THE GHOST SHIP directed by Mark Robson (USA, 1943)

ghostship2A ghost ship and, for 50 years, something of a ghost film.

Producer Val Lewton made his name with RKO making financially successful low-budget horror movies like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie.

The Ghost Ship was scuppered after a legal dispute over the screenplay led to it being withdrawn from theaters only to reappear when it entered the public domain in the 1990s.

From the title you would expect this to be a tale of a haunted vessel but the curse of the Altair comes not from any paranormal activity but from its psychologically deranged captain.

Val Lewton

Val Lewton

Richard Dix plays Captain Stone whose attitude to his crew is summed up by a speech in which he likens them to “worthless cattle” and declares that only “a few have the authority to drive them”.

His megalomania is such that he sees himself as quite literally a law unto himself so that anyone who questions his infallibility pays with his life. “Who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock” is the motto that hangs menacingly on the wall of his room

Captain Stone makes his point.

Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is the rookie third officer who is initially impressed by Stone’s stern leadership until he sees what the consequences are. His struggle to convince his shipmates that there is a madman in command is what drives the plot.

The claustrophobia and tension is heightened by the fact that the key action takes place aboard the ship where there’s nowhere to run. Cinematically, the suspense is efficiently heightened by the stylised use of shadows and light – a nautical noir, if you will.

The mostly male cast has led some to see homoerotic subtext in this melodrama which, I must say, I can’t see myself. It seems to me that the ship is better viewed as the sociopolitical system in microcosm showing both the seductive and destructive aspects of power.

A more realistic ending would have seen the captain maintain his rule of terror but you can’t have this kind of negativity in popular entertainment. A rushed conclusion has a mute sailor coming to the rescue to perpetuate the illusion that goodness and morality triumph over its reverse.