The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Last Voyage

I don't like ships. I don't like boats. I'm not a big fan of big, wide-open water so yeah....the ocean, bigger lakes, they freak me out. Yeah, psychiatric session instead of a movie review! I digress though as an introduction only. Movies about ships sinking creep me out in a big way. I saw Titanic in theaters twice, but yowza, that scared me. How about an earlier, far less known film about a ship sinking? Enter 1960's The Last Voyage.

The S.S. Claridon is making its way across the Pacific Ocean, sailing from California to Japan. An ocean liner that's been sailing for 38 years, the Claridon is well past its prime and long overdue for a major overhaul. Its captain, Robert Adams (George Sanders), is aware of all of this but isn't concerned when a fire breaks out below deck. His crew is able to stop the fire, but it is only the start, a problem born from a faulty boiler....a boiler that explodes soon after. The crew desperately tries to stop the fire as water flows into a breach in the hull. Can the aging Claridon be saved or is it a doomed ship destined to sink? Among the passengers is the Henderson family, husband Cliff (Robert Stack) trying to save his wife, Laurie (Dorothy Malone), who is pinned under an immense piece of metal wreckage in their berth. Time is slipping away at an alarming rate, the water levels rising ever quicker.

I've seen bits and pieces of this 1960 disaster flick several times, but it was only on my last viewing where I was able to watch the entire film. From director and screenplay writer Andrew L. Stone, 'Voyage' is an excellent early example of a disaster film, a genre that would rise to new heights in the late 1960s, especially in the 1970s. It has a lot of touches that would become all too familiar in the coming years, but none of it feels overdone...thankfully. This is a well-told, well-acted and well-executed disaster film that focuses on a desperate fight for survival, an aging ship groaning as it sinks. The only question becomes how quick will it sink? I liked that 'Voyage' is content to just be an exciting, sometimes uncomfortable story. The 1970s disaster flicks were big, bigger and biggest, one topping the other with a ridiculous premise and an all-star cast. This flick, just a really good movie.

So what makes it that good, that enjoyable? Well, I liked Titanic a lot for all its excesses and spectacle, but at 220 minutes, it is a lllllong movie. That is not a concern here, 'Voyage' clocking in at just 91 minutes. There's no wasted time, no fluff here. As viewers, we're thrust into the fire on Claridon as the credits roll. We don't see how it started, who anyone is, just that there's a fire on-board and it needs to be dealt with NOW. The same for once the boiler goes. This is the situation. Let's deal with it. Even when we meet the characters -- Capt. Adams, the Hendersons, the crew -- they are as we meet them. We get a brief explanation of why the Hendersons are on-board the Claridon, but that's all. This is a movie in the moment about a ship sinking where backstories and motivations and who these people's all extra and unnecessary. A survival disaster movie at its most simple and straightforward.

Who will live? Who will die?!? The true star power isn't there, but we get a handful or so of familiar faces. The Hendersons are more interesting once the ship gets into trouble, Stack, Malone and their daughter, Jill (Tammy Marihugh), the picture of the American family up until that point, all lovey-dovey. But a ship sinking? Let the drama begin! Sanders gets to be the stubborn ship captain, trying to bring the ship into port without any loss of life, in the process putting his passengers, his crew and his ship in danger. I thought the best parts go to Woody Strode and Edmond O'Brien though, Strode as Hank Lawson, a crewman, and O'Brien as Walsh, the second engineer, both men trying to save the ship while the passengers scramble to safety. It was a hell of a year for Strode who turned in scene-stealing memorable parts here, in Spartacus and Sergeant Rutledge. He's an imposing physical presence here, shirtless with a bandana around his neck, sprinting around the ship to help Stack's Cliff. O'Brien too stands out from the sinking ship chaos, balancing saving his crew with those passengers in danger. Also look for Jack Kruschen as the chief engineer.

There's nothing too fancy here from acting to story to effects. 'Voyage' was filmed in very 1960s stylish sets, sets that add a nice throwback feel to the film now as we watch it 50-plus years later. Titanic obviously set the bar ridiculously high, but what's accomplished here without any computer-generated effects is impressive in itself. Stone and his crew used the famous French liner, the SS Ile de France, for the actual scenes showing the water washing over the fast-sinking Claridon, giving a nice sense of what the hellish experience would certainly be like. All of the sinking scenes feel real, that lack of CGI effects actually aiding the cause. None of it feels forced, and it is interesting throughout. An easy movie to recommend, especially for all you diehard Titanic fans out there.

The Last Voyage (1960): ***/****

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