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November 19th, 2013

Film Review: Captains Courageous

“They don’t make them this good anymore.”  How we like to say that and hear others say it.  Babe Ruth set his homerun record without steroids.  Rock music of the 1960s was the most original.  The golden era was the best; technical advancements have spoiled audiences for the grand old style.  

That is how I reacted to seeing a VHS version of the 1937 black and white film Captains Courageous.  This is an acting movie, and the only special effects consist in schooner scenes that I never thought were filmable.  

Harvey Cheyne is a rich, spoiled, motherless, neglected-by-father brat.  For the first 30 minutes we see Harvey push his ugly ego on to servants and schoolmates.  Finally his elite, private school kicks him out, and his father realizes he must drop his corporate climb and take Harvey on a father-son trip to Europe.  But soon after leaving port, Harvey pulls a prank that backfires and he falls overboard, while the liner sprints away.  Luckily a fisherman in a dinghy is handy, and Harvey soon finds himself on a large schooner, the mother-ship to 8 dinghies that are fishing for haddock on the Grand Banks.

The fisherman, Manuel, befriends Harvey, who butts into a crew of 20 fishing sailors who care not one whit for Harvey’s aristocratic air.  The schooner captain, Disco, tells the fuming Harvey he will remain on board for three months while the ship fills up with salted haddock.  Immersed in this tight community of laborers, Harvey realizes he must grow morally.  After bitter run-ins with the crew, he gradually sees the value of telling the truth, being trustworthy, sacrificing for the good of the group, and learning the skills of hard-laboring fishermen.  Manuel undertakes Harvey’s training, and the two go out each day to fish, bonding as substitute father and son.

A climax occurs when Manuel challenges another sailor, Long Jack, to a fishing contest—who can catch the most haddock in a day.  Beginning the contest, both dinghies are warming to their routine when Long Jack’s line becomes wildly snarled; he falls out of his boat and the tangled line encircles him.  Eventually he climbs back into his boat to the jeers of Manuel.  Then Harvey tells Manuel that he, Harvey, snarled Long Jack’s line last night, to get an advantage on Jack.  Manuel is stunned and stops fishing to bundle Harvey back to the schooner for the rest of the day.  Then Manuel concedes the contest to Long Jack, and attention turns to the cheater, Harvey.  The boy feels contrition for his deception, and we see his backbone straighten.  

The fishing and haddock processing scenes are great—reviewers have seen a documentary style in them.  When the schooner is full, its crew race another haddock schooner for port.  The tall masts and healed-over ships are magnificent.  The schooners lean and plunge through the rough seas at startling speeds.

The ending is highly satisfying: a tragedy and a final step into adulthood.  Christian worship—Catholic first, then Protestant—is used at the end to comfort bereaved families whose men have died at sea.  Captains Courageous is knocked off a Rudyard Kipling novel by the same name, which I have not read.  Some well-known actors.  Nearly all-men cast—maybe this is a guy’s film. They don’t make films any longer with moral development this well-acted.