Seven Waves Away (1957)
“14 of these survivors must be cast adrift! Which will the Captain choose?”
Director: Richard Sale
Cast: Tyrone Power, Mai Zetterling, Lloyd Nolan
Synopsis: Ship’s officer finds himself in command of a lifeboat full of survivors of a sunken luxury liner.
We see, over the opening credits of Richard Sales’ still-powerful Seven Waves Away, an old, encrusted mine bobbing on the ocean’s surface and then, as the director’s credit fades, some crude effects replicate the sudden chaos of an explosion amidst a cacophony of panicked voices. It’s not a promising start – although it’s probably the best Mr. Sale could do with a clearly limited budget – but thankfully Seven Waves Away improves immeasurably after this inauspicious opening, slowly generating layers of tension that enfold both the characters and the audience as the steadily worsening conditions for a number of survivors on a desperately overloaded lifeboat force its inexperienced leader to consider a grim, unpalatable decision.
That leader is Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power), an officer aboard a luxury liner carrying more than 1,000 passengers across the South Atlantic which breaks in two and sinks within seven minutes of making contact with that mine we saw during the opening credits. The speed with which the liner sinks means that most passengers would be sucked under water with the turbulence it creates, which explains why only thirty or so of the 1,000 passengers survive. Holmes first pitches up on a raft upon which three survivors are perilously balanced, but is soon back in the water when he spies someone struggling in the shark-infested water (we never learn the fate of those three survivors). That person just happens to be Julie White (Mai Zetterling), a nurse on the liner who also happens to be Holmes’ love interest. This episode provides perhaps the film’s only major weakness, in that the odds of a couple both surviving the explosion and subsequent sinking has to be fairly minimal – although not inconceivable enough to completely derail the story. Anyway, with sharks circling and the raft drifting away from them, it looks like the lovers’ reunion is going to be a short one until a gunshot temporarily frightens the creatures away. The shot came from a nearby lifeboat. Crew and passengers are jammed into the boat and tied to its sides, but despite being overcrowded, Holmes and White are hauled aboard.
It turns out the commander of the ship is also aboard the lifeboat, but he’s in a bad way and he’s quick to pass command on to Holmes before checking out. Holmes quickly demonstrates the pragmatic approach that will form the basis of the forthcoming conflict when he orders the captain’s body to be stripped of its clothes before being thrown overboard. Attention quickly turns to the condition of the passengers: some are fully fit while others are suffering from wounds that range from the uncomfortable – one character has inadvertently swallowed fuel – to the serious: a crewman, Kelly (Lloyd Nolan), who it soon becomes apparent won’t survive the difficulties to come. The boat is intended to provide safe passage for just nine passengers – 12 at most – but there are 27 souls crammed in, or floating alongside, it, which means that, should they encounter bad weather, their combined weight will undoubtedly sink them all. To make matters worse, the disaster happened so quickly that the ship was unable to transmit a distress signal, so rescue could be days or weeks away, and there isn’t enough food or medical supplies to last that long.
Holmes is initially determined to save all the passengers, but as the practical Kelly makes clear, the only way anyone has even a remote chance of survival is if the injured and weak are cast overboard. ‘They’re already dead’, he tells Holmes with a chilling simplicity, ‘They’ll just drag you down’. He then backs up his assertion by tossing himself overboard. During the night, another passenger dies, but it’s not enough to improve the situation for the remaining survivors. And as the storm clouds gather overhead and the wind starts thrashing the boat, Holmes begins choosing those who must be cast overboard.
The scenes in which the unlucky – and, for the most part, loudly protesting – passengers are cast adrift still retain their power today and provide fifteen minutes or so of quite harrowing viewing. The moral dilemma faced by Holmes, who begins to resemble a haggard ghost himself as the film unfolds, is practically insoluble, and Sales’ script emphasises the stark horror of the choices Holmes must make by having many of those whose injuries make them first in line for jettisoning more decent and sympathetic characters than those who are permitted to remain aboard. It’s survival of the strongest, natural selection, but the realisation of that fact makes it no more palatable, and Sales uses this to muddy the waters further. The opinions of those who remain with Holmes, for the most part vacillate depending on the immediate situation in which they find themselves. Whether you’re emerging intact from the terror of a ferocious storm or hailing the ship that will return you to civilisation and safety has a profound influence on one’s opinion, and it’s as if Sales is making the point that it’s impossible for us to judge either Holmes or his passengers for their frequently opposing points of view.
Sales intelligently explores the numerous moral questions posed by the situation in which Holmes finds himself, but refuses to allow the film to take up a clearly identifiable position on the matter. For every cogent argument there is an equally persuasive counter-argument that makes watching Seven Waves Away quite exhausting at times, as if it is repeatedly hauling us on-board only to immediately throw us back into the sea. It’s an injustice that a film like this remains little known and largely unseen, and there’s no doubt it should be more highly regarded than it currently is. One thing’s for sure: that brief shot of a trail of humanely discarded passengers littering the sea like so much debris in the wake of the lifeboat is one I won’t forget in a hurry…
(Reviewed 25th November 2013)