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The Ship That Died Of Shame – Review

October 7, 2013

I know about ships. They’re wood and metal and nothing else. They don’t have souls. They don’t have wills of their own. And they don’t talk back, or so I told myself a thousand times. A thousand times I went over it all from the beginning. The beginning, like almost everything else about me, went back to the war, to motor gun boat 1087.

Ship That Died of ShameSo begins the narration of Skipper Bill Randall (played by George Baker) in an ambitious but almost forgotten film, which portrays both the excitement and tragedy of war and the bitter disappointment of servicemen who cannot adapt to peacetime Britain and sink deeper and deeper into a world of crime. The Ship That Died of Shame (1955) was adapted from a short story by Nicholas Montsarrat (author of The Cruel Sea) and directed by Basil Dearden for Ealing Studios, the wonderful production company whose classic series of comedies —Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Ladykillers (1955)–often had an undercurrent of darkness in their portrayal of the apparent gentility of British life. War films were common and popular in 1950s Britain. Films about the Royal Navy’s role in WWII, Battle of the River Plate (1956), Above Us The Waves (1955) and the adaptation of Montsarrat’s The Cruel Sea (1953), provided some of the best examples of the genre. They did not prove as popular with all the critics. One anonymous reviewer for the New Statesman complained they propagated a jingoistic view of wartime glories at a time, following the Suez Crisis, when British influence in the world was declining.

A dozen years after the Second world War we find ourselves in the really quite desperate situation of being, not sick of war, but hideously in love with it…while we ‘adventure’ at Suez, in the cinemas we are still thrashing Rommel…The more we lose face in the world’s councils, the grander, in our excessively modest way, we swell in this illusionary mirror held up by the screen. It is less a spur to morale than a salve to wounded pride; and as art or entertainment, dreadfully dull.

The criticism, however, is a small-minded one. The best war films of the era could merge thrilling action with a moving portrayal of the psychological costs of wartime on the people who lived and fought through it. At first glance, The Ship That Died of Shame appears to be just another well-constructed war film. When the story moves to a post-war setting, it becomes one of the most compelling of the relatively few British noir thrillers that were made in the era. Bill Randall and his crew, the brave and loyal Birdie (Bill Owen) and the charismatic but venal George Hoskins (Richard Attenborough) seem a perfect team aboard MGB 1087, and their courage holds fast during dangerous raiding operations along the coast of Nazi-occupied France. Randall is a brilliant seaman, but as he is confesses when the film begins, his view of boats is not a Romantic one. The real love of his life in onshore in the form of his beautiful wife Helen (Virginia McKenna), but after Helen is killed in an air raid, he feels that all his he has left is his boat and its crew. After the war, Randall finds it difficult to adapt to life on civvy street. A chance meeting with Hoskins leads to a lucrative offer. Hoskins has become involved in a smuggling ring transporting black market goods from France to Britain. Randall is clearly a moral man but he allows himself to be persuaded that it is harmless to ship products like wine and chocolates to a country suffering post-war austerity (rationing finally ended in the UK in 1954). Randall’s spirits soar when they buy and restore his beloved MGB 1087 for their  criminal enterprise. Things go well at first, but The Ship That Died of Shame is a dark film that becomes progressively more disturbing. They move from smuggling cargoes of luxury goods to cargoes of guns and ammunition. On one voyage, their cargo is human, Randall is shocked to discover the man is a fugitive child killer (and probable paedophile). The partnership between Randall and Hoskins becomes untenable as Randall becomes increasingly disillusioned by their work whereas Hoskins further embraces evil.

The Ship That Died of Shame is a wonderful genre hybrid of noir and war film. It features a stellar cast, all at the top of their game. Roland Culver is brilliantly snooty as the upper-class villain Major Fordyce who declares he went into smuggling after the war as he ‘got a bit tired of working for the plebs after fighting for them.’ Richard Attenborough has become such a national treasure that I had forgotten how good he was at playing villains. George Hoskins should rank alongside Pinkie Brown and John Christie as one of the most memorable and disturbing characters he has played.

As the characters’ acts become darker, MGB 1087 becomes a character in itself. Its engines shut down for no apparent reason, and it maroons them in violent storms. The more amoral they become, the more the ship seems to push them into danger, contradicting Randall’s opening statement that a ship has no soul. It gains a soul while they lose theirs.

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