*. The Ghost Ship is a movie that disappeared soon after its release due to a lawsuit claiming the script had been plagiarized. It stayed out of circulation for some fifty years, making it a nearly-lost movie.
*. I begin with that bit of trivia because the charge of plagiarism is an interesting one given how many tales of the sea The Ghost Ship draws on. There’s Melville’s Billy Budd, with its innocent eponymous hero being destroyed by the false accusations of the malevolent Claggart. There’s Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, whose Wolf Larsen captains The Ghost. There’s a long line of demented or power-mad captains that runs from Ahab to Captain Queeg (the latter being another authoritarian undone by his own incompetence).
*. All of these connections have been made to The Ghost Ship. I don’t hear the name of Conrad invoked as often but I think it belongs in the mix too. Merriam is the narrator figure who is confronted by a man who has adopted an amoral, vaguely Nietzschean philosophy (“Men are worthless cattle! And a few men are given authority to drive them.”). The novel also takes the form of a Conradian rite of passage, as Merriam has to cross the shadow line dividing youth from maturity before he can inherit a command on his own. As Captain Stone explains to Merriam, going from being a cadet to an officer is all the difference from being a boy to becoming a man.
*. Granting that it sails a somewhat familiar course, The Ghost Ship is also a very odd movie, full of bizarre elements. Because it was a Val Lewton production? Well, that may have been a part of it but his influence is hard to quantify. Can we speak of a “typical” Lewton film? I’m not sure, even if we define him by the strangeness of his output.
*. Clearly, however, Richard Dix as Captain Stone gives a remarkable portrait of a psycho: not a raving lunatic or sadistic crazy but a cool killer, fully in thrall to his obsession with authority.
*. Despite Stone’s professional coolness (note the scene where he shuts the door on Louie), this is also a remarkably violent film. The crushing of Louie in the chain locker is shocking, especially for the time. And the amount of blood in the final knife fight between Stone and the mute sailor Finn (Skelton Knaggs) is a surprise too. I’m not sure how they got away with showing so much.
*. That final fight is noteworthy for a couple of other reasons. In the first place, it leaves the film’s hero as a mere onlooker, bound and gagged in his bed. Knaggs (whose proficiency at stealing scenes I mentioned in my notes on House of Dracula) has to serve as a kind of proxy.
*. The other thing I find interesting about it is the way it proceeds while a calypso song that the crew are dancing to on deck plays in the background. That makes for an effective incongruity, and a flourish I wasn’t expecting.
*. Finally, there’s an interesting political message being made in the way everyone makes accommodations for the captain’s authority and established social status (he is an “old friend” of everyone in power). For much of the movie Merriam is actually the villain of the piece. Though morally in the right he is rocking the boat. He is also an orphan, with no connections to the company power structure to give him any standing. At the end he triumphs not through any action of his own (Finn the mute takes care of the Captain) before being adopted (or absorbed) into the company family.
*. For a minor movie that’s only a little over an hour long, having this much going on was enough to have made The Ghost Ship worth checking out. While not a classic it is a film of interest for fans of multiple genres.