You are a Hollywood producer/director. You have avoided studio filming, and only shot on location for the past 15 years. You want to make a disaster movie about a sinking ship. What do you do? I suppose the only thing you can do is put your unit on a ship and… sink it.
Well, not exactly. One of the myths about this film is that Andrew L. Stone hired an old liner from the breakers and sank her as the cameras turned. In fact, the ship was partially sunk by pumping water into her forward compartments and using a bit of basic camera trickery in the form of masking shots to make it look as if she was going down. The ship in question was the Ile de France, once one of the most glamorous liners on the Atlantic. She was on her way for scrapping in Osaka and the French Line (and the French public) were horrified that this symbol of French chic and culture (she had beautiful Art Deco interior design) was to be violated by a film crew.
And she was violated, not just partially sunk but some of her public rooms were dynamited and one of her funnels cut in half and hauled over to crash onto the bridge. To avoid a long legal battle Stone had to repaint the ship in new colours, and erase any trace of the name Ile de France (she was SS Claridon for the film). Every future scrapping contract for the French Line specifically stated the ship would only be scrapped and not used for any other purpose.
Stone’s philosophy of film-making, he said, was to “get ‘em in trouble in the first reel, and keep ‘em in trouble to the end.” And there was plenty of trouble, a ship long past her service life, a nervy captain, a wife trapped under wreckage as the water rises, and a frantic effort to save her.
The first shot of the movie is a note reading “Fire in the engine room”, so we are in peril from the start as Captain Robert Adams (George Sanders) coolly excuses himself to his lunch guests and makes his calm, professional way from the dining room, pausing to chat to some passengers. The credits sequence plays over shots of him making his way through the ship as the crew fight the fire, no time wasted here. The fire is extinguished, but what if serious damage has been caused? The captain orders an inspection, but is anxious to avoid panic – he has a promotion in his sights and everything depends on how he handles the emergency.
Cliff (Robert Stack) and Laurie Henderson (Dorothy Malone), and their daughter Jill, are sailing to Tokyo where Cliff has a new job. They are happily married, but maybe things are getting a little stale, Cliff hasn’t told Laurie he loves her in a long time. The captain passes by and says they will find Tokyo a big change from Sacramento(!), his social skills working smoothly.
Danger still lurks, however, as the safety valve on one of the ship’s boilers has been fused shut by the fire and steam pressure is building. Eventually, she blows, ripping a huge hole through the decks, bursting the hull to let in sea water, and trapping Mrs Henderson under a steel plate.
Now the drama really starts as Cliff desperately tries to save wife and daughter virtually unaided, the captain crumbles under the strain of having to show a real capacity for leadership, the crew tries to shore up a vital bulkhead, the water rises, and Mrs H. contemplates suicide. All in 91 minutes, this is nail-biting stuff.
If you enjoy the stock characters and outlandish situations of the disaster genre, The Last Voyage is definitely for you. Filming on board a ship does make for a very realistic atmosphere, and was genuinely dangerous. One scene takes place in the flooding dining room and Robert Stack was badly injured trying to close one of the portholes.
The best performance in the film is undoubtedly George Sanders’ captain. He has what would now be called ‘soft skills’ (he can charm the passengers) but lacks the mettle to tackle a dangerous situation. His mind slowly cracks under the strain until he can no longer give an order. His shortcomings are cruelly exposed by Edmond O'Brien’s Engineer Walsh who has a healthy disrespect for ‘social’ captains after his father died on the Titanic. (Yet he still chose a career at sea, maybe it’s a family tradition.)
Stack and Malone work well together (it was their third film pairing) and have good chemistry, you do feel they care about each other. Their daughter, Jill, is played by Tammy Marihugh. While it’s easy to be derisive about child actors, Ms Marihugh is plucky and effective in the role, and doesn’t outstay her welcome, being thrown overboard – literally – and leaving the grown-ups to carry on with the real story. (Into a lifeboat, I should add.)
An interesting feature of the film is the relationship between Cliff Henderson and the Hank Lawson character played by black actor Woody Strode. Given that the Civil Rights movement was still more-or-less in its infancy, it’s quite a first to see a black and a white man working closely together as equals. Lawson is in no way subservient to Henderson, he isn't just following the white man’s orders, and they achieve a common goal. Lawson does, in fact, suffer a mildly racist attack when he is prevented from putting Jill Henderson into a lifeboat by a passenger who doesn’t like to see a little white girl with a big black man. At the film’s end Cliff personally helps Lawson aboard a lifeboat in gratitude for his courage and help.
The film is only let down in the very last seconds as the Claridon finally sinks. The scenes of Stack, Malone (she escapes, would you believe), Strode and O’Brien jumping overboard were shot off Santa Monica (there were too many poisonous jellyfish in the Japan Sea) and the set wobbles quite a bit. The final shot of a swirling patch of water squanders the sense of spectacle that has built up from watching a real ship.
Stone's next project was 'Ring of Fire' set in the Oregon pine forests. Fortunately he didn't torch half the state to make it.
Curious film in that all the disaster movie clichés were being quickly formed in works like this, which should make it much of a muchness when the genre behemoths of the seventies got all the attention, yet watching an actual liner getting scuppered makes for fascinating viewing, even allowing for a little Hollywood trickery.