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Friday, November 9, 2007

For Those in Peril on the Sea (originally published 7/00)

One of the first things you learn in a Literature 101 class is that there are three basic types of conflicts that constitute story material: man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus himself. In the man versus nature category, there can be few conflicts more deeply affecting than placing a protagonist in conflict with the fury of the sea. In part, this is because we carry deep in our cells the knowledge that oceans are the cradle of our existence, the place from which our ancestral line originated. At the same time, we recognize that the ocean is an irresistible force, capable of unimaginable destruction when aroused. Any conflict between man and sea is, therefore, an utterly one-sided fight in which human survival ultimately depends on divine mercy. The sea, godlike in its ability both to bestow and to take life, either allows you to live or it doesn't.

The rich literary tradition of seagoing stories that has grown out of our natural awe of the ocean has, of course, been the source of a great many movies through the years. Most recently, "The Perfect Storm" has tapped into this tradition by adapting Sebastian Junger's novel chronicling some of the events of the "Great Halloween Nor'easter," a rare confluence of weather systems that wreaked havoc in late October of 1991. For a sampling of earlier films pitting fragile humanity against the pitiless might of the ocean, look for these titles on home video.

"San Demetrio, London" (1943). Like "The Perfect Storm," this tale of seagoing adversity is based on factual material. Produced by England's legendary Ealing Studio, it tells the story of the crew of the San Demetrio, a British oil tanker. When the ship comes under attack by Axis U-boats, the crew abandons ship. Later, however, they discover that the ship, although crippled, has not sunk. Deciding that their chances are better on board the ship than in their liferafts, the crew reboards the ship and attempts to navigate it back to home port, despite its impaired condition and the continued threat of enemy attack.

"Lifeboat" (1944). Another wartime thriller about survival against long odds on the high seas was this characteristically taut piece of work from suspense master Alfred Hitchcock. The story concerns a group of people who have survived the sinking of their ship by piling into a lifeboat. The castaways represent a wide cross section of society, from an industrial tycoon to a ship's steward. Unfortunately, none of these survivors is really capable of navigating the lifeboat to safe harbor. Then, they pick up another survivor: the captain of the U-boat that sank their ship. It seems that his submarine was also destroyed in the confrontation. Here at last is an able-bodied seaman with the experience and knowledge to pilot the lifeboat. But can he be trusted?

"The Old Man and the Sea" (1958). It isn't always necessary for the sea to whip up a huge storm to destroy a person. Nowhere is this point more vividly made than in Ernest Hemingway's classic allegory about an old Cuban fisherman who has been down on his luck. Having drifted out farther than he should have, the old man wins the battle - a titanic struggle to land an impossibly big marlin - but loses the war, as sharks, drawn by the blood, inexorably pick apart his prize, which is tied to the side of the boat because it is too big to pull on board. Spencer Tracy gives a virtuoso performance in the lead role.

"The Poseidon Adventure" (1972). Producer Irwin Allen kicked off the Seventies cycle of disaster movies with this seagoing disaster tale. The "Poseidon" is a luxury ocean liner that is capsized during a New Year's Eve celebration by a tidal wave. The handful of passengers who survive the initial impact of the wall of water must then struggle to stay alive in an upside-down, rapidly flooding vessel that has become a floating deathtrap.

Among films of more recent vintage, you might also want to see director Ridley Scott's "White Squall" (1996), which includes a hair-raising maritime storm sequence. And then, of course, there's "Titanic" (1997). But, unless you've been at sea yourself for the last three years, you hardly need me to draw your attention to that one.

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