By Eleanor Ringel Cater
With apologies to Spike Lee (and the city of New Orleans), there’s Trouble in Water all over the movies recently. “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks, is based on the true story of an encounter between an American cargo ship and some Somali pirates.
Next week, “All is Lost,” possibly the best thing I’ve seen this year — certainly the most rigorous — opens at select theaters. Robert Redford stars in this one-man show about a man adrift in the Indian Ocean after his yacht hits a submerged cargo ship (not the same one Hanks pilots, in case you were wondering).
Gee, two movies with cargo ships opening in the same month. What are the odds?
Disasters at sea — natural or unnatural — have long been fodder for films. We all know about “Titanic” (there’ve been several versions beside the James Cameron behemoth, the best being “A Night to Remember” from 1958).
I still think of “The Poseidon Adventure” every time I see Shelly Winters near water. George Clooney, who usually survives his pictures, didn’t make it through “The Perfect Storm.” And there are always mutinous crews, hence several versions of the unfortunate encounter between Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian.
I’d like to recommend a few see-worthy movies you may not have heard about.
“Deep Water” is an enthralling — and ultimately chilling —documentary about a middle-aged man and the sea. In 1968, an Englishman named Donald Crowhurst set out to win a race concocted by the London Sunday Times. The challenge: to become the first man to sail around the world non-stop. Sort of like Charles Lindbergh, but wetter. Now, Crowhurst was no Ted Turner; he was a shopkeeper, a Sunday sailor at best, who thought he had a foolproof plan by which he could win the race and the much-needed prize money. You could say he was a dreamer, but as the record shows (newsreels, interviews, even his own self-filmed monologues aboard his boat) he was a dreamer clearly out of his depth. You see all too clearly how deep water can quickly turn into, well, deep doo-doo.
Don’t confuse “Deep Water” with “Open Water” which is an altogether different kettle of fish. This docudrama still gives me nightmares. If “Jaws” made you nervous about getting in the ocean, “Open Water” will seal the deal. The movie is a docudrama because no one really knows what happened to a yuppie couple who went on a scuba diving excursion one day while vacationing and disappeared. It’s the sort of fun-in-the-sun thing hundreds — maybe thousands — of people do when they’re somewhere near seashells. Accidentally left behind when their boat heads home (a faulty head count is the proffered reason), the pair tries everything they can. But as night approaches and the sea around them grows more unsettled, things look less and less hopeful. Be aware: “Open Water” cost about 15 cents to make, but somehow, the shoestring budget only adds to the movie’s appeal. Odd, isn’t it, how a film without a single special effect can be more shiver-inducing than most bloated Hollywood disaster flicks.
You may actually have heard of “Dead Calm,” if only because this Aussie thriller was made before its star, Nicole Kidman, shipped off to Hollywood, Tom Cruise and beyond. She and Sam Neill (he had “Jurassic Park” and “Merlin” in his future) play a traumatized couple on a recuperative sea cruise. Enter Billy Zane as a panicked pretty boy who climbs aboard their yacht, claiming to be the sole survivor of a boat whose crew has perished. Is he a modern-day Ancient Mariner or a sea-going Charles Manson? Neill decides to check it out, leaving his unstable wife alone with a total stranger in the middle of the ocean. Granted, the plot, um, doesn’t hold water. But it’s fascinating to see Kidman and Neill at an early moment in their careers. And as we’ve learned from “Deep/Open Water,” stranger things have happened at sea.
Finally, I’ve alluded to the “Mutiny on the Bounty” movies — one in 1935 with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, the other in 1962 with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard. But a less-well-known version of that ill-fated voyage to Tahiti may be my favorite.
“The Bounty,” starring Anthony Hopkins as the Captain and Mel Gibson as the lead mutineer, was released, in 1984, before either was an international star. And, if you look over Gibson’s shoulder at the sea-hardened crew, you may see Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis. The movie retains the storm-tossed seas and topless Tahitian maidens from its predecessors. But what makes it stand out is the literate script by Robert Bolt (“Doctor Zhivago,” “A Man for All Seasons”) that turns both Bligh and his mutinous first officer into reasonable men. The real drama takes place later, at Bligh’s trial. Neither brilliant nor breathtaking, “The Bounty” is nonetheless a sturdy vessel that sails through troubled waters with masterful majesty.
And if nothing else, you can always go back to “Jaws.” Bruce the Shark may be creaky, but he’s still creepy as hell.