unless it's a one-of-kind movie, i.e. really special, or based on a true story, people want to fantasize about having superior abilities so they can change what in real life can't be changed by ordinary means. I figure this is the reason because I'm a sea story nut and I have no interest in seeing Poseidon. You know, I get it, the ship turns over, and a bunch of passengers escape by climbing up (down) and out through the bow thruster opening. (In the original, they escape through one of the propellor shaft tunnels.)

Hopefully, this won't color Hollywood's future interest in setting great sea stories to film. Let's hope execs will look back at other great marine adventure movies and want to make more.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Another Photo of Carl's Yard Cat

Several people have pointed out that the height and color pattern of this cat, and the shape of its head, make it look like a Savannah or an African Serval. Perhaps it lost its tail to an alligator. Carl says this picture was taken three weeks ago. You may be able to get a closer look by clicking on it for the larger version.


Saturday, May 13, 2006

My Old Boat Mate Carl's New Cat

My old fishing buddy who moved to Florida sent me this photo under the header: "The Cat Living in the Backyard of our New House."

Carl came with me when I moved to Maine some twenty five years ago. He was the one who convinced me to leave a good paying job in the city to start a treasure hunting, salvage and sport diving business here on the coast. (Bastid) We dove many a wreck together. (He did most of the diving.) Suffered through storms, crazy friends, a few enemies, and way too many fast food meals. He served as my mate when I steamed my old lobster boat up from New York. We swam with humpback whales for the first time in Massachusetts Bay (I've done it a few times since), searched a dozen or more sunken derelicts, and tried to eke out a living harvesting urchins and sea scallops together -- nor shall we forget the countless trips to the free salad bar at Sizzlers.

Nice kitty, Carl.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

Interesting Boats: Maine's Fitzcarraldo

This is the Raw Faith, a back yard- built replica of an old sailing ship. As a professional mariner and a student of the sea, I would normally tell you what kind of ship this is. Unfortunately, in this case, any resemblance to an actual ship -- a vessel designed and constructed according to acceptable nautical methodology -- is in name only. It's supposed to be an English Race Galleon. In fact, it's an abomination and a danger to one and all.

The captain and owner of this vessel had a grand plan to create an ocean experience for people in wheelchairs. Unfortunately, this person had no experience in shipbuilding or seafaring. What he had was a zealous drive to combine a religious pilgrimage of the past with a non-profit enterprise to help people with disabilities.

It's an admirable and worthy thing to want to help people, but as the saying goes: Sometimes the best intentions. . . .

At what point do you tell someone to relinquish their dream? At what point do you interfere with American entrepreneurship? I would suggest, in this case, the tipping point has come, literally. Twice now the Raw Faith has tried to leave Maine waters. Twice it has failed in its mission, both times placing its crew and passengers, other mariners, and the crews of those vessels who came to its rescue, at extreme risk. Enough is enough. Dismasted, unable to make headway, taking on water, in uncomfortable but not severe conditions, make this venture a frivolous and hazardous affair of the heart.

Fitzcarraldo (Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald) also had a dream. His dream was to bring opera to the people of Iquito, Peru, 3000 miles up the Amazon River and 106 meters above sea level.

Perhaps some dreams are just to lofty. Or maybe the problem exists with the dreamers themselves.


Movie poster courtesy of Please see Copyright Notice for fair use statement.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Casualties and Complacency

There are many causes of accidents at sea. Although a few can be categorized as unavoidable (i.e. the result of acts of God: rogue waves, lightening), the vast majority are attributable to human error.

For example, the Ehime Maru, the Japanese training vessel struck and sunk by the Attack Sub USS Greenville, would have been spared had the officers onboard the sub followed Navy procedure for the particular maneuvers they were conducting.

Originally, media reports tried to make a big deal of the distraction caused by the distinguished visitors onboard the sub. But on a nuclear powered warship, where you have military crews trained in the business of war and various life and death ship related emergencies, where crews are suppose to be capable of dealing with the most intense potentialities known to man, how can a few passengers (16) lead to such a tragedy?

In fact, the NTSB did cite the crew for failing to 'manage' the guests. However, the bottom line was: The officers failed in their duty. They did not follow procedure or take proper precautions prior to their emergency surfacing maneuver. As a result, nine people aboard the Ishime Maru lost their lives.

Complacency is a dangerous thing, because any boat, ship, plane or piece of heavy machinery becomes a liability in the hands of a person who, through ignorance, fatigue, or overconfidence, has no sense of pending danger or feeling that something at any moment can go wrong.

On May 10, 2004, an Alaskan ferry called the LeConte went aground on Cozian Reef. The reason? The first mate made an impromptu course change in order to bring the vessel on a more picturesque route. While doing so, he failed to heed a daymark. Both captain and mate were fired after the incident, which caused over $3 million in damages. There were no serious injuries.

although the NTSB listed crew fatigue and watch standing issues as the major cause, the root of the problem was complacency.

In the first example, procedures were in place but not followed, and while the media and members of congress took the opportunity to weigh in on the distinguished visitors policy of the Navy and recommend an end to the policy, I am aware of no significant changes regarding US submarine operations as a result of the incident. The same cannot be said for the latter example.

As a result of the ferry accident -- and other such accidents where fatigue was listed as a contributing factor -- the USCG and NTSB are considering rule changes and additional certification requirements for watchstanders.

Look for amendments to STCW (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) regulations.