For National Maritime Day: 5 Movies About The Last Days of Steam

I share this cockamamie little post with you in observation of National Maritime Day (May 22). It concerns a now obscure historical cul-de-sac that I’ve become sort of obsessed with via a handful of movies: the final days of steamship travel as a form of transportation. Now, naturally cruise ships are still a thing (not at this very moment due to the pandemic, but you know what I mean). But cruises are an adaptation in the passenger shipping industry that has occurred in the Jet Age. People essentially take cruises as ends in themselves. They go sightseeing, travel in a circle, and then return to their destination. In earlier days, you took a ship to GET WHERE YOU WERE GOING. There might have been romance and adventure in the voyage, but it was also how you got from A to B. By the mid 20th century, air travel rapidly began to replace ships for such purposes. It’s not hard to cipher out why. Nowadays you can cross the Atlantic in six hours instead of six days. Those of us too young to recall the time before jets have at best a vague idea of when that transition happened. In point of fact, 1958 was the first year that more passengers made the transatlantic crossing by air than by sea. Surprisingly late, right? And ships, as transportation, listed along in that role for a few years more, and THAT is the period I found myself interested in. (Transatlantic crossings still occur to this day, of course, but again they are regarded more as leisurely ends in themselves, as “cruises” rather than as “transportation”). At rate, here are five films that paint a picture of what I am calling The Last Days of Steam.

The Last Voyage (1960)

Andrew Stone wrote, directed, and produced this fascinating sea disaster thriller about a Titanic style predicament set on a decrepit old ocean liner. It was shot aboard a real ship, the S.S. Ile de France, giving the film a documentary flavor. The first act of the film gives a terrific glimpse of these waning days of sea travel: sort of middle class and ugly American, with a sheen of the old rituals of romance but now sort of threadbare and small. It’s a fascinating cultural moment: post-tuxedo, pre-Love Boat. Much more on the film here. 

Ship of Fools (1965)

Stanley Kramer’s all-star adaptation of the Katherine Ann Porter novel is definitively set in 1933, but everything you see onscreen belies that fact. I am astounded to learn that it won an Oscar for art/set direction, for very little effort seems to have been made to make costumes and hairstyles period accurate, and both the cast and the ship mock-up they inhabit appear modest in scale, with none of the glitter or glamour of the great age of sea travel. The first time I caught this movie (already in progress) on television, I assumed it was set when it was made; it wasn’t until a Nazi character came onscreen that I learned that it was supposed to be the 1930s. If you want to see what sea travel was like in 1965, you could probably do worse than watch this movie set in 1933. It’s like the film-makers couldn’t conceive of a time when sea travel wasn’t old hat, shabby, and pathetic.

The Countess from Hong Kong (1966)

Charlie Chaplin’s last and worst film was first scripted in the 1930s, which is the only explanation for its irrational, anachronistic premise. Marlon Brando is en route to an important diplomatic post in the Middle East, but he doesn’t fly there as any important, busy person would have done at that late date. Instead he spends several vital days wallowing around a fake-looking stateroom in a smoking jacket, occasionally (but very rarely) venturing out to other areas of the ship. Times had changed rapidly so perhaps we can forgive Chaplin for being out of touch. He himself had returned to Europe via an ocean liner in 1952. To a man of his age, 13 or 14 years were nothing, and he seems to have assumed that affairs were much as they had always been. The portrait he paints feels like greater than usual fantasy, but not intentionally. And yet it must have been just plausible enough; no one said, “Wait, Mr. Chaplin! You can’t do this in 1966!”  More on this vexing film here.

The Lost Continent (1968)

I caught this one on TCM recently, and it’s what gave me the idea that I had critical mass for a post on this topic. This Hammer science fiction thriller is set on a tramp steamer, a smaller vessel carrying both cargo and passengers. Tramp steamers had been around for decades at this point, though again, I associate them with an earlier era (think of that charter vessel in King Kong, for example). The plot concerns a small group of crew and passengers en route from Sierra Leone to Venezuela, each of whom has something to hide, and their ensuing adventures when they arrive on the titular Lost Continent, which contains monstrous creatures and a colony of Spanish Conquistadors. It’s the atmosphere and detail in the early scenes that intrigued me most. I found myself more interested in the mode of travel than the killer seaweed and giant monsters.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

This is the movie that set me on this voyage! I wrote about it here. The Poseidon Adventure the first movie I ever saw in a theatre, and when I got a bit older, I became obsessed with Paul Gallico’s original 1969 novel. The Poseidon is an aging steamship on her last voyage across the Mediterranean. She normally carries both passengers and cargo, but having delivered her cargo she now has empty holds in her lower decks, making her top-heavy. An interfering company bureaucrat refuses to allow the taking on of ballast so that she can arrive at her destination quicker. Then a sub-sea earthquake unleashes a tsunami, capsizing her, and the people aboard must climb their way to the upturned hull and safety. Some of the passengers are tourists, but some, like a pair of kids going to meet their parents, and a minister going to assume a new post, are simply traveling. The modest profiles of most of them (a cop, a haberdasher, a deli owner) are reflective of changing times. Democracy on the high seas!

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At any rate, as we write this, there are storm clouds on the horizon for sea travel, even in its modern luxury cruise incarnation. Even prior to Covid-19, there were increasing news stories of cruise ships experiencing outbreaks of illness, giving the industry much negative P.R. Are we entering a NEW “Last Days of Steam”? Time will tell.