Somewhere between the endless Titanic films and my personal favourite Poseidon Adventure’s, in 1960 came a very underrated but frankly stunning boat disaster. The Last Voyage is a 60’s version of a cinematic popcorn explosion flick. However, in taking itself seriously and going for a more documentary-like approach, it is easily one of my favourite disaster movies of all time and deserves to be more widely recognised.
The disasters faced
Explosions, fire, a lot of sheet metal, water and a sinking ship. Add in soggy wooden planks, steam and a suicidal wife and you’ve got a great concoction for plenty of disaster movie action!
When a boiler room explodes on the S.S. Claridon causing a massive tear in the ship, the race is on to save the passengers and get off the ship before it sinks – something that the captain is certain will never happen.
The Last Voyage spends no time getting going, opening with a fire in the boiler room that kickstarts the doomed ships final hours before the credits have even started. We meet the Captain and his immediate crew and see how they all behave in under pressure. During this time we briefly meet our family of three that we will be following. Cliff and Laurie are middle-class passengers enjoying their voyage to Japan to move there for work whilst Jill, their daughter seems like a happy sprite. They have no beef with each other which is refreshing because, after about 10 minutes, a giant explosion rips a hole up through the ship. It leaves Jill trapped in her room clinging onto the edge of it and Laurie pinned under some sheet metal unable to move. The movie follows in almost real time how Cliff goes through various efforts to save his wife and daughter and how the boiler room staff and captain try to save the ship. Character move between and across each other as the ship becomes increasingly fragile and begins to sink. Just who will make it out alive?
Why is it worth watching?
Firstly, The Last Voyage is a tight film with zero filler. At just 87 minutes, the panic begins immediately and doesn’t stop until the final minute when the ship goes under. As the film revels in its organised chaos feel, the cast are as much reacting to their surroundings as they are acting with each other. I love this type of directing and its decades ahead of its time, where this became more prominent in today’s cinema.
The cast are sublime. Robert Stack is great as the suave male lead and Woody Strode spends the entire film oiled up topless trying to bash his way off the boat. I had no idea he was a well-known athlete but he can certainly act too. Dorothy Malone spends most of the film trapped and taking a darker path of wanting to end her own life to save her family and indeed her hopelessness envelopes the film and the inner panic in her eyes. Tami Marihugh plays Jill excellently too. The terror on the little girls face during her scenes feels genuine. From the ship personnel point of view, it’s fascinating to watch the Captain get everything so very wrong. On the flipside, his staff are questioning his every move too and the interplay of rank and officialdom coming into play feels of its time.
There is also little to no musical score for The Last Voyage. Instead, we have some narration at key points to give a poetic approach to the sinking and that works well. We also have the constant churn of the ship as bits of it break and fall apart. That background is just as haunting as a musical score and lends itself to the serious approach of the film.
One of the beauties of the film is its reliance on clever tricks of the eye and set design. Wide shots are used sparingly to fit in with the almost documentary style of delivery. Instead, you see water pouring in and submerging sets almost in the background to the main characters. The set design is amazing – especially when they stretch several stories high and people are chucking timbre beams down them. Whenever I watch The Last Voyage, I always marvel at the seemingly throwaway details of the large cast of extras, semi-flooded sets and the logistics of lowering lifeboats. It just feels so full of life and it really amps up the movie. The ships sinking is also handled really impressively without ever having cutaway shots to show just destruction. Every shot is there for a reason and the whole final two minutes still impresses me 60 years later.
In a genuinely awesome fact, the ship used to film The Last Voyage was the SS Ile De France – the first ship to have arrived at the sinking Andrea Doria just 4 years earlier in 1956. It was instrumental in saving plenty of lives when the Andrea Doria collided with another ship and sank. However, it’s rumoured that when the ship was used for a sinking film, the owners asked for any trace of Ile De France to be removed and so S.S. Claridon was born.
Third Officer Osbourne (George Furness – who is the narrator) is cracking in his pure Britishness. The Last Voyage has some very 1960’s language and thoughts and Osbourne is everything I’d expect from someone who’d survived the wars. Tammy Marihugh gives an absolutely stonking performance as Jill. She cries, screams, gets thrown off the boat (I hope they caught her properly) and has plenty of adorable heart-wrenching temper tantrums as she doesn’t want to be separated from her parents. I also wanted to give a shout to Chief Engineer Pringle (Jack Kruschen) whose matter of fact delivery and deadpan replies absolutely nail what I’d imagine a seasoned veteran of his trade would have been like in a disaster. Lastly, Stack and Malone are excellent as parents in love. It’s their passion for each other that keeps everything human and their love feels more layered and realistic than most.
‘Beat generation!’ – Cliff when a youngster barges past him.
Three memorable moments
- The final two minutes of the sinking for its technical marvel
- Jill hanging onto a telephone cable to stop herself from falling
- When the chimney stack collapses
The obligatory weird moment…
Whilst The Last Voyage has absolutely stood the test of time, there is one shot that always makes me smile and it’s during the initial explosion. There’s a shot to show a piano player being blasted up skyward but it’s just a dummy and as its clothes blast open you can see it is a dummy. The Last Voyage wins brownie points back though for being yet another sinking ship film to feature a piano, although quite symbolically it falls down to a crunch very early on. It’s like the piano death is there to signal that this will not be a kind or romanticised film.
The drinking game
Between Laurie and Jill, our mother and daughter scream, cry out or just cry in frustrating an awful lot during 87 minutes. I hope Dorothy Malone was paid per desperate cry – but we shall drink for each one they both do in support… if you are hardcore enough.
The Last Voyage is a fantastic film from start to end – it’s extremely difficult to fault. It moves at a pace, it’s very well acted and the movie itself is beautifully shot with lots of attention to detail. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do so if you are a disaster movie fan. This is so well overdue a remastering and a bit of love.
Rating: 5/5 (My Favourite / Personal Recommendation)
If you liked The Last Voyage then you may like…
- Titanic (1997) – for being as cinematically fraught
- The Poseidon Adventure – for being as entertaining…and upside down
- A Night to Remember – for being an almost documentarian approach to Titanic
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*This review was updated to a new format on 04/05/19.