Friday, February 16, 2018

Sea Captains, Good and Bad

War has always been with us, but just over a hundred years ago, the most savage and epic era of human conflict began. Human beings, especially males, have always been distinctly ornery. But with the 20th Century we “improved” our technology. Alongside that human populations soared, while competition for limited space and resources grew fierce.  

So now we’ve had a century’s worth of tragedy, terror and trouble to show for our cleverness and fecundity. Though war may seem in comparative abeyance now, we still live by the skin of our teeth.

World War I, the first of the great conflicts, was called “the war to end all wars” after it was formally concluded in 1919. That was a fine hope, but, of course, it turned out to be bullshit. It was only the first chapter of a longer war, from which have grown enormous libraries of books and commentary. Why the “Great” War even started remains a ghastly mystery full of worthy educated theories embracing a multitude of factors, but few clear conclusions.

Especially for those who are pacifists, there’s little honor to be found in any of this. Even so, amidst all the misery, you occasionally find glimmers of the old-style myths of heroism and decency. The stories that came forth do not erase the horror, but they provide a little solace, a little hope that even our enemies can be angels.

Some of these events took place on the battlefields of Europe and Western Asia. But mostly, they seem to have taken place on the high seas.

The naval literature of World War I is not vast compared to other theatres. But for the attacks by U-boats on Allied shipping and their response, only one major battle took place, between the British Royal Navy and the German Imperial Fleet at Jutland, which, to the amazement of many, ended in a draw. (The fate of the Imperial German Fleet at war’s end makes for another stunning tale.)

Though they took place on a much smaller scale, the exploits of the German merchant raiders pack just as much drama. These ships, some of them drastically refitted commercial freighter and passenger vessels, roamed the sea from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They had no practical effect on the war’s outcome, but nevertheless they aroused great terror as they captured and sank hundreds of vessels, while providing at least some inspiration for a people who had little else to inspire them.

The best account of these actions I’ve read is The Wolf by Richard Guilliat and Peter Hohen (Free Press, 2010)

The S.S. Wolf, armed with a several cannons (and a seaplane!), set sail from Kiel, Germany, on November 1916 on a 16,000-mile, 16-month voyage. 

Its mission was to lay mines in dozens of Allied ports, mostly British, from the Atlantic through the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. These mines sank thirteen ships, whileThe Wolf herself directly captured and sank fourteen others. It snuck back through the British blockade in February 1918, with almost 250 prisoners in her holds. All this without losing a single life on both sides.

As in all stories of this genre, the crucial element in The Wolf’s success is its captain, Karl Nerger. He was a genuine oddity, a sailor from a long-lost world, where war was seen as a noble pursuit for upper-class gentleman. With his courtly well-bred manner, Nerger both inspired his men and acted as a most gracious captor to his prisoners during the long, hard months at sea. He swore he wouldn’t take a life during his mission and stuck to his promise. Even the women prisoners, of which there were at least two, made it through safe and unharmed.

Even so, Guilliatt and Hohnen’s swift and irresistible account makes no attempt to soften this harrowing story. The Wolf was a slow boat, a coaler that couldn’t get past 10 knots at best. As the endless days at sea passed under harsh sun, miserable heat and violent storms, and the number of prisoners in the hold increased, conditions naturally deteriorated. There were a few gestures at mutiny by the crew, while conditions grew foul in the prisoner holds below decks.

The prisoners were a diverse lot, ranging from the Cameron family, San Franciscans who were plucked from their luckless schooner The Beluga. There were also British, Australians, New Zealanders (including Maori), South Pacific Asians and finally, a crew of Japanese sailors. Cultural and racial tensions ran bitter and high, yet they all made it out alive to tell their incredible tale, one worth reading for fans of true-life adventure. It’s a great story to read, though you wouldn’t want to experience it.

Blaine Pardoe’s The Cruise of the Sea Eagle (The Lyons Press, 2005) is not as successful as a book (mostly due to slack editing toward the end). Even so, its story is even more colorful, incredible and thrilling. Where the SMS Wolf was a modern, if slow, single-masted coal-powered ship, The Seeadler was a three-masted sailing ship, right out of the nineteenth century and Errol Flynn by way of Raphael Sabatini—the last thing you’d consider sending out against mighty British Navy dreadnoughts.

