“I’ve never lost a ship and I’m not losing this one! I’ll bring her back afloat without the loss of another life. The Claridon is not going to sink!”
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Starring: Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, George Sanders, Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien, Tammy Marihugh, Jack Kruschen, Joel Marston, George Furness, Richard Norris, Robert Martin, Bill Wilson
Screenplay: Andrew L. Stone
Synopsis: The S.S. Claridon is on the open ocean, on a passage from San Francisco to Tokyo, when word reaches Captain Robert Adams (George Sanders) that a fire has broken out in the engine-room. In company with Third Officer Osborne (George Furness) and Second Mate Mace (Robert Martin), Adams goes below; he learns that the cause of the fire is a feed-line that broke, spraying burning oil around the boiler-room. As the crew battles the flames, Chief Engineer Pringle (Jack Kruschen) explains that although there is not much flammable material at the main point of the fire, there is a danger that the flames will be drawn up a flue: if there are any rusted areas in the flue, the fire will threaten the passenger decks. Word comes shortly afterwards that fire has broken out on C Deck, in the cabin-class dining-room. As crew-members rush fire-fighting equipment to the scene, Osborne asks the Captain if the passengers should be alerted; he is supported by Second Engineer Walsh, who foresees catastrophic consequences if the fire escalates. Adams, however, refuses to have the passengers alarmed, insisting that they be kept unaware of the situation as long as possible, and that there is no danger as long as the fire can be confined. With Pringle and Walsh overseeing the fire response, Adams and his senior officers mingle with the passengers, behaving as usual. Pringle and Walsh report that the dining-room fire is under control, but Pringle worries that a fire that hot might well have done serious damage somewhere else. In the main lounge, Cliff Henderson (Robert Stack), his wife, Laurie (Dorothy Malone), and their young daughter, Jill (Tammy Marihugh), play bingo; Jill is greatly excited when she wins the main prize of forty dollars. As they leave the lounge, Cliff and Laurie overhear two other passengers questioning an officer about smoke from a ventilator, and his reassuring answer to them. Adams, Pringle and Walsh debate the correct response to their situation: the older men recognise that stopping the ship for a proper overhaul will mean lost time and greatly increased costs to the company, which is already struggling to keep a ship of the Claridon’s age financially viable. Furthermore, if the incident should cause the Claridon to be dubbed a fire-trap and taken out of service, it would mean the loss of many crew jobs. Walsh in favour of stopping regardless, but is overruled by Adams and Pringle. Reluctantly, he passes on the order to check the remaining feed lines without shutting the steam off to his crew. One of his men notices that one of the pressure gauges on the boiler seems to be stuck. Crewman Hank Lawson (Woody Strode) hits it, causing the gauge to jump from 196 psi to 300 psi. The men can only hope that the gauge is faulty: the safety valves are supposed to blow at 230 psi. They try to reduce the heat feeding to the boiler in question, but the oil valves are frozen; one of the crew comments that this is where the feed line broke. To the urging of his men, Third Officer Cole (Richard Norris) can only reply that he cannot shut off the engine without orders; he sends for Pringle. Lawson comments grimly that if this boiler blows, it is likely to take the ones on either side of it along, too—as well as a chunk of the ship. When the men make one more effort to open the valve, it snaps off. Cole immediately orders the main fuel line shut off, even as one of the safety valves ruptures, pouring superheated steam into the room. Pringle and Walsh arrive and assess the situation: Pringle orders Walsh to get the crew out; he will use a hammer to try and open the valve on top of the boiler. Walsh argues with him but cannot dissuade him; Pringle finally gets Walsh to leave by ordering him to see to the bulkheads doors, which may be the ship’s only hope. The first bulkhead has barely been sealed when the boiler explodes, the force ripping upwards through the decks of the ship…
Comments: Disaster movies are – let’s bite the bullet here – formulaic beasts. The pleasure we derive from watching one, aside from the Schadenfreude associated with seeing the cast getting whacked in colourfully gruesome ways, may well stem less from any attempt at originality – change the formula too much and it will cease to be a disaster movie – than from an imaginative tweaking of the formula.
