Abandon Ship! is a peculiar British disaster film featuring a crazed performance by Tyrone Power and excellent ensemble acting by a crowd of fine actors, none of whom I recognized. Made in 1957, the film is very much an artifact of its era -- the miasma of nuclear annihilation hovers over the movie and it has a distinctly post-apocalyptic tenor: one of the castaways in the film is a nuclear scientist. Ultimately, the film is too grim to be entertaining and the moral problems that it poses are unpleasantly insoluble. Richard Sales a pulp fiction writer, hack scenarist, and sometimes director is at the helm of this off film.
The film's relentlessly dire tone is established in the opening five minutes. An unexploded mine is bobbing in the waves. There is a huge explosion and we hear a prolonged chorus of screaming. The narrator then tells us that luxury cruise liner has hit an unexploded mine in the south Atlantic and that the vessel has sunk in seven minutes carrying off over a thousand souls. We see flotsam in the water and a man swimming. This is Tyrone Power who plays the acting captain of the small group of castaways who survive the blast. Power's character clambers onto a floating raft on which there are a four or five bedraggled and, possibly, wounded survivors. He talks to them -- some of them are obsessed with finding missing loved ones. He is hailed from small life-boat about a hundred yards away and swims to it. (We never learn what happens to the disheveled survivors on the raft -- a harbinger for what will follow.) The life boat is full of people to the point that it is half-submerged. A dozen or so survivors are clinging to its sides. The boat is ridiculously over-laden -- designed for 9 survivors, there are 37 people crowded into the vessel and clinging to it. Several of the survivors are badly wounded -- the luxury liner's actual captain is dying, apparently eviscerated by the explosion. Before he perishes, a suicide in the ocean, the mangled captain tells Power's character that he will need to lighten the load on the lifeboat by casting off, at least, 12 of the survivors. From this point on, the film becomes unbearably black: the tone of the picture can be gauged by the fact that, at one point, a dog swims up to the lifeboat and is loaded onto the already vastly overloaded vessel. "Why are you letting the dog on board?" someone asks incredulously. "Because we can eat the dog," Powers says. The film is 97 minutes long and relentlessly cruel. Dying people with festering wounds are thrown into the sea. Sharks attack. The survivors begin to fight among themselves. A man is killed by being shot in the belly with a flare -- we see his body sinking in the sea with the flare in his guts still burning underwater. A storm is approaching and the Captain begins to force people from the boat -- in the end, he jettisons about a dozen based upon his assessment of their ability to survive the rigors of what will undoubtedly be a nightmarish sea journey to the coast of Africa 1500 miles away. The nuclear scientist, an opera singer, several injured women, are all tossed into the sea, draped in life preservers and left behind on the limitless expanse of waters. A famous playwright is cast away and his dog leaps into the water to drown with him. A tremendous storm strikes the little vessel but somehow, it survives the gale. The people remaining on the life-boat praise the captain for having taken action to save their lives. A cynical debutante in a ballroom gown flirts with Powers always addressing him as "brave captain" and she states the film's Darwinian moral -- only the fittest will survive and the "brave captain" has had the courage to recognize this. A big vessel approaches and rescues the castaways. Before they are rescued, the people in the lifeboat engage in recriminations with the captain and say that they were forced to expel the others from the little skiff -- "we were only following orders", they say. Except for his loyal girlfriend, a nurse, all the others on board blame him for slaughtering the castaways who were thrown overboard. As he climbs onto the rescue vessel, a voice-over tells us that this is a true story and that the captain was later tried for murder and, indeed, convicted. A title invites the audience to debate whether he was "Guilty or Innocent?"
The film resembles Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) in many respects, except that Hitchcock's movie is funny, gallant, and well-scripted. (John Steinbeck was involved in writing the source material for the movie.) Lifeboat is also not convincing pictorially -- the actors are obviously huddling on a lifeboat that is mechanically jiggled in front of rear-projected sea. As is often the case with Hitchcock, this is not a detriment -- the poor quality rear-projection seems almost like a Brechtian distancing effect and it keeps the horror of the situation at bay. There's no such respite in Abandon Ship! -- the little boat seems to be lost in an immense and very real ocean; the characters are convincingly wet, cold, and wounded. I didn't detect a single scene that felt like it was staged in a studio. But this renders the enterprise so dank and morbid that the film is almost impossible to watch.