Sunday, 28 May 2017

Race, Religion and Whaling : Down to the Sea in Ships

Down to the Sea in Ships (1922, Elmer Clifton) is famous because it made Clara Bow a star, but it's even more interesting as a semi-historical document.  It's also a surprisngly subversive commentary on race, religion and hypocrisy.

When this film was made whaling in tall ships was still an important industry, and many of the shots are authentic, shot with local whalers, who still practised their trade. This film is much more than a movie. The plot is melodrama, but plays out against a background which would be impossible to replicate today.  Though the story is set in the mid-nineteenth century (the Gold Rush is news), those times were living memory to many people 100 years ago. Just as Nosferatu (1921 - read more here) depicts a Germany of the recent past which was soon to vanish, So when we look at the whalers in their small boats, struggling with the ocean, we aren't watching stunt men, but men who really did know how to ride the waves.  There are shots where we can see whole herds of whales, and porpoises, swimming freely. Possibly not so easy to envisage today.  Down to the Sea in Ships is like a last, loving snapshot of a world we might reconstruct but can never experience. The best scenes, shot on the high seas, are grainy and not posed for dramatic effect, but they were made when motion picture technology was barely 25 years old.  Special credits then, to the two photographers, A G Penrod and Paul H Allen, "who, in small boats, stood by their cameras, at the risk of their lives, to film the fighting whales".  But there's even more to this film than meets the eye: its sub-texts on social issues are way ahead of its time. 

Down to the Sea in Ships was made by "The Whaling Film Corporation", specially set up for the purpose and shot in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the premiere took place. At the time, cinema wasn't dominated by big studios but by small independents, so this film is also a record of a film making model completely different to Hollywood, much closer to European art film of the period.  The director/producer was Elmer Clifton (1890-1949) who worked with D W Griffith, though in this film he shows a very different approach to movie-making.  

This film is not studio spectacular but direct engagement with Nature.  Nowadays there'd be warnings that "no real animals were harmed in filming". Not so in 1922. The massive sperm whale the whalers kill was probably a real whale.  No way the technology of the time was fancy enough to fake a whale like this. It fights back, flipping over one of the boats. The men fall into the sea but look as though they've done that before.  When the whale pulls three boats and their crews (weighing 6000 tons the subtitles tell us) the whale wasn't acting.  There are shots of blubber being stripped off the carcass, buckets filled with sperm and so on, lovingly captured in detail.  Presumably that's what happened : the whalers had to make a living and weren't paid much by the film company.  So if the filming is grainy, and the shots unposed, without the special effects we expect today, we shouldn't complain.  Although some scenes are clearly staged, technology of the time wasn't advanced enough to fake all that we see. The whaling ship, with three masts and nine sails, was almost certainly authentic. As the credits say "The brawny boatsteerer still throws the hand harpoon".  Though the hero is cast as boatsteerer, the man doing the job was evidently the real thing. 

It's interesting, then, hat the close knit community depicted is staunchly Quaker, though Quakers eschew killing.  I had a hard time squaring that with hunting whales almost to extinction, but I guess that's because we live in more enlightened times and don't depend on whales for fuel, bones and oil.  Quakers were whalers for economic reasons.  Captain Morgan is a retired whaleman, ramrod straight and unbending, and rich.  A bit of a tyrant too, who insists his daughter Patience cannot marry outside the faith or profession.  He's so uptight he complains that Patience's wedding shawl is "gay" because it has a fringe.  Being pig-headed is his downfall, though he doesn't live to find out.  For he's easily fooled.  Two men plot to steal his ships. One is Finner, a ne'er do well, the other is Siggs, from a "nearby city".

Siggs is seen dressed in Chinese clothes with Chinese antiques.  "You're almost white" says Finner.   Down to the sea in Ships is a whole lot less innocent than you'd expect.  Although race laws prevailed in the United States and elsewhere, not everyone was racist. Please see my piece  Broken Blossoms : Racist reversal the 1919  film by D W Griffith, Clifton's mentor, which subverts racist stereotypes and was banned in British colonies for fifty years as a result.  Griffith's Birth of a Nation presented the KKK in a good light, demeaning their victims.  But Clifton, who never made it big in Hollywood,  went on to make low-budget independent movies on difficult social issues. As in Broken Blossoms, and other films on race relations like The Cheat : racism and dishonesty (read more here)  fiendish orientals are defined as sex-obsessed maniacs, lusting for white women. The actor playing Siggs leers and grimaces, like a masked demon.  All Siggs has to do to pass as Quaker is wear a Quaker hat and talk thee and thou.  Is he mixed race, (in the 1850's) or is his race a ruse to justify titilliation? .And, in this film,  Finner is even more of a lecher, salivating over Dot,  Morgan's pre-pubescent  orphan granddaughter.  Later he attempts to rape her. (Dot and Finner in the photo below)

Dot is played by Clara Bow then aged 16 and chubby faced.  Captain Morgan cannot understand Dot, who was found floating on a raft when her parents' ship,went down.  Maybe she's not his at all.  She's a forceful whirlwind of a girl, more tomboy than lady, who hangs out with the labourers at the copper works and shamelessly pulls Jimmy's newly grown whiskers. Grandad grew rich from killing animals. Dot confronts men who tease a dog. She gets into fights. Eventually, she dresses as a boy to run off to sea when Jimmy signs on as a whaler.  Bow plays the part so well that she steals the show: the other actors are wooden in comparison.  And what a part it is, so unusual and so daring for its time.  Her more famous It Girl roles are tame stereotypes in comparison.

Patience is a wimp, who still plays with dolls, though she's at least in her 20's.  Siggs prevails on Captain Morgan, who,lets him court Patience. But Dexter, the Boy Next Door, returns from college and he and Patience fall in love. Finner gets Dexter shanghai'd on a whaling ship. Unfortunate term, given the racism in the depiction of Siggs, but a reminder that white men got screwed by a brutal system too.   Finner kills the master of the ship and takes control.  Dot, dressed as a cabin boy defends Jimmy when Finner fights him, and reveal she's a girl.  Finner gets caught molesting her and is locked in a cage. Dexter ends up becoming Boatsteerer, having earned the respect of the crew.  Having caught the big sperm whale (more innuemdo) the ship sails back to New Bedford. That very day, Patience is marrying Siggs, having promised her Dad on his deathbed to do so.  Dexter runs through a thunderstorm to the church, smashing a window, disrupting the ceremony and the decorum of Quaker propriety. Love prevails!  Next year Patience has a baby instead of a doll, and Dot cavorts in a flower strewn meadow with Jimmy. Along the way we see other vignettes of "real" life, like the Black ex-slaves of the Sea Islands, and Tacoma, Patience's First Nation maid, with an uncredited actress who clearly isn't white, and is dressed in Missionary Indian costume.

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