Often the greatest hurdle that a disaster movie has to overcome is the question of what to do with its second act. Screenwriters usually have no difficulty figuring out how to set up a disaster, or how to resolve it; the problem is what to do with the middle part of the story. Disaster movies that fail tend to fall at this hurdle, resorting to character scenes that in context are rarely other than padding, the film twiddling its thumbs while the clock runs down. And while pointless “character stuff” may be tolerable when we’re talking about what people like John Wayne, Clair Trevor, Dana Andrews, Glenn Ford, Burt Lancaster, Myrna Loy and James Stewart could do, by the time it’s being dished up by the likes of Avery Schreiber, Jimmie Walker and Charo, we’re dealing with something that could rightly be condemned as a crime against humanity.
Conversely, the better disaster movies – take the textbook examples of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno – often succeed because, by their very nature, they manage to keep their disaster rolling through the entire film and so avoid the dead patch in the middle. Yet even The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno do include character scenes at the beginning while setting up their disasters.
Which brings me to 1960’s The Last Voyage, a most remarkable disaster movie in that:
- its disaster occupies a higher proportion of its running-time than any other disaster movie I’ve ever seen;
- its character scenes occupy a lower proportion of its running-time than any other disaster movie I’ve ever seen.
Of course, the irony here is that the very things about The Last Voyage that catch the eye today – the reality of its settings, and above all the relentless nature of its disaster – provoked critical wrath at the time of the film’s initial release.
The Last Voyage was the work of Andrew and Virginia Stone, who were also responsible for Julie. As I remarked about that film, two notable characteristics of the Stones as film-makers were, firstly, their ability to do genre films just a little differently, and secondly, their preference for shooting on location, and in location (that is, in real buildings, and in the case of Julie on a real plane), which gives their films a look and feel unlike that of other, similar productions.
And perhaps none of their films illustrate these tendencies quite so comprehensively as The Last Voyage, for which the Stones put their cast and crew through the ringer on a real ship—and not just any ship, either…
In fact, the S. S. Claridon is played by none other than the S. S. Île de France, a vessel with a long and proud history. Famous in its early days for its beauty, its luxurious appointments and its art deco interiors, the Île de France became a fashionable and popular vessel in spite of its comparative lack of speed, and was the ship of choice for many on the Paris-New York route between 1926 and 1939. It was also, as it happened, the last commercial ship to leave France before the outbreak of WWII, making it safely to New York with a passenger load more than 400 people beyond its usual capacity. While the Île de France was crossing the Atlantic, sixteen other ships on the same route were torpedoed and sunk.
In 1940, the Île de France was loaned to Britain, and began service as a transport for war materials and as a troop ship. In 1945 – having been almost gutted to make more and more room for cargo and men – the ship was returned to France. After a further period of service ferrying US and Canadian troops home from Europe, the Île de France was refurbished and began work again as a commercial liner in 1947, eventually resuming the Paris-New York run. In addition to regaining its popularity with travellers, the Île de France played a significant role as a rescue ship following the collision of the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm off Nantucket in 1956.
However, by this time the venerable ship was beginning to show – and feel – its age; and in 1958 its owners, Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT, or “the French Line”), not only retired the Île de France, but sold her to a Japanese firm for scrap.
And this is where Andrew Stone entered the picture. As coincidence would have it, he had been inspired by the wreck of the Andrea Doria to write a screenplay for a shipboard disaster movie. MGM expressed interest in the project but, not unreasonably, asked Stone where he thought he was going to get an ocean liner? Even less unreasonably, the owners of liners still in service wanted nothing to do with the project.
