Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In his book American Film, Andrew Sarris ribbed Andrew L. Stone for the kind publicity generated for his films. Both ads and quotes stressed that real airplanes were crashed and real ships sunk, as if Stone's only skill with actors was to find new 'realistic' ways to put them in jeopardy. If Stone made On The Beach, Sarris quipped, there might not be any people left alive to see it.
Ten years later critics and the public would fall over themselves to praise the supposed virtues of Irwin Allen's blockbuster disaster films The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, two of the most bloated and maladroit thrillers ever made. Andrew L. Stone started directing in the silent era; his name is on the remarkable all-black musical Stormy Weather. In the middle 1950s he and his wife Virginia had a run of producing success with extortion plots and bombs aboard passenger planes. His Julie placed a frantic Doris Day on a pilotless airliner, becoming one of the key inspirations for the later spoof Airplane!
The Last Voyage is perhaps Virginia and Andrew's best picture, an impressively tense tale of an ocean disaster that for plain realism betters all of the various versions of the Titanic story. The flacks claimed that the show was filmed on a real sinking ship, an illusion sold by clever effects and tight editing.
The Henderson family Cliff, Laurie and little Jill (Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone and Tammy Marihugh) are on the aged luxury liner Claridon, enjoying an ocean cruise that will soon turn into a nightmare. When trouble develops in the engine room, Captain Robert Adams (George Sanders) stays cool while his worried engineers (Edmond O'Brien and Jack Kruschen) try to solve the problem of a stuck valve on the ship's main boiler. When it exlodes a chimney-like hole is blasted straight up through the ship, killing several passengers outright. The blast goes right through the Henderson's cabin, marooning the panicked Jill over a steaming pit and trapping Laurie under a piece of twisted iron. In the panic, Cliff can't get any attention for his wife, as the crew is trying to rescue sailors trapped below before bulkheads give out and the ship goes down. The only dedicated aid Cliff finds is sailor Hank Lawson (Woody Strode), who cannot locate the necessary torch needed to cut Laurie free. As the water rises, Captain Adams starts to break down: He's also concerned that this disaster will result in his losing an appointment as commodore of the fleet.
Art-oriented film critics tended to ignore Andrew L. Stone's movies, probably because they were simple exercises in basic suspense without pretentions to importance. And it's true that some of his earlier suspense efforts (The Night Holds Terror) adhere doggedly to a jeopardy storyline and short-change the characters. In Julie we simply watch Doris Day forced into ever-more dire situations while people around her are murdered. When a suspense story becomes too mechanical, dramatic interest tends to fade.
Stone's The Decks Ran Red used some real ships for excellent production value, an experience that must have led to the idea of filming a story about a sinking ocean liner on the real thing. The Ile de France was scheduled to be cut up for scrap, and the husband & wife Stone team realized that it was a made-to-order floating movie set. Most of the movie was shot in the ship just off the coast of Japan, with cameraman Hal Mohr improvsing lighting in ballrooms, corridors and the enormous engine spaces.
Stone's tight screenplay sticks to the facts. The titles are barely over when the explosion occurs and from then on the movie becomes a suspense machine. Dorothy Malone's Laurie is pinned in the wreckage of her cabin, creating immediate tension; even though we know that she'll probably be rescued in the nick of time, it's impossible not to identify with the situation. The suffering Malone displays a gutsy, heroic attitude -- who wouldn't panic in similar circumstances? Robert Stack falls into his stalwart hero mode but with more sensitivity than usual. Only the daughter is a pain in the neck, a curly-haired redhead with an annoying voice and manner. She's also completely believable, but when Stack is risking his life to save her, we feel a nagging question ... Why?
When the ship founders at least 50 immediate concerns reach the Captain, and Stone's screenplay shovels on plenty of rather obvious expository dialogue. Our desire for information is such that we welcome most of it, although the story shows a disturbing level of discord and unprofessional behavior among the officers. The First Officer second-guesses the Captain's orders and both he and Third Officer Osborne (George Furness ) 1 continually harp at his basic decisions, long before it is established that Captain Adams is making consistently bad calls. The realism of the location clearly adds to the conviction of the players, as Edmond O'Brien's shouting rages only momentarily verge on excess. Jack Kruschen (the doctor in The Apartment) doesn't get a chance to develop his role; the last we see of him, he's hammering away at a stuck valve atop the ship's boiler.
The Last Voyage is a great picture for Woody Strode. His caring sailor takes responsibility for the Henderson's problem when nobody else will, and he almost single-handedly solves the toughest problems. In the confusion of the sinking we're in need of somebody to be effectual, with the result that Strode comes off as a laudable old-fashioned good guy separate from racial concerns. Even Henderson's hearty final line, "This is one guy I'm gonna help aboard personally!" seems appropriate, even though Cliff Henderson never thinks to call Strode's character by name.
The physical production is extremely impressive. Chances are that the Henderson's cabin was built in a larger room on the boat, just so there would be space for the camera. No movie set could communicate the difficulty in hauling an acetylene tank out of the engine compartment and through the wrecked hallways. Some good effects men selectively flooded (and drained) specific spaces for filming. A fake engine-room wall must have been constructed for the awesome shot where a torrent of water rips down a bulkhead, cascading onto fleeing stokers.
Other clever devices are used to simulate the sinking as perceived inside the ship. We're told that a fireboat's hoses were trained on portholes to portray parts of the boat dipping under the water level. In some scenes we can see that rooms and corridors have been lined with black vinyl to create 'puddles' in areas of the ship actually high above the waterline. Although the ship's bow was lowered by flooding for some shots, subsequent views of the tilted ship are accomplished through mattes: The waterline often appears as a fuzzy area.
The last moments on board are what made viewers certain that they'd seen an amazing 'documentary' shot of the cast struggling on the deck of the sinking ship. A large tilting set was constructed on a Japanese pier to represent one of the Claridon's upper decks. As the far end of the set dips further down, water rushes up at our fleeing stars. The effect is terrific, even though a close examination of the shot reveals the seams in the illusion. The upper cabin walls flex with the rushing water, proving they are made of wood and not steel. And (especially on un-matted TV prints) the same walls end abruptly, with 'no more ship' up above. I'm also told that sharp eyes can pick out a safety frogman clinging to the set during the held-take scene.
It's all over in ninety minutes, as efficient a thriller as there ever was. The Last Voyage may not be art, but it's certainly an exciting suspense adventure. 2
Warners' budget-priced DVD of The Last Voyage looks good in an enhanced transfer properly matted to focus the action on the screen. The big money shots (the bursting bulkhead, a collapsing smokestack) seem impressive again. Particularly good is the film's use of sound recorded on location. The echoey ambience in the ship's hollow spaces adds another level of realism to the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Voyage rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 21, 2006
1. The Last Voyage may have been produced out of Tokyo, which could account for its abbreviated credit block. George Furness was a Tokyo legal advisor to Toho Studios who around this time appeared in bit parts in several of their Science Fiction movies, such as The Mysterians. Furness also provides the film's excellent narration.
2. I saw it new at the age of eight in a packed audience, and remember the applause when it was over. It's been a TV favorite ever since.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson