One thing I did not know about today’s film, Lifeboat (1944), is that it is based on a novel by John Steinbeck. I claim to be no expert on it, the book or the movie. Neither had I seen it until recently. Yet, it is one that we discussed at length in my Film and Twentieth Century America course that I took in my first semester at Loyola University Chicago, while studying for my Ph.D. Even though we did not watch it in class, it was discussed as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s early classics, and a good representative of the times in which it was made. This, too, is one of the reasons I love film. Not only are they a little bit of escapism, but they are firmly and invariably rooted in the era in which they are made. Hopefully this review of Lifeboat will clearly speak to that point.
The opening scenes of Lifeboat feature an ocean freighter that had been sunk by a German U-boat during World War II. There is flotsam and jetsam floating along. Among the debris is a lifeboat, and sitting alone in it, coolly smoking and wearing a fur coat, is reporter and writer Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead). She is soon joined by one of the crew members who managed to survive, despite being in the engine room, the possible communist John Kovac (John Hodiak). He looks somewhat askance at her finery in the midst of a disaster at sea, but she nonchalantly waves it off in the expectation that they will soon be rescued and she can continue to move in high society. Besides, she got great footage of the sinking with her camera. Together, they begin fishing other people out of the water, though to her disappointment this leads to her camera being accidentally tossed overboard. Besides themselves, they take in six other survivors, including the hysterical Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel) and her baby. Unfortunately, it turns out that her baby is dead, and in the middle of their first night she jumps overboard and drowns, committing suicide in her sorrow. They are also joined by Willi (Walter Slezak), a German whose U-boat had been destroyed in the process of sinking the freighter. Few on the lifeboat trust him, particularly John, his political affiliations adding to his distrust. Connie, though, can speak German and believes that Willi can be of some use to them. This seems all the more important now since the merchant marine sailors who managed to make it onto the lifeboat believe that there could be no rescue for them. Further, one of the sailors, Gus Smith (William Bendix), has a wounded leg that is turning gangrene and needs to be amputated before the infection kills him. There is a nurse aboard, Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), but she protests a lack of experience with such an operation. It just so happens that Willi, who was also the U-boat captain, was a surgeon before he joined the German navy. Thus he agrees to cut off the leg. This earns the trust of the rest of the survivors, at least for a time. What begins to erode it is when they realize that the Nazi is not steering them towards Bermuda, which they think is where they can finally be rescued. This revelation comes when they discover that Willi has a compass and could have been giving them a more direct course than the guess work upon which they had been relying. He also speaks English. However, they think they have no choice but to listen to him even when he is openly taking them to a German supply ship where they will be captured. This move is made necessary by the fact they had lost their rudimentary sail in a storm. The final act that turns everyone against Willi is when he pushes the delirious, but popular, Gus overboard. In defending himself, Willi spouts a bunch of Nazi propaganda that only further enrages the others. They then kill him and consign him to the sea. They are now at their lowest. Their supplies had also largely been destroyed by the storm, and they have no way of figuring out which direction to travel. Making matters worse, the first boat they spot is the German supply ship. Yet, before they resign themselves to capture and spending the rest of the war in a concentration camp, the German ship is fired upon by an Allied vessel. Hence, they turn around and commence rowing towards what they perceive as their salvation on the horizon.
Clearly, Lifeboat depicts a desperate situation. It is one of those hypothetical survival scenarios we sometimes wonder about, trying to figure out how would react if put in it. There is also a lot to unpack from it given the social commentary involved. It is interesting that one of the protagonists, John, be considered a communist. Of course, there would be greater scrutiny on people of that political persuasion in the 1950s, but there had previously been Red Scares in this country. Still, what the film wants to suggest is that no matter who you are, we have to find a way to work together. World War II was a time when such messages permeated American society. What more fitting milieu for furthering this cause was there than an assorted collection of people of all backgrounds thrust together and fighting for their lives? In the film, so long as they believe there is some chance of survival, they cling to their preconceived notions about themselves and each other. The result is a great deal of bickering about who should be in charge, what to do with Willi, and the most logical course for rescue. You would think that even at their lowest, particularly after the storm, that it would be a good time to set aside their differences. Hitchcock goes in an unexpected direction, depicting them all making amends only when rescue appears assured. The wealthy Charles J. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) insists on paying his gambling debts to John, who tries to tell them they are not needed. Connie has fallen in love with John, who is now willing to spend like a member of the bourgeoisie in order to replace her lost diamond bracelet. Like the hope for all American society during the war, they have all become friends by the end.
You may be interested to know that Lifeboat’s director, Alfred Hitchcock, grew up Catholic in England. The majority of his movies would not suggest this was the case, except for, perhaps, I Confess (1953). Lifeboat does not have any specifically Catholic moments in it, either, but it does have a good Christian character, Joe Spencer (Canada Lee). He is the only that reminds the others of God’s will in all they are experiencing. This is key because the prevailing theme is that when people are put into situations such as theirs, they go to pieces. There is a reason why, when a ship is sinking and all the options to prevent it from going under have been exhausted, the captain announces that it is “every man for himself.” That means pretty much exactly what it sounds like: while the ship remains afloat, everyone follows the captain’s orders; when it goes down, everyone becomes their own captain, doing what they think best for survival. The result is usually chaos, and there are times when it looks like that is where the survivors in the lifeboat are headed. They get right to the brink when Willi, who had been using drugs (German soldiers were issued amphetamines) to continuously row, is killed. Though they felt it was the right things to do, they protest that they now have no “motor.” Joe simply smiles, says that is not true, and looks to the Heavens. Not long after, they find the Allied ship. Though the others did not acknowledge it, Joe’s words speak to the notion that we truly are not the ones in control. If God wants us with Him in Heaven, there is not a single thing we can do to prevent it.
Obviously, Lifeboat is an older movie. It is also fixed on one set, really, with a limited group of people. As such, it is not the most action-packed film of all time. The draw of it is seeing the way the survivors interact with each other. You want them to get along because we know that cooperation is a pathway to life. I like this notion a lot, and I try to cooperate with the Holy Spirt as much as possible. It is a good piece of classic Hollywood that will get you thinking. I say see it.