When Stone heard of the proposed wrecking of the Île de France, he must have thought all his Christmases had come at once. He began negotiation with her new Japanese owners for permission to shoot his film on the ship itself—arguing that if the ship were to be scrapped anyway, it wouldn’t matter if a film crew did [*cough*] a little damage first. CGT got wind of these proceedings and intervened, at length agreeing to the arrangement (in exchange for “compensation”) on the condition that all insignia that could in any way identify the ship or its former owners be removed.
If these manoeuvres were really supposed to disguise the Île de France, they were a signal failure. The ship was not only recognised by audiences worldwide, but many critics reacted angrily to what they perceived as the indignities heaped upon it during the making of The Last Voyage. Even LIFE Magazine, which did an article on the film’s production – the tone of which teeters between horror at Andrew Stone’s proceedings and reluctant admiration of his chutzpah – went with the condemnatory title, Farcical Finish Of A Famous Old Ship, speaking of the Île de France as “the ill-fated victim of movie realism”.
When the critics drew breath from complaining about the treatment of the Île de France, their other main criticism of The Last Voyage was that the film was “too much”. Disaster movies were a new genre at the time – the term “disaster movie” was still yet to be coined – and the few that had made it onto screens were of the restrained, “a plane might crash but doesn’t” variety, with disaster threatening but not happening, and the body count low-to-non-existent.
The Last Voyage doesn’t let audiences off so easy. In fact, its disaster starts – or more correctly, the viewer is notified that it has started – sixty-six seconds into the film; and it ends only with the end credits. Enjoyment of this film therefore requires the capacity to just roll with it, as a bad situation gets worse – and worse – and worse…
Even so, it is unlikely that modern viewers will feel that the film is “too much”, while use of a real ship simply heightens the drama. On the other hand, there’s no getting away from the fact that the film must have been insanely dangerous to make. The Last Voyage scored an Oscar nomination for its special effects, which is a bit ironic: there are very few special effects as we now understand that term on display here – and very few stunt people, either: just a lot of pyrotechnics and some foolhardy highly courageous actors.
There is no shortage of scenes here to make the viewer cringe and gasp. The moment that always stays with me finds Edmond O’Brien up to his hips in water, with no personal protection beyond a completely inadequate pair of eye-shades, waving an oxyacetylene torch around with one bare hand while brushing a shower of sparks out of his hair with the other. Overall, however, it is probably poor Dorothy Malone who gets the worst of it, spending about three-quarters of the film dirty and dishevelled, lying unmoving amongst piles of debris, or up to her chin in water.
(I haven’t read it, but apparently Robert Stack has a few choice words to say about this production in his autobiography: “It was called The Last Voyage and for me it nearly was…”)
The Last Voyage opens with another of the Stones’ defining movie traits, a negative one this time: the Unnecessary Voiceover. In the soothingly British tones of George Furness (who also plays Third Officer Osborne), the viewer is given a potted history of the S. S. Claridon and foreshadows her date with destiny:
“The S. S. Claridon: a proud ship; a venerable ship; but as ships go, an old ship, a very old ship. For thirty-eight years she has weathered everything the elements could throw at her: typhoons, zero-zero fogs, the scorching heat of the tropics. Now she is scheduled for only five more crossings. Then a new ship, a plush, streamlined beauty, will take her place. It is then that the Claridon will fade into oblivion. She has an appointment with the scrap-yard – but it’s an appointment she will never keep – for this is the last voyage…”
This in itself is fine, but The Voice will subsequently reappear at irregular intervals throughout the film to comment on the action—usually with the effect of jerking the viewer out of it. I can only think that Andrew Stone had insufficient faith in his screenplay; screenplays: he did this sort of thing far too often.
The first stretch of voiceover cuts to the title card, and from there directly to a handwritten note that’s just been handed to Captain Robert Adams: Fire in the engine room.
