Film no. 12 was going to be Against the Wind but given George Baker’s death yesterday, I thought we’d look at one of his two Ealing appearances, in The Ship that Died of Shame, a taut and engrossing film with supernatural overtones. (Baker’s other Ealing film, 1956’s The Feminine Touch will also be featured soon). This film tells the tale of a wartime ship and her crew who find themselves on the wrong side of the law in the uncertain landscape of post-war Britain. There are echoes of The Cruel Sea here, not least in the source material (the film is based on a novel by Cruel Sea author Nicholas Monsarrat) and the focus on the central relationship between ships officers and the ship that they serve on. But to my mind this film is in a different league from that earlier Ealing naval tale, with stronger performances, a taut central narrative that is well told visually and, frankly, a fantastic title.
[a quick tangent: film titles are curious things. Of the films featured here so far, the titles have included the prosaic and straightforward (The Magnet is a film about a magnet, The Love Lottery is about a love lottery), literature references (Went the Day Well? is a quotation from John Maxwell Edmonds; Against the Wind comes from a Byron poem), and the more pun-informed (Fiddlers Three with its Nero-centric plot). While The Ship That Died of Shame could be seen as prosaic – it sums up one aspect of the narrative – it also raises questions, gives the film an added layer of intrigue and interest]
So, this Michael Relph-produced, Basil Dearden-directed film focuses mainly on two characters: Bill Randall (George Baker) and George Hoskins (Richard Attenborough). During the war, Randall captains the 10-87 ship, with Hoskins as his Number 1: using their fast little ship, they attack coastal defences along the French and Dutch coasts. From the first, it is clear that Randall is the moral compass, with Hoskins’ morality more fluid (early on, they argue over Hoskins’ habit of painting a list of ‘confirmed kills’ on the side of the ship), but Randall’s centre is lost when his wife Helen (Virginia McKenna) is killed in an enemy air-raid. The film skips around a lot in this opening section – a tense depiction of the 10-87 attacking a coastal town and destroying gasometers, the crew of the 10-87, Helen & Bill’s fledgling marriage, Helen’s death, the end of the war, Bill’s depression and post-war uncertainty around career and direction – but becomes more coherent when Hoskins waltzes back into Randall’s life at the Coastal Forces club.
The core of the film is the interplay between Baker and Attenborough: while the latter appears to have more fun with his morally ambiguous character, it is Baker that we follow through the whole film, and on whose shoulders the emotional and moral realisations have to fall. That the film works is largely because Baker’s performance allows us to believe a war hero could be waylaid by an old comrade and lured into shady dealings; equally, Baker shows how the lies and half-truths break down Randall’s joy at being back on board 10-87, flickers of anger and self-hatred that reveal to the audience Randall’s realisation of how far he has sunk from the brave naval officer that opens the film. As for Attenborough, it is easy to forget the power of his early work given his later, more prominent directorial career, but this film emphasises the mix of youth, malice and conniving intelligence that can be seen in films like Brighton Rock (1947). While Baker is the central figure here, Attenborough has a more colourful role, playing up Hoskins’ cocky, sly, spiv-like qualities (described as being too chatty and ‘la-di-da’ in the film by Bernard Lee), and in danger of stealing several key scenes. From the moment he saunters into the club, dressed up to the nines, with his silver cigarette case, expense account and expensive tastes, and his eyes set on Baker, it is clear that this is a character to be wary of. (there is also a lovely aural irony here: as Hoskins lures Randall in, a female singer leads other ex-servicemen in a rendition of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ – just one example of the film’s streak of black humour)
Of course, Randall is simply happy to see his old ship mate. Before long, they have rescued and restored the 10-87, roped engineer Birder (Bill Owen) into the crew, and are bringing certain illegal (though essential) ‘luxuries’ (nylons, wine, brandy) into the country from the Continent. The film is not coy about this activity – the crew acknowledge they are smugglers, but insist they are just doing it ‘to make people happy.’ The crew are happy, even able to mislead and confuse customs officer Bernard Lee – but, naturally, Hoskins’ plans for expansion soon change that.
As the narrative increases the tension (smuggling banknotes, then guns, then a mysterious mute man who is revealed to be a child killer), so does the film enjoy exploring the relationship between Hoskins, Randall, Birdie and, increasingly, 10-87 herself. Because it is here that the subtle supernatural element appears. At no point does the film say the ship is alive. Yet the continual electrical, steering and engine-related issues increase as the crew’s activities become more illegal and immoral. The film also suggests a link between the ‘female’ ship and the only other female character, Helen. As in The Cruel Sea, women are absent for most of the film. Here, however, they provide a wider moral compass that the male characters largely lack (or drift away from): while Helen’s death sends Randall into depression and uncertainty, it is because he forgets her words (‘You’ll never do anything silly with that ship of yours, will you? Promise’). The other woman in his life (10-87) soon demonstrates that ‘silly’ choices have consequences: Randall comes to his senses (by remembering Helen’s words) at the last minute, as the ship is about to crash onto the rocks and destroy itself, and is thus able to save both himself and Birdie.
While that reasserts a certain moral message – illegal activities will be punished, by either the law (Bernard Lee) or some larger force – it also presents a more feminine presence in this otherwise masculine film. It also works to undercut Attenborough’s sly comment that 10-87 is ‘like the perfect woman’ when Baker confirms she won’t ask any questions about the jobs they are doing.
The film also looks great: the location work is strong, most of the back projection works (though there is a shockingly bad painted background about thirty minutes in when Randall and Birdie meet again), and the model work is strong (notably in the final scenes where the ship tosses around in the stormy seas). There are also some beautifully composed images and scenes: canted angles on several of the Attenborough/Baker arguments on board 10-87, the misty location work on a mysterious stretch coastline (where 10-87 herself slips in and out of image, lost amid the fog), and strong depth of image in two scene’s with Bernard Lee’s customs officer. The first takes place in a meeting on the hunt for escaped child-killer Raines: Lee is in close-up in the foreground, silent while the meeting continues in the background. Yet as more information is given, Lee’s expression shifts to convey his memory of a small, fast boat that meets that description. The second time is a confrontation between Lee, Attenborough and Ronald Culver (the smuggler’s employer, Major Fordyce) where the focus shifts between faces in fore- and back-ground, with Attenborough’s face often completely obscured by shadows, as Culver shoots Lee. A nicely paced and well-shot sequence, it also sets up a later scene where Birdie finds the injured Lee – with the camera angled down the stairs at Birdie, Lee’s arm suddenly (and unexpectedly – we think he’s dead) falls across the screen.
With such great performances, well-composed imagery and strong editing, this is a perfect example of the kind of film I’d hoped to find more of in Ealing’s back catalogue (and one that I hope will be matched by others still to be viewed). It is also one that raises larger questions about the film’s depiction of a post-war Britain (questions that Relph and Dearden arguably pursue further in The League of Gentlemen five years later): as Baker says in the final moments of the film, ‘and so she died. She gave up and died, in anger and in shame.’ Is it too much to see a larger analogy for Britain here? A Britain ten years after that moment of wartime pride and victory, a country that is still recovering from post-war austerity, with its concurrent increase of black marketers and spivs, a country that has perhaps lost its way...
That may be reading more into the film than was intended, but if Ealing truly believed they were ‘projecting Britain,’ what version of the country were they trying to ‘project’ by this stage in the 1950s?
Next time: back to spy film Against the Wind (1948)