The Ship That Died of ShamePG¦ Blu-ray, DVD
If you’re of a certain age, by which of course we mean long in the tooth, by which we mean really quite old, and know a smidgeon about British cinema, when you hear the name Ealing Studios you’re likely to think of classic comedies.
And of course you would be right to, being as they produced such British classics as The Ladykillers, The Man in the White Suit and Passport to Pimlico.
But as a studio they didn’t just play it for laughs, as this absorbing 1955 crime drama proves.
During WWII, George (Richard Attenborough) and Birdie (Bill Owen) served aboard the gun boat 1087 under their captain Bill (George Baker). They would patrol coastlines, on both sides of the Channel, with guns at the ready to take out the enemy.
When the war ended they went their separate ways, With Bill deciding to start his own ship building business. But when that doesn’t go to plan, he finds himself without a job.
He then has a chance meeting with George in a bar, who just so happens to have a job opportunity on the horizon, that Bill would be really suited for. It’s a job that would have them in need of a boat, a reliable one at that, and it just so happens their trusty 1087 is up for sale. With the lure of being on board her again, George agrees, and they even get Birdie back on board too, just like old times.
They make some cash ferrying holidaymakers around on day trips, but their real job is more nefarious, smuggling the likes of nylons and booze back to Old Blighty. Although illegal, it’s all fairly harmless stuff. However, George has bigger plans, which see all through of them traverse far murkier waters.
This film is one of the very last the studio produced under its own name, before the BBC took over from 1955.
Base on a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat, who had spent time in the Royal navy before becoming a writer, going on to write this and The Cruel Sea, which was also picked up by Ealing Studios and released in 1953.
It’s a film that is surprisingly dark in tone, with ripples of the supernatural throughout. It’s also an early example of an object being treated more like a character with the boat being an integral part. Although it has a number for a name, the boat is always referred to as ‘she’, which helps humanise it in many ways. And it is with this personality that it develops, where crew members talk about ‘her’ as having feelings, and not being happy with her current employment, that the boat becomes an almost unexplainable force, which its title alludes to.
Its’ a film that also deals with a reversal of power, that sees ex captain Bill now taking orders from George. And it’s with this exchange that ultimately leads to both their downfall.
It’s a film that has sadly slipped under the radar over the years, which is a real shame, as it has a few really interesting themes that were most definitely not of its time.
There are some great performances too, especially from Attenborough, who shines as the loveable rogue, as well Owen, who went on to play the iconic character Compo in the long-running BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine.
It should be said that the film has aged remarkably well, especially its scenes at sea, that still remain fairly realistic. The fact that’s it’s recently been lovingly restored too certainly has something to do with it, looking especially sharp and crisp.
A fascinating film then that takes on board themes of class, rank and relationships, as well as seeing men who served their country now forced to take on criminal activities to survive, with sprays of eerie goings-on, making it the perfect time for this rare Ealing Studio drama to resurface back on our screens.