The camera pulls back to show us Adams doing what, apparently, he does best: schmoozing the passengers. He excuses himself from lunch and takes a leisurely stroll across the dining-room, exchanging pleasantries here and there, before getting out of earshot and consulting with his Third Officer and Second Mate. The credits then begin to roll; before they end, we will have seen the engine-room well on fire, learned the cause of it, and been warned of the potential danger to the ship at large. We will also learn that another fire has broken out in one of the passenger areas—
—although not that occupied by the only passengers to which The Last Voyage will pay any particular attention. At this point we are introduced to Cliff and Laurie Henderson and their young daughter, Jill. We learn that Cliff has been transferred from Sacramento to Tokyo for his job and, rather than travel directly, by plane, the couple decided upon the romance of a cruise to get them to their new home. After lunch, the Hendersons play bingo, before ditching Jill at the puppet show being performed in the ship’s crèche and taking off for the bar, where they dance and drink martinis, and Laurie tries but fails to get Cliff to utter those Three Little Words.
Meanwhile, the differing mentalities of the crew are beginning to make themselves felt, in particular that of Second Engineer Walsh. Growing less and less convinced that the emergency can be contained, Walsh lobbies for the ship to be shut down, at least for a few hours, so that the situation can be properly addressed. Adams isn’t having any, however, insisting that you can’t stop a ship for every little thing and crops up; and he gets some support from his Chief Engineer, Pringle, who in spite of worrying that a fire that hot must have done some damage to the ship’s infrastructure, puts it in terms of cost, overtime and longshoreman, and potential lost jobs should the ship be withdrawn from service as a consequence.
Walsh accepts this but clearly isn’t happy, muttering about the appointment of captains on the basis of their social skills rather than their seamanship. Pringle calls him on his attitude, upon which Walsh explains that his own father sailed under a captain more interested in speed records than protocol, and in keeping the passengers happy than in keeping them safe:
Pringle: “What ship was that?”
Walsh: “The Titanic.”
In context this sounds like a tasteless joke, but it turns out to be the literal truth: his old man’s fate is used to explain the chip on Walsh’s shoulder, his problems with authority, and some of the choices he makes as the emergency escalates into a full-scale disaster.
Another crewmember who we have already met in passing but will see a lot more of from this point is Hank Lawson, played by Woody Strode—and if you’ll forgive me, I feel compelled to step aside for the moment and make the following observation:
For all that we pay out on William Shatner for this tendency, did Woody Strode EVER keep his shirt on in a movie!?
Though I’ll grant you this: the end result of Bill and Woody taking off their respective shirts isn’t quite the same…
In any event, Woody must have been in hog-heaven while making The Last Voyage: he goes shirtless for the duration.
As events in the boiler-room begin to spiral out of control, we briefly visit with Mr Unnecessary Voiceover, who describes to us what we can see perfectly well for ourselves, the passengers enjoying the various facilities offered by the Claridon. (This includes a cinema, where we see the beginning of a newsreel—an MGM newsreel, of course…) We also stop by the Hendersons’ stateroom, where Laurie is realising that she left her purse in the bar. Shaking his head with husbandly condescension, Cliff goes off to get it.
Down in the bowels, it has become clear that disaster is imminent. Pringle and Walsh clash over which of them gets to undertake the suicide mission of trying to open the valve on top of the blocked boiler; Pringle “wins” by ordering Walsh to see to the bulkheads.
Barely has the first bulkhead been lowered than the boiler goes. The explosion tears upwards, ripping a vertical hole through several decks and blowing through the wall of the main dining-area, killing several passengers in the process—as well as the unfortunate Pringle.
(In a grimly explicit moment, one which in its small way is indicative of the contemporary crumbling of the Production Code, the crewman later sent to inspect the damage reports, “There isn’t enough of the Chief left to scoop up.”)