But, considered further, Seeadler’s very antique innocuousness turned out to be its strength, like the tiny mouse that makes off with the cheese while the cats hunt the big rats. To the modern British battleships, it was just the Hero, a cute antique freighter under a Norwegian flag. Why, there was even a woman on board, the captain’s wife!

But, of course, hidden away, lay the flag of the German Imperial Navy, not to mention a pair of cannons. As for the captain’s spouse, “Josefeena” was played well-enough by crewman Hugo Schmidt, in drag ("Well, hello sailor!"). Another wild trick was played in the captain’s dining room, built on hydraulics that it could be lowered down to entrap unsuspecting captains who though they were just sitting down to dinner with a fellow captain, not a German buccaneer.

The Seeadler targeted similar British freighter schooners and windjammers, still in wide use in the early 20th century, so it never bit off more than it could chew. With these modest goals, the Germans captured and sank twelve freighters in the Atlantic before rounding Cape Horn into the South Pacific. It sank three more ships before running aground on the Pacific island of Mopelia eighteen months later.

As with The Wolf, the man at the helm was key to the Seeadler’s success. Captain Felix von Luckner cut an even more dashing figure than Karl Nerger. Of noble birth and wide experience, he was a true “gentleman pirate,” handsome, charismatic, sociable. (In a different world, Christopher Lee would make a perfect von Luckner in the movie version.)

Von Luckner wasn’t the brains of the outfit (which honor belongs to his lieutenant, Alfred Kling), but he was the glue that held the crew together. Like the best commanders, he thought fast on his feet, and brought purpose and direction to the long, hard voyage.

Like Karl Nerger, he swore an oath not to kill a soul during his raids, but, tragically, failed to keep his promise. When one of the raider’s targets, The Horngarth, elected to fight back, von Luckner gave orders to return fire. Richard Douglas Page, a young British radio operator, died. Though Von Luckner undoubtedly regretted the loss, he also elected to brush it out of his own romanticized accounts of his life.

Even without an airbrush, von Luckner led an incredible life from first to last. Though a loyal German, he openly despised the Nazis who kept him under house arrest for most of World War II. At war’s end, he managed to single-handedly stave off the destruction of his hometown of Halle by American troops and rescued a Jewish refugee while trying to manage his own escape as Germany collapsed around him.

There are competent sea captains and there are incompetent ones. What happens when a ship is helmed by an incompetent is the drama behind S.S. San Pedro by James Gould Cozzens (Berkeley Books), a trim, but vivid seafaring novel from 1931. Cozzens was a noted 20th-century author known mostly for By Love Possessed (which was adapted into a Lana Turner movie.)

Now mostly forgotten, some of his work seems allegorical. (Castaway, his 1934 novel about a man trapped forever inside a Macy’s-type department store, was once eyed for adaptation by director Sam Peckinpah.)

While inspired by Joseph Conrad, the novel belongs in the Ship-of-Fools genre, but years before Katherine Anne Porter’s epic. The titular ship is a large passenger freighter, bound from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Argentina. Passengers and crew are a motley cross-section of humanity with class and racial divisions drawn hard, bright and cruel. Not long after leaving port, the San Pedro encounters a violent storm, and thanks to sloppy cargo-loading and a sick and listless captain, founders toward a briny doom.

Despite strong writing, S.S. San Pedro seems a curious antique now. The narrative strongly suggests Cozzens to be a bigot. It’s a pessimistic reactionary work that reads like an allegory of doom. For all the ships that do safely reach port, there are many that don’t. To James Gould Cozzens, we are all passengers and crew on the S.S. San Pedro. As one old sea saying goes, keep one hand for the ship and the other for yourself.

