Time once again for the monthly Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, in which blog buddy Mike’s Take on the Movies assigns me one of his favourite movies that I’ve never seen, and vice versa. Since I liked The Last Hunt so much Mike thought he’d have me revisit the stars of that film with this month’s pick.
Ever since they were boys, Mark Shore (Stewart Granger) has gleefully stolen toys belonging to his little brother Joel (Robert Taylor), and then called Joel a coward when he wouldn’t stand up to his bullying. Now they’re grown men, and Mark is still stealing Joel’s things; this time it’s the command and crew of a whaling ship and Joel’s new wife Priscilla (Ann Blyth). This movie starts with a bit of a mystery, as Mark’s ship returns without him, he’s presumed dead, and stories and resentments build around the reasons he abandoned his ship. Joel assumes command, marries Mark’s girl Priscilla, and takes her on a whaling expedition during which Joel’s not that surprised to find Mark alive. In a long flashback, Mark tells of the combination of fever, drinking and kidnapping that led him astray, his adventures with crooked pearl hunters (James Whitmore and Kurt Kasznar) whose greed led to a series of killings, how he fell in love with an island girl (Betta St. John), and had and lost a half million dollars worth of pearls.
With the Shore brothers now stuck together on a ship they both believe they command, the stage is set for much character drama. Who will win (or keep) the loyalty of crew and woman, will the staid traditional or wild rebellious outlook dominate, and will the bullied Shore boy will finally stand up for himself? Mark quickly undermines Joel’s command, plants seeds for mutiny by promising the crew he’ll share the easy-to-retrieve pearls, and gets Priscilla’s affections back by convincing her that her husband is a worthless coward. Stewart is great at enacting Mark’s charisma and arrogance. He delights in insulting Joel but strangely, gets more satisfaction from seeing his little brother fight back.
The one problem I had was that it was never convincingly established that Joel could be mistaken for a coward. Taylor plays him as a strong silent, disciplined leader, measured but confident in his virtue and command, grudgingly respected by the crew, even when they call him a know-it-all, and when a whale wrecks their boat, Joel’s the only one who risks his life to save one of his men. So it was hard to understand why a crew who hated Mark’s guts when they thought he was dead, and a wife who’s only witnessed Joel’s bravery and hard work, should all suddenly buy the lie that he refuses to divert the ship because he’s terrified of facing a nasty tribe. Otherwise, there’s plenty to like, and much excitement in this movie-within-a-movie, both of which are adventure-morality tales about the clash between cool realists and greedheads who lead everyone into disaster.
The Captain’s log, passed down through many generations of the Shore family of seamen, is a storytelling device nicely used when Joe takes command and flips through the pages. Apparitions read us the words, giving a stoic, matter-of-fact reporting of the various types of tragedies that are part of life at sea. Joel then takes up the pen and adds this next chapter to the long history, completing Mark’s story at movie’s end. During the mutiny, Joel and Mark fight together and Mark falls victim to the violence he instigated. A dramatic death scene was filmed that had the dying Mark asking forgiveness, but it was cut due to giggles from the preview audience. Instead, we see something that I think fits even better into the film; Joel recording Mark’s last moments in the log. It puts their story into perspective as just one more colourful event in the Shore history, and Joel ends his entry as did all who came before, with the line “all the brothers were valiant.”
The movie was directed by Richard Thorpe, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams, features a score by Miklós Rózsa, and familiar faces like Keenan Wynn, John Lupton, Leo Gordon, and Michael Pate.