Cliff Henderson, halfway to the bar when the explosion occurs, turns and sprints back towards his stateroom, only to find his way barred by a gaping hole in the floor and a precariously teetering grand-piano. He negotiates this – just – and makes it to his room, where he finds a double emergency on his hands: Laurie is trapped under a fallen steel girder, unable to move her legs, and Jill is crouched on a narrow ledge in the bedroom, on the far side of what used to be the floor…
It is hard to know what to make of Tammy Marihugh’s performance as Jill. She was a few years older than she’s playing here, which gives a sense of dislocation to the character; but on the whole her reactions to her situation are fair and reasonable—even when she’s literally kicking and screaming and making things difficult for those trying to help her; while her ability to stay in character is rather impressive. (That said, on occasion it’s hard to shake the feeling that the kid was genuinely terrified.) On the whole, however, or at least once the disaster kicks in, I find her – un-annoying – which is surely the most you can ask of a small child in a disaster movie.
From this point The Last Voyage splits into three main plot-threads: the Hendersons’ terrible predicament; Walsh’s increasingly focused efforts to get what’s left of the engine-room crew out alive; and Captain Adam’s paralysis in the face of disaster.
It isn’t until near the end that we find out what’s on Adams’ mind. For now we simply see his obstinate refusal to cross the Rubicon indicated by assembling the passengers and getting the life-boats ready. He does allow his officers to radio for any other ships in the vicinity, but otherwise he pins his hopes on the reinforcing of the bulkheads, to defend against the water that is pouring in too fast for the bilge-pumps to handle. This task is undertaken by Walsh and the others, who try desperately to build a barricade to hold back the threat of the in-rushing waters, even though they fear their efforts will be futile…
Meanwhile, Cliff is trying to reach the terrified Jill, but twice nearly plunges to his own death, while Jill ends up half-dangling into space, clutching desperately at a telephone cord…
Having seen Jill scramble back onto her narrow perch, Cliff tries to find another way. He turns a piece of loose planking into a makeshift bridge, but soon realises it won’t bear his weight and that Jill will have to come to him. He makes a rope of sorts out of a blanket, fashioning a noose at one end. Tossing this to Jill with the admonition not to lean forward while trying to catch it, he talks her through slipping it around herself—and then has to talk her into crawling across the plank…
Upstairs, dissension is breaking out amongst the officers. Osborne urges preparations for evacuation, only to be sneeringly accused of hysteria by Captain Adams. Mace, who supports the Captain, is put in charge of rounding up any doctors and getting the injured passengers tended.
But the latter never really eventuates. This turns out to be one of the most significant ways in which The Last Voyage tweaks its formula: I can’t think of any transport-related disaster movie that spends less time with its passengers than this one. Instead, with those in charge concentrating upon the task of saving “the passengers”, collectively, no-one has much time to spare for a passenger—which creates a desperate situation for the Hendersons.
Cliff, having rescued Jill, now turns his attention to Laurie. The debris under which she is pinned is beyond him, so he goes looking for help—and has terrible trouble finding anyone willing to stop the large-scale disaster response they’re involved in long enough to help one particular person. Cliff, conversely, doesn’t give a toss about anyone else’s problems – he berates the steward who has been looking after him and his family for following orders and helping the injured passengers in the dining-room instead of doing what he says – and becomes more and more obsessively focused upon doing something to help Laurie, and the hell with everybody else.
Word that the bulkhead is beginning to leak reaches the officers, along with a message that the nearest ship, the Hawaiian Fisherman, is fifty minutes away. At long last, Adams allows an SOS to be sent.
Cliff finally rounds up three fellow-passengers, but their efforts to free Laurie only make things worse. Cliff concludes that they need an oxyacetylene torch, and the youngest of the group runs to the wheel-house to find out where he could get one—encountering exactly the same stonewall of preoccupation that Cliff did: officers come and go, Adams barks instructions, and no-one pays the slightest heed to the boy’s repeated demands for help. Inevitably, it is Osborne who finally responds, telling the boy, in effect, that if the torch isn’t at one end of the ship (the engine-room), it’ll be at the other (with the gear).
