Could you decide who lives and dies, if your choice was to save some of the people or make sure they all parish?
Tyrone Power has the unenviable responsibly when his luxury passenger ship hits a mine and quickly sinks. The ships goes down as fast that lifeboats are not deployed. The dying captain places Power, the executive officer, Alec Holmes, in charge of an overcrowded longboat.
Out of 27 survivors, only 15 remain on board when they are rescued. Holmes must ration food and water, shoot several in self defense, and decide who will be placed in the water to die.
Hardly an uplifting film, yet it is like a fatal building fire, you cannot look away. Holmes evolves from a compassionate officer of service, to a hardened and cold arbiter of life and death.
This film is different from Hitchcock’s Lifeboat where there is an external enemy, a rescued Nazi submarine captain who wants to kill or cause these other survivors to be captured. Here, Holmes is the enemy, who must reason, threaten and ultimately kill to preserve order.
I’ve never been a Tyrone Power fan, he’s overrated in my book. The one film I felt he was very good was Witness For the Prosecution, a film that did not require him to do the heavy lifting. He was good, just not great.
In Abandon Ship!, Power’s transition from helpful to ruthless is gradual, but you see the path he is on, and there is no turning back. As his passengers die, you see the light go out behind his eyes. His colleague, Kelly, the ship’s chief engineer is fatally injured in the sinking. He know he’s dying and challenges Holmes to do the right thing, save some or watch them all die. As he is dying, Kelly jumps overboard and is lost to the depths. At first, Holmes is horrified by what he feels is treating death so casually, but that begins to change.
As the days go by, the injured are dying, a slow and painful death. The boat is overcrowded and the extra folks are in the water hanging onto the boat. As a storm approaches, Holmes knows that he needs only the strong and healthy who can row. He has no intention of saving only women and children – he needs those capable of working.
Holmes is constantly mocked by one of the female passengers, she refers to him as “brave captain,” which irritates him. She is not intimidated by him and is among the first to bail water and row, even better than some of the men.
Things get very tense aboard the boat as Holmes is challenged and he must shoot those who defy him. He commands that the older, weaker and injured are pitched overboard. These folks are cultured and educated, as he needs only the agile and strong. A nuclear physicist, a playwright and an opera singer are all sacrificed. Most of those he is saving resent him. He needs the revolver to keep them away.
It is believed that the radio operator was able to dispatch an SOS and get a confirmation from area ships. Later it is reviled that no message was sent. Holmes unleashes his anger on the radio operator, who it is assumed panicked and failed to do his job. The radio man states that the radio equipment was destroyed in the blast from the mine before any distress messages could be sent. Suddenly, the remaining hope evaporates.
Stories like this are morality tales, an agonizing journey through a no-win situation. You kill to save, play God with lives, and while you may do what is logical, you lose part of your soul.
In a fight with a passenger, Holmes is wounded by a knife. As his condition deteriorates, he turns over command of the boat to a junior officer, and jumps overboard. He has made no exceptions including himself. Several passengers retrieve him to the boat, and soon after, a passenger liner spots them and pulls along side. All but two of the passengers have turned on him, indicating they only obeyed at gunpoint. The message is clear, you will be held accountable for your crimes, despite saving us.
The Abandon Ship! was released in 1957, a year before Power died from a heart attack at age 44. The film was written and directed by Richard Sale, who based the film on his own original story, which was loosely adapted from the real-life tragedy of the William Brown sinking in 1841.