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Greyhound and Lifeboat

This month I watched the new Tom Hanks movie about a WWII allied naval convoy in the Atlantic that is being terrorized by a German U-Boat. I figured this would be a good chance for a Hitchcock double feature with a movie about the aftermath of a U-Boat attack, Lifeboat.

Lifeboat (1944) opens on the immediate aftermath of a passenger ship that has been sunk, evidence of the sinking float in the water giving us the story of the ship before panning over to a large wooden lifeboat. The boat ends up being populated with a broad range of characters, a middle-aged reporter, a millionaire, a steward, an engine room worker, and Army nurse and others. One of the last to be pulled aboard is a middle aged German seaman from the U-Boat that sunk their ship. There is an initial discussion on what to do with the German and it is eventually decided to let him live and help on the boat. He does help, he rows while the rest of the survivors are tired, fueled by a secret stash of water, food pills and vitamins. He also sends them in the direction to be rescued by Germans rather than allies, and kills an injured survivor who had his leg amputated in a dramatic series of events. His undermining schemes are later discovered and he is killed by most of the survivors and thrown off the boat. The one survivor not involved in the beating or the tossing overboard was Canada Lee, the only black survivor on the ship, in a statement that he will not participate in the lifeboat’s version of a lynching. They later pull a young sailor out of the water after the rescue ship is sunk, to learn that he a young Nazi. The survivors decide to spare his life, as he is young and not responsible for the sinking of their ship. They have gone through a tough moral development where they realized their mob mentality of killing the Nazi captain was stooping to the level of Nazis.

Greyhound is a 2020 movie based on a C.S. Forster story about a Navy Destroyer protecting a convoy across the Atlantic despite communications issues with the rest of the fleet. Forster is known for writing The African Queen and the Horacio Hornblower books. Tom Hanks is the star of this movie and he also wrote the adapted screenplay. There isn’t a lot of character development of the seamen on the Destroyer, they don’t offer up a lot of backstory, and what we do learn mostly comes from clues in behavior. Hanks’ character does give us a little flashback to just before the cruise, where the captain proclaims his love to Elizabeth Shue and she responds by giving him a toy boat. It’s the character’s first time as a captain, but at least the fifth time Hanks has played a captain, including Captain Phillips, Saving Private Ryan, Apollo 13 and Sully (he was a captain in the military before flying commercially).

The comparison of exposition of characters of Lifeboat and Greyhound is understandable. It’s not just that Lifeboat is a single set drama that could easily have been adapted from a stage play, but it is a situation where the characters are left together to survive in a confined situation. They are only tasked with surviving together and much of their time is left to talk with each other, and get to known each other. It was not adapted from a stage play, but Alfred Hitchcock had a vision of doing a movie set on a lifeboat with survivors from a U-Boat attack. He had intended on getting Hemmingway to write a story for him, but Ernest passed and the second choice of John Steinbeck for a writer was not too shabby, either.

However, both movies give the scope of distance of objects at sea quite well. The lifeboat is far enough away from other ships when it finally does encounter an opportunity at being saved, that the survivors aren’t certain who is chugging closer and closer attempting to save them. Objects are so far apart that the ship that sinks the German vessel at the end is so far away that it can barely be seen in the distance, if at all. Greyhound does have sea craft in close range at times, it has near misses of torpedoes, but it also takes the camera away from a battle, up into the air, above the explosions, into the clouds and above to see the Northern Lights in the distance, as the natural world is bigger than this violence.

Oddly enough, the $50 million dollar production of Greyhound was not filmed in a natural environment. The water was made with a video game engine. Not a drop of water was used in making of this movie. Lifeboat, however, while it wasn’t shot out on open water, was shot in a tank on a studio lot. The boat was 40 feet long and required a series of stairs for the actors to walk across to get to work every day. Fourty year old stage actress Tallulah Bankhead was in a “I don’t give a shit” mood during the shooting of the film and refused to wear panties under her large dress. Every time she would walk to the boat she would need to hike up her dress to keep her wardrobe dry, fully exposing herself to the entire crew. Leaving nothing to suspension of disbelief. Hitchcock enjoyed the brashness from his lead actress and the reactions for the crew, but also shied away from confrontation. After numerous complaints came back to him about Bankhead, he announced over a megaphone that any complaints about Ms. Bankhead should be directed to the hair and wardrobe departments.

I feel I have to mention another movie about U-Boats terrorizing the Atlantic during World War II and that's Carol Reed's The Key from 1954. That is the story of tugboat crewmen tasked with dragging ships disabled by U-Boats back to shore. It's a complicated love story of ill-fated seamen, but the rolling oceans rippling through the tugs. Reed is best known as the director of the all-time great movie, The Third Man, and Thee Key is a hidden gem. The tugs are not immune to torpedoes and many times those tugboat crews weren't afforded the luxury of a lifeboat.

When it comes to movies about U-Boat adversaries, Greyhound is as great of a viewing experience as Lifeboat and The Key is a nice third movie in a triple feature.

Letterboxd reviews of Greyhound

Next Month: Rebecca (2020) and Rebecca (1940).


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