On his way back the young man encounters Cliff, who reports bitterly that the other men who were helping them have given up. The two then separate: kid then goes forward, while Cliff heads for the engine-room. This brings him into the midst of the men working feverishly to shore up the bulkhead—and they aren’t much interested in his problems, either, although Hank Lawson does take a moment to direct Cliff to the generator-room.
Walsh, however, is in the middle of reporting that the water has risen another eight feet in spite of the pumps going full bore. When he receives this message, Adams orders Mace to start looking into whether the ship can stay afloat if both the boiler- and engine-rooms are flooded—but after a long hesitation, also allows Osborne to start assembling the passengers.
Osborne’s instruction to don life-jackets directly contradicts the last PA announcement assuring everyone that there’s no cause for alarm, and confirms Laurie’s worst fears. Meanwhile, Cliff has found the torch – the huge, heavy, metal cylinder kind – and begins the unenviable task of manoeuvring it back to the cabin (mostly by dragging it by the gauge – ulp!). Along the way he encounters Lawson, who breaks the cheery news that this particular rig needs two cylinders – he’s got the oxygen, but he also needs the acetylene – and that the second cylinder (even if it can be found) weighs over two hundred pounds.
Cliff’s attitude of mingled despair and obstinacy catches Lawson, who begins to help him with the gear—and subsequently spends most of the rest of the film enmeshed in the Hendersons’ woes.
The character of Hank Lawson is one of the most interesting things about The Last Voyage. At no point in the film to we get so much of a hint that Lawson is just “the black guy”, let alone “the token black guy”. Instead, he has equal standing as one of many people trying to deal with a terrible situation—and, as the film goes on, an increasingly important one.
Walsh catches Lawson as he and Cliff are struggling out of the flooding engine-room, angrily ordering him back to the bulkhead. Torn between this and Cliff’s guilt-trip – “How’d you feel if it was your wife?” – Lawson finally chooses the latter, partly because he knows the efforts below deck are only forestalling the inevitable.
On that subject, Adams now finds himself under siege from Osborne, who wants to launch the life-boats, and Ragland, who thinks the crewmen should be called out of the engine-room—and dismisses both their demands.
But in fact, Walsh isn’t waiting for orders: he’s already trying to clear his men out—but too late. The bulkhead goes, and with it most of the men below decks…
Cliff and Lawson, fighting upstream like salmon, make it back to the cabin, where Lawson’s expert eye confirms that only a cutting-torch can help.
As the order to evacuate sounds again and again, Laurie tries to argue Cliff into taking Jill and getting off the ship; he compromises with a promise to see Jill into a boat and then come back. He leaves Laurie to be watched over by Lawson—setting up perhaps the film’s most indelible moment, as Laurie accepts that only one thing will make Cliff leave her behind…
I said that the fact that Hank Lawson is black doesn’t matter, and for the most part that’s true; but nevertheless it adds an unmistakable edge to this scene – filmed in 1959, remember – of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white woman asking a black man to please kill her… It is no wonder that there are more layers than one to Hank Lawson’s instinctive recoil.
And this is not the only surprising moment of interaction. Cliff does refuse to leave – Laurie is quite right about that – and it is Lawson to whom the Hendersons ultimately entrust the job of getting Jill off the boat.
Lawson only succeeds in doing so on his second attempt, though. Amidst escalating panic, Cliff again tries and fails to get someone to listen to him about Laurie. However, word of the fate of the men below decks has reached the wheel-house, while computations have confirmed that there is only fifty minutes left in which to get everyone off the ship. Encountering Lawson – “Your wife’s talking crazy!” – Cliff hesitates, then hands over Jill, while he makes one final effort to get help for Laurie. He bails up Adams, and wrings from him an order for Walsh to go to the Hendersons’ cabin.
