Thursday, January 3, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: The Last Voyage

When people of my cinephilic age think of the American disaster film they probably think of 1972's The Poseidon Adventure and 1974's Earthquake and Towering Inferno with their large "ensemble" casts of Hollywood stars and their multitude of melodramatic tales amidst all the destruction and carnage. Disaster films, however, have a history that goes back to the early years of cinema and the genre has never been a monopoly of Hollywood. There was the 1901 English film Fire! (James Williamson). There was 1913's Atlantis. There was 1928's Noah's Ark, the oldest child of all apocalyptic disaster books and films. There was 1933's earthquake and tsunami film Deluge and the same years escaped giant ape on the rampage in New York King Kong. There was 1935's The Last Days of Pompeii, the second oldest child of the disaster genre. There was John Ford's 1937 film about love and natural disaster on a South Sea island, The Hurricane, starring Dorothy Lamour.

The most well worn of the subgenres of the disaster film genre, however, is the tale of the Titanic disaster of April of 1912, a tale of disaster, class, and tragedy that seems to interest generations upon generations of Westerners. The Titanic disaster has been told on celluloid on several occasions, the first time in 1912, the very year the unsinkable ship sank, in Night and Ice. 1953 saw the film Titanic starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwick appear on the big screen. 1958 saw the British film A Night to Remember, still the best of the Titanic disaster film subgenre, debut on the big screen. And then there is that variation on the Titanic tale and the forerunner to the The Poseidon Adventure, The Last Voyage.

The Last Voyage, produced and directed by Andrew Stone and produced and edited by his wife Virginia Stone, may just be the ultimate disaster film. The Last Voyage tells four tales. That of Cliff (Robert Stack), Laurie (Dorothy Malone), and Jill (Tami Marihugh) Henderson who are travelling on the SS Claridon to Tokyo where they are relocating for work, that of the Captain (George Sanders) and his attempts to deal with a disaster that has befallen him, his crew, and the ship he captains the SS Claridon, that of the men in the boiler and engine rooms who attempt to stave off impending disaster for as long as they can, and a fourth tale that is the real heart of The Last Voyage, the tale of a fire in the boiler room of the Claridon, a fire that leads to rising steam pressure and, eventually, to disaster for the ship. Crackle, sss, boom.

It is the Claridon played by the SS Île-de-France that is really the star of The Last Voyage show. Stone gets to play with the biggest toy of all as he sets aflame, pumps up the steam pressure in, blows holes through, and eventually sinks, if only partially, the Ile de France in the Sea of Japan before the once glamourous ship became a scrap heap at a Japanese scrap metal company. The destruction of the Île-de-France overwhelms the melodramas of its several little people, something that would become commonplace in disaster movies, including James's Cameron's mediocre paint by the demographic numbers 1997 Titanic after it. Unfortunately the excitement of the destruction of the Île-de-France and the extreme realism of The Last Voyage is interesting only for a moment and the fallback position, tales of the little people on the Claridon, don't amount to a hill of beans. Hey that is the exact same thing I would say about Cameron's Titanic. Needless to say Stone's strategy in The Last Voyage seems to have become gospel for mainstream Hollywood with its focus on big things be they sharks, ships, aliens from outerspace, superheroes and supervillains, blowing things up, using actors as cattle to be herded around the big things, and keeping the pace moving so that no one notices how poor the story telling is and they revel in the spectacle of special effects and blowing things up mentality. Two stars.

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