The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME | The Movie Waffler


The Ship That Died of Shame review
The crew of a WWII gunboat commandeer their old vessel for a smuggling operation.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Basil Dearden

Starring: George Baker, Richard Attenborough, Bill Owen, Roland Culver, Virginia McKenna

The Ship That Died of Shame DVD

Ealing Studios are most widely associated with their classic comedies, while to modern viewers Richard Attenborough represents the avuncular, bearded nice guys of Miracle on 34th Street and Jurassic Park. Of course, both had far more diverse filmographies than such pigeon-holing suggests. Feeling their comedies were growing staid, Ealing began producing crime thrillers in the 1950s. Some of Attenborough's best performances saw him play seriously nasty pieces of work. Sandwiched between arguably his two best performances – the ruthless young gangster of Brighton Rock and the quiet spoken serial killer of 10 Rillington Place – is an overlooked Dickie performance, that of an opportunistic WWII veteran turned smuggler in director Basil Dearden's 1955 thriller The Ship That Died of Shame.

The film's hero, Bill Randall, is played by George Baker. In the movie's opening scene we watch as he loses the two women he loves most. His wife (Virginia McKenna) is killed when a Nazi bomb drops on the home they've been lent by a Navy buddy of Bill's. Bill channels his grief into his military role and falls into the port and starboard arms of the other woman in his life, a Navy gun-boat designated "1087", which he anthropomorphises to an almost sexual degree, describing the vessel as a "real honey."

The Ship That Died of Shame review

Bill's second-in-command is Attenborough's George Hoskins. The two bond over their mutual love of 1087 and of blasting Nazi positions, but they clash over matters of honesty – Bill is taken aback by George's suggestion of faking the numbers of enemy craft they've downed.

After the war Bill finds himself down on his luck. One night while drinking at a club for former gun-boat crews he bumps into George, now dressed in classic spiv fashion. George is making a tidy living smuggling, but he wants a bigger operation, and has a plot to lure Bill into his business – he'll purchase 1087 and make Bill a partner. Bill is hesitant at first but once he sees 1087 sitting forlornly in a boat graveyard he changes his mind.

The Ship That Died of Shame review

Enlisting another of their wartime crew, Birdie (Bill Owen), the three men embark on a successful series of smuggling runs. Initially it's harmless enough cargo like "nylons and wine," and Bill falls for George's sentiment that they're performing a public service by giving the citizens of gloomy post-war Britain something to brighten up their lives. But soon George's ambitions lead to counterfeit cash, guns and a sinister fugitive desperate to escape across the channel.

As George's ambition sails the crew into increasingly murky moral waters, Bill turns a blind eye. It seems he's so desperate to be in the company of 1087 that he's willing to compromise his beliefs. This idea of men being in love with their boats is nicely suggested by Dearden's framing in the earlier scene at the clubhouse, in which a curvy Jessica Rabbit lookalike torch singer wiggles her hips in the background while a model of a gun-boat takes pride of place in the foreground.

The Ship That Died of Shame review

In most films noir, the hero is ultimately undone by his love for a woman, and 1087 is no different. In a precursor to Stephen King's Christine, the gun-boat seems to take on a life of its own and rebels against its misuse by her former wartime commandeers. The more immoral the cargo becomes, the more temperamental the boat behaves. Crates full of guns are shaken from her stern and her engine splutters to a halt as the three men try to flee a customs patrol. In a touch that seems to have influenced Spielberg's Duel, the creaks of 1087 resemble the howls of a dying animal.

Some commentators have surmised that 1087 is possessed by the spirit of Bill's dead wife, but the film never offers any concrete evidence to back up this theory. Whether 1087 has some sort of a soul or is simply a piece of temperamental machinery is left ambiguous. Viewers who work with such vessels and form attachments may disagree, but the subplot does occasionally threaten to sink what is otherwise a melancholy thriller about a generation of men struggling to find a place for themselves in a post-war Britain.

The Ship That Died of Shame
 is on UK VOD, DVD and bluray from September 11th.