Immediately, however, the Captain’s full attention becomes fixed upon the imminent collapse of a funnel…
Lawson, meanwhile, gets Jill to a boat, but as he is handing her over she breaks away from him. He catches her again but – sigh – seeing a small white child struggling with a large black man, an indignant passenger intervenes, allowing Jill to bolt. Lawson runs after her, shouting for someone to stop her but, intent upon their own flight to safety, no-one does.
Jill is clinging to her mother and sobbing when Lawson catches up with her. He stops only to tell Laurie that Cliff is getting help, then forcibly removes Jill from the scene, to the point of wrenching the child’s desperately clutching hands away from the door-frame of the cabin. In spite of her shrieks and struggles he bears her determinedly up onto the deck. On this second attempt, no-one interferes, and he does convey Jill into a life-boat – just – literally dropping her into the arms of those below as the boat is winched down.
As the boat moves away, Lawson shouts after it despairingly: “When you get picked up, get an acetylene tank! Send it back to me! Did you hear me…?”
Lawson reports all this to Cliff and Laurie, but in a muttered aside tells Cliff he has little hope, and that they’re running out of time. Cliff replies that he’s done enough and should save himself, but Lawson refuses to leave.
The various viewpoints then collide on the top-deck: Adams and Osborne contemplating what will happen to the boat if the pressure in the hold continues to build, Walsh begging for help to free two men trapped below before they drown, Cliff demanding to know why Walsh isn’t helping his wife before she drowns, as he was ordered to do.
By now Walsh has reached the point of rank insubordination, and he responds with a counter-argument that his men are in the most immediate danger and must be rescued first. (My sympathies are with Walsh here, who has already lost all but six of his thirty-five man crew.) As the engineer turns away, Cliff grabs him angrily.
However, what might have happened next between the two frightened and furious men is forestalled when, as Osborne feared, a pressure explosion blasts through the deck-hatch, sending smoke and flames billowing into the air, and dangerous debris in all directions.
What might have happened between Cliff and Walsh then does happen between Walsh and Adams, the Captain responding to a vicious verbal attack – “You’re a joke, a stumbling, incompetent, career-happy joke!” – with a blow in the face.
It is Walsh’s words that have done the damage, though. This confrontation seems to send Adams into a kind of fugue state: he becomes incapable of giving orders, instead going over and over all the ways that this might never have happened, if only, if only, as his contemptuous officers increasingly take matters into their own hands.
Adams then withdraws to his cabin, sitting slumped behind his desk as he reads over and over again the letter from his employers confirming his appointment as Commodore of the Main Star fleet…
Cliff and Lawson, meanwhile, are on their way to the engine-room, either to help or to get help. Their journey takes them through the dining-room, which is filling up with the water pouring in through the open port-holes. They meet up with what’s left of the crew, whose only thought is of getting off the ship. When Lawson tells Cliff that’s he’s going to find Osborne to see if he has any suggestions, Cliff’s despairing expression indicates that he reads into this Lawson’s own withdrawal from the situation.
Laurie herself, left on her own, has been having a dark night of the soul, struggling to drag towards herself a jagged piece of glass from the piles of debris around her…although in the end she can’t do it, flinging the glass away and settling for terrified hysterics instead. She has some reason to regret this choice, however, when the seawater begins to creep into the cabin, rising inexorably towards her mouth and nose…
As it happens, Cliff has underestimated Lawson. He gets no help from Osborne, intent upon getting the last life-boat launched, but does he finally succeeds in recruiting Walsh, now that all of his men who can be rescued, have been. Walsh tries to order Lawson into the life-boat, but he has about as much success at that as Adams did ordering Walsh to forget about rescuing the trapped crewmen. As the two men head back below, Osborne steps into the life-boat and orders it lowered.
But once in the cabin, Walsh can only confirm the hopelessness of Laurie’s situation. Cliff still refuses to leave her, until Laurie tells him he’s making it so much harder for her—and what about Jill? Must she be orphaned?
