Lifeboat is a movie made during World War II, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It begins with a freighter that was on its way from America to England, having been sunk by a German U-boat. The captain of the U-boat gave orders to fire upon the lifeboats, after which the U-boat itself is sunk. One lifeboat manages to survive, and one by one it is populated by British and Americans of all walks of life. Finally, Willi (Walter Slezak), a German, is pulled aboard. Some, such as a John Kovac (John Hodiak), who worked in the engine room, want to throw the German overboard, while columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), radioman Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and industrialist Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) (i.e., a woman and two weak men, appeasers all) argue successfully that they should let the German stay.
As the movie progresses, we see that while the British and Americans share what they have with the German, he conceals from them that he has a flask of water, some food and energy tablets, and a compass, by which he tries to steer them away from Bermuda and toward an area of the ocean occupied by German ships. He further conceals that he was the captain of the U-boat.
Of particular interest is Gus Smith (William Bendix), who has been wounded in the leg. When we find out that he loves to dance, we know right then his leg is doomed. Sure enough, it becomes gangrenous. As it turns out, Willi was a surgeon before the war and says that he can amputate. We get the sense that he enjoys the idea of removing Gus’s leg, much like the sadistic doctor in King’s Row (1942), who unnecessarily amputates the legs of Ronald Reagan. Gus does not want to have his leg removed, saying he’d rather die than live with one leg, because he is afraid that he will lose Rosie, the girl back home whom he loves. He fears that she might not want to marry him if he comes back without one of his legs, especially since she loves to dance as much as Gus does. To make matters worse, Gus has a rival, Al Magaroulian, whom Rosie used to date, and who is also a good dancer, even though fallen arches have kept him out of the war. Gus is afraid Rosie will go back to Al if he has his leg removed. But eventually he relents, and Willi performs the surgery with no better anesthetic than brandy.
Later in the movie, while everyone is sleeping lethargically from dehydration, Gus catches Willi sipping a drink of water from his flask. To keep Gus from telling the others about the water, Willi pushes him overboard. When the others awaken from hearing Gus’s cries for help, they realize Gus has drowned, and they ask Willi why he didn’t do something. Willi does not, of course, tell them that he pushed Gus overboard to keep him from talking. Instead, he tells them that Gus voluntarily jumped overboard, and that he thought it would be best not to do anything about it:
You can’t imagine how painful it was to me. All night long, to watch him turning and suffering and nothing I could do for him…. The best way to help him was to let him go. I had no right to stop him, even if I wanted to. A poor cripple dying of hunger and thirst. What good could life be to a man like that?
It probably didn’t help that earlier in the movie, when the passengers in the lifeboat were voting on whether to throw Willi overboard, he heard Gus vote to toss him into the ocean.
Then the other passengers find out about the water and food that Willi has been concealing. They attack Willi, both the men and the women, forcing him overboard and to his death. But one person does not take part in the attack. It is Joe “Charcoal” Spencer (Canada Lee), an African American. The idea seems to be that killing Willi is essentially a lynching, something that Joe would be sensitive about and find repugnant. He even tries to stop the nurse, Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), from participating in the killing, though she breaks away from him.
More likely, the true motivation was external to the film, in that those who made the movie were afraid that theaters in the South would have refused to show a movie in which a black man takes part in the killing of a white man, even if that white man is a Nazi. In fact, earlier in the movie, when they were voting on whether to throw Willi overboard, Rittenhouse asks Joe how he wants to vote. Joe asks, “Do I get to vote too?” When told that he does, he says, “Guess I’d rather stay out of this.” This too was probably to placate the South, which would have bristled at seeing Joe get to vote right alongside white people. Instead, southern audiences were undoubtedly pleased to see that this Negro knew his place.
One of the women brought aboard the lifeboat has a baby that drowned. Eventually, they decide to give the baby a burial at sea. The passengers know that a prayer is in order, but are not sure which one. Rittenhouse says that any prayer will do, and he begins saying Psalm 23, the one that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd….” However, Rittenhouse begins to falter after a couple of lines. But then Joe picks up where he left off, for he knows the entire thing by heart, and finishes it reverently. One might suppose that the movie is depicting this as something admirable, but it is actually condescending. African Americans in the old movies were always allowed to be more religious than white people, not because they were better than white people, morally speaking, but because their lesser intelligence made it possible for them to embrace their simple beliefs with an unquestioning faith. In movies like The Green Pastures (1936) and Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959), it is clear that their religious notions are naïve and childlike, something white people approve of in black folks with an affectionate smile, but would be incapable of taking seriously themselves.