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is available now! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Noir City 2018

This flu noir has kept me in the shadows so far this year, but there’s enough strength—not to mention gumption—left to urge you all to attend the 2018 Noir City Festival at San Francisco’s magnificent Castro Theatre. As always, it’s produced by the Film Noir Foundation (Eddie Muller, founder and president), and includes bar service in the upstairs lobby by Stookey’s Club Moderne.

As before, time and distance will also keep me from attending the entire event. But it won’t keep me from pointing you to some films I know are worth seeing and pointing you to others that might be worth our while (if I can get out of bed).

I haven’t seen This Gun for Hire (Saturday afternoon, January 27) for years, but my memory of it is a good one. Adapted (and softened up and Americanized) from Graham Greene’s novel by Albert Maltz and crime fiction pioneer W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar), it tells the story of hitman Philip Raven and how he winds up a target due to sinister double-crossing by, among others, the amazing Laird Cregar, an actor gone much too soon. It also features Veronica Lake as the love interest, which will be of interest to gentlemen who prefer blondes and dig the peekaboo hairstyle.

A genuine classic—one of two this year--is on tap for that same Saturday evening with Shadow of a Doubt, one in the long long line of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces. (Can any of you point to a single specific Hitchcock film as “his best?” Not me.) That Hitchcock considered this a personal favorite should be enough. I’ll add, in addition to mesmerizing work by Joseph Cotten as “Uncle Charley” (maybe his best role) and winsome Teresa Wright as his adoring niece (also named Charlie) there’s a bright seam of wit and humor revealed by the supporting cast featuring Hume Cronyn, Henry Travers, and an actress named Edna May Wonacott as Wright’s uproariously pedantic little sister. If you haven’t seen this . . . I mean really….

The following Monday January 29, features Conflict which I recall as a solid entertaining thriller with Bogart wearing the black hat as a wife murderer.

The following night, Tuesday, January 30) features The Blue Dahlia, the only feature penned first to last by Raymond Chandler. Once again, Alan Ladd and Veronica Ladd are teamed, accompanied by an excellent William Bendix and Howard daSilva. Censorship pressures at the time led to a fudged ending, but it’s still a good noir.

I Walk Alone (1948) will be shown Thursday night, February 1. Though declared a “lost” film, I recall it being broadcast on network television sometime during the 1970s and I caught up with during the 1990s, so how lost it was I can’t say. Lost or not, I recall it to be a pretty good noir thriller, with shades of Out of the Past. Burt Lancaster as an ex-con and Kirk Douglas, as his cheating ex-partner, face off over loot and Lizabeth Scott, as a torch singer. Lancaster vs Douglas? That’s two kegs of dynamite slammed together.

From there, there’s a big gap of unknowns until closing night with the other forty-carat classic, The Big Heat. Now, I am of the firm opinion that none of director Fritz Lang’s Hollywood films really hold a candle to his monumental German classics. But The Big Heat does stand among the finest of his later years.  Everything with Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin is terrific. You may squirm a little at the domestic moments, but once those are blasted out of the way, the film turns cruel and relentless, as does Glenn Ford, a fine actor in an excellent role. It may well be the cruelest and most savage of all noirs.

Among those I haven’t seen, but wish and hope I can is Among the Living, with its shades of Jane Eyre; Flesh and Fantasy and Destiny two films that were once portmanteaud together before being split in two; both are said to contain shades of the supernatural, always a draw for me.

And any movie where Charles McGraw gets to play a lead, which seldom happened, is a must for his fans, as will happen with The Threat, where he plays an escaped con out for revenge. No doubt his enemies will be very sorry by the time he’s done with ‘em—if they live long enough.

The Who Pulled a Knife on Jerry Seinfeld

And, finally, there are three reasons to see Bodyguard: one: it’s a very early screen story co-credited to Robert Altman; two, it’s directed by a most excellent craftsman, Richard Fleischer. And three: will the notorious, most unnerving Lawrence Tierney finally lose it and destroy everything in sight? I can see the klieg lights coming loose as the crew flees in screaming terror.

Have a great time! Maybe I’ll see some of you at Stookey’s upstairs!

[This one is dedicated to the late Carrie Galbraith, a friend when needed long ago.]

Copyright 2017 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.