Still Cliff hesitates…
Of the officers, only Adams and Ragland remain on board (they’re both unmarried). Adams pulls himself together sufficiently to collect the log-books, but at that moment the funnel, which has been threatening collapse for some time, finally gives way, crashing through the main deck—and Adams’ cabin.
Osborne jumps back on board to go in search of his fellow officers, ordering the life-boat away at the same time. He and Ragland dash in to look for the Captain, but he has been crushed under the collapsing deck. He dies, still muttering about how Walsh shouldn’t have said those things, and how the decisions he made were sound, sound…
By now the ocean is now dotted with small boats pulling away from the Claridon—but there is also one boat pulling towards it. It is an emissary from the Hawaiian Fisherman, of whose approach we have heard intermittently throughout the disaster; and across the waters drift those magical words:
“Is anybody there? We’ve got the tank – the acetylene tank!”
As Lawson stares incredulously, the small boat draws near—and we see that it’s the same young man who tried to help Cliff in the first place who’s doing all the shouting.
Cliff finally succeeded in sending Walsh away from the cabin (if no further), so he on hand to help Lawson haul the acetylene tank on board. The two race back to the Hendersons’ cabin, where by now Cliff is holding Laurie’s chin up against the rising waters. It takes a struggle, and the endless contents of Lawson’s capacious pockets, but the men manage to get the torch working. It takes minutes that seem endless before the obstruction is cut away, however, and Laurie is gasping and spluttering as the water rises above her mouth when Walsh finally utters the command to pull her free…
And free she is; but water is now pouring into the ship through the hole in the deck, the Claridon is beginning to slide under the surface—and Laurie cannot walk…
During production of The Last Voyage, the Île de France was anchored in the harbour of Osaka. Andrew Stone’s contract allowed him to do just about anything he liked to the ship—although not without significant opposition from the Osaka authorities and repeated interference from the salvage company, so that it took a combination of belligerence, bribery, legal threats and sneakiness to get the job done.
Consequently, almost everything that happens in the film – the flooding of the engine-rooms, the explosion through the deck, even the collapsing of the funnel – was achieved on the spot through practical means; while the ship’s indoor pool became the Hendersons’ flooded cabin. Stone’s only un chieved ambition was to tilt-sink the ship so far that the propellers would show above the water-line, but the salvage company, fearful of its investment, intervened.
The ship was one thing: it could only sit there and suffer. The cast was another, and Stone understandably found himself with a mutiny on his hands that made the one faced by Captain Adams seem trivial in comparison. The main cast put up with put up with the danger and discomfort, albeit not without protest (at one point in the production, a furious Edmond O’Brien called Andrew Stone, “A psychopath with a death wish”); but the extras flat-out refused to participate in the blowing-up of the dining-room.
Stone got around that problem via the involvement of a handful of American marines, who were originally hired as his demolition crew, and stuck around to take bit parts. Since no individual Marine would back down from a challenge in front of his companions, all of them ended up participating in the scene. (Stone presumably used similar tactics to convince a subset of the Marines to wear drag during the filming.) However – proving, I guess, that the director wasn’t a total lunatic – those closest to the explosion are actually mannequins, as is amusingly evident if you pause the film.
Ultimately only the film’s closing sequence was faked: the final struggle to leave the ship as it slips beneath the waves was too homicidally dangerous even for Andrew Stone—and besides, the waters around Osaka were full of venomous jelly-fish. (The extras also baulked when Stone tried to film a few of the traditional “panicking people plunge into the sea” scenes.) As a belated concession to common sense, and perhaps in celebration of the fact that no-one had actually been killed or maimed during production, these final scenes were shot in a nice safe tank in Santa Monica.
(Even so— By this time Edmond O’Brien had had enough, and refused to participate: Walsh is mysteriously absent as the others fight the rising waters.)
And so the last survivors of the Claridon swim for their lives. They are hauled to safety into a waiting life-boat, watching in silence as the dying ship finally sinks out sight below the churning waters…
…with all of twenty seconds left to run in The Last Voyage…