After they kill Willi, they realize that he was the only one who knew enough and had strength enough to row them to safety. Rittenhouse says, “When we killed the German, we killed our motor.” But Joe says, “We still got a motor,” as he looks up toward the heavens. Rittenhouse is dismissive when he realizes Joe is talking about God. Here again, religion enters the movie through an acceptable vehicle, through a black man, while the white people remain skeptical, thereby retaining their dignity. All this is a prejudice of the movies I’m talking about here, not necessarily how things were in real life.
Joe is only one of two people on the boat that is married, the other being Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), the woman with the dead baby. That leaves the way open for romantic possibilities. Sparks ends up proposing to Alice, who had been having an affair with a married man and was miserable on account of it. She accepts his proposal. Kovac seems to be angry at the world, especially at Rittenhouse, who is a capitalist, while Kovac is a prole. And he resents the fact that Connie is high class. Little by little, she loses the symbols of her wealth, her mink and her diamond bracelet, for example. As a woman stripped of such adornments, she might be suitable for Kovac. Finally, it turns out that she is from the same side of the tracks as Kovac. She uses her lipstick to put her initials on his chest, right alongside all the other initials of women tattooed on his torso. We wish Sparks and Alice happiness with their marriage. As for Kovac and Connie, they’d better just make it a fling.
Eventually, there is another sea battle, and it becomes clear that they will soon be picked up by an Allied ship, but not before they pull another German aboard who proves to be just as bad as Willi, though he is weak and soon overpowered, leaving the survivors to wonder, “What are you going to do with people like that?”
Yes, Nazis are evil, but are we all that good? Consider Willi’s justification for letting Gus drown. The lie that Willi thinks will be an acceptable justification for “allowing” Gus to drown is actually repugnant to the other survivors, who listen to his words in horror. And we who watch this movie are likewise repulsed by Willi’s callous remarks. But now let us ask ourselves why those who made this movie (John Steinbeck, Jo Swerling, and Alfred Hitchcock) put this into the story. We already knew Willi was evil before he killed Gus. When Mrs. Higley tells Willi he killed her baby when he ordered the lifeboats to be fired upon, Willi is so bored that he yawns and lies down to get some sleep. She becomes so distraught that she drowns herself. But if a murder on the lifeboat was needed to really drive home the point that Willi was evil, it was not Gus that had to be killed. It could have been Connie who saw Willi sneaking a sip of water. When she confronts him, he snaps her neck and dumps her overboard. That would certainly make it clear that Willi was evil! But I suspect people would have hated that movie.
The point is that those who made this movie had a special reason for killing Gus off beyond making it clear that Willi was evil, which was overdetermined in any event. They did it to make those in the audience feel better, believing that the audience would have been uneasy if the movie had ended with Gus still alive in that lifeboat. (It is for a similar reason that the mother with the dead baby had to commit suicide, because it would have been depressing to still have her alive at the end of the movie too.) Sure, Rosie might not have cared about Gus’s leg, marrying him anyway because she truly loved him. In a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Hollywood could make sure that things would turn out that way. In that movie, Cathy O’Donnell marries Harold Russell, despite the fact that both of his forearms have been replaced by prostheses, and despite the fact that her parents wanted her to break off the engagement. But in real life, we know things do not always work out that way. Rosie and Gus were not even engaged. Instead of being like O’Donnell, Rosie might have tried to put a good face on the situation for a couple of months and then broken up with Gus and gone back to Al Magaroulian. Since this movie is limited to what happens in and about that lifeboat, Hollywood could not guarantee a happy ending for Gus and Rosie, leaving the audience with dark forebodings as to what will happen when Gus gets back home.
Furthermore, the movie even indicates that Rosie will not remain true to Gus. When Kovac and Connie try to convince Gus he needs to have his leg amputated, he refuses, saying he doesn’t want to live with just one leg. (In a way, he is in agreement with Willi.) Connie gives Gus a long, sentimental talk about how women are, how Rosie would be heartbroken to find that Gus allowed himself to die because he didn’t have faith in her. Gus finally seems persuaded, but Connie turns away, saying, sotto voce, “God forgive me.” By this we are to understand that she knows Rosie will not stick with Gus, and we know we are supposed to agree with her assessment.
And so, rather than leave the audience suspecting that Rosie would desert Gus, which would have been depressing, those who made this movie killed Gus off, allowing the audience to leave the theater feeling much better about the movie than if Gus had lived. You might even say that Gus’s death was necessary for there to be a happy ending. But does that not imply that those who made this movie were essentially in agreement with Willi when he asked, “What good could life be to a man like that?” If they were right in their assessment of the audience’s reaction to an ending in which Gus is still alive, then does that not imply that the audience at that time felt the way Willi did? Of course, there is a big difference between saying a man is better off dead and saying that the death of that man made the story better. But both stem from the same sentiment.
And so, just as the audience gets the consolation of religion through Joe, while not being guilty of indulging in his silly superstitions, so too does the audience get the benefit of evil through Willi, while not being guilty of consciously wanting it.