As New Englanders are a coastal people, there’s a natural interest in a film like Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea,” a picture about a hunted whale that rams and sinks a pursuing Nantucket whaleship. And not just any whale, mind you, but the one that inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, “Moby-Dick.”
Around here, that’s not just the stuff of fiction. I live less than 100 steps from St. Leonard’s in the North End, where Melville got the idea for the “Moby-Dick” character known as Father Mapple, Ishmael’s sermonizer on the story of Jonah. The real tale of the sinking of the Essex in 1820 is also full of drama, as chronicled by Nathaniel Philbrick in his book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.” So it’s no surprise that the man at the center of the new adapted screenplay, first mate Owen Chase, is played by the picturesque Chris Hemsworth, who looks like the paragon of a mariner.
For a time, Hollywood loved any and all scripts that depicted this life. The sea was like the Old West, only less drab, brown, and tumbleweed-y. But then the tide turned: Seafaring movies largely went away in the 1940s as the western further asserted itself. Films would still be set on the water, of course — “Jaws” is our local biggie — and frigates and working vessels still got the occasional bit of love — “Master and Commander” and “The Perfect Storm,” for example — but filmworthy flotillas were decimated, so far as Hollywood went.
That prompts us to take advantage of Friday’s opening of “In the Heart of the Sea” to revisit some mostly forgotten seafaring classics. My chronological list of 10 is a reflection of personal taste. If it causes you to unleash some hearty “aaarrggghhhs” and a list of your own, that’s not a bad thing.
Down to the Sea in Ships (1922)
This silent treasure dates from a little more than 70 years after Melville published “Moby-Dick” in 1851. So there were people who experienced both, in real time. It’s a tale of a New Bedford whaling family, abduction, and bigotry (against people who don’t harpoon vocationally). It features Clara Bow, one of the great stars of the silent age, wanting to buck society’s strictures and be a top lady whaler. Our man Melville, incidentally, shipped out at 21 from New Bedford for 18 months aboard the whaleship Acushnet.
Point of pride, Bostonians: a feature biopic of our unsinkable USS Constitution. Another silent film, but one in which we realize the architectonic grandeur of a ship in full sail. The
pictorial drama of mast and spar against a cloud-soaked sky. And there are pirates.
Midshipman Easy (1935)
We’re in the sound era now, and in the capable directorial hands of Carol Reed, who later helmed “The Third Man.” In film and literature, midshipmen tend to be hilarious upstarts in line for a dose of comeuppance. The
title character of this film, which is sourced from Frederick Maryat’s wonderful novel, is a lovable cad among lovable cads.
Captain Blood (1935)
Released during the Christmas season, this is the movie that established Errol Flynn. There is much in the way of nautical acrobatics on display — honestly, these people jump and swing a ton — but Flynn’s character is one of the most likable you will encounter. More likable than his Robin Hood, even. What’s more, Michael Curtiz — of “Casablanca” fame — directs. Sea bounty!
The Sea Wolf (1941)
Edward G. Robinson is a draconian captain who has a problem with a shark. We New Englanders know that drill. This is the kind of guy, though, who wouldn’t think to rescue a shark if it was washed up on a Truro beach. The shark in the film seems to intuit such things. Also directed by Curtiz.
Two Years Before the Mast (1946)
Based on the memoir of life at sea by Cambridge’s Richard Henry Dana Jr. Melville loved Dana’s book, and it numbers as one of the half-dozen best volumes pertaining to life at sea. Hollywood spiced everything up, so this is a splashier effort, but that deference to the ocean remains.
Captain Hareblower (1954)
And you thought rabbits couldn’t command the high seas. Here’s Bugs Bunny spoofing the 1951 Gregory Peck film “Captain Hornblower,” in what was a towering work of animation. Cel aficionados have loved it for decades, and the hare does bring the giggles. Plus, Yosemite Sam is a legit Captain Bligh-by-way-of-the-West figure in that tricorn hat of his.
Moby Dick (1956)
John Huston directed, but this has always counted as one of his lesser films, a stew that never really comes together. Still, there are flashes, such as Orson Welles’s turn as the fiery Father Mapple. If you wish to get in a similarly fiery spirit yourself, head over to the aforementioned St. Leonard’s, where you can sit in the very room where Melville sat and came up with the idea for the character Welles plays.
Captain Clegg (1962)
A seafaring horror film from England’s Hammer Studios, with terror stalwarts Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed in a plot about marsh phantoms. Which sound like beings you might encounter along Antique Alley in Ipswich. There’s also a generous helping of smuggling, so maybe bust out the Folly Cove rum.
Horatio Hornblower (1998-2003)
An eight-picture A&E series, this is your top-shelf selection for a proper view from the quarterdeck. We feel like we are on the ship with these fellows, much like one is made to feel right next to Winslow Homer’s mariner in his painting “All’s Well” at the Museum of Fine Arts. When that hotshot comes flying through the rigging, you’re apt to jump over the back of your couch for cover.Colin Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.