Lifeboat is a movie made during World War II, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Not surprisingly, then, it is a propaganda piece that illustrates the danger of appeasement because Germans are just plain evil.
The movie begins with a passenger ship being sunk by a German U-boat, which would ordinarily be evil enough, but just to rub it in, the captain of the U-boat gives 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) is pulled aboard. Some, such as a Kovac (John Hodiak), who worked in the engine room and is appropriately macho, wants to throw the German overboard, while columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), radioman Stanley 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 speaks English and 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 almost 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, 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, he pushes Gus 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, saying, “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?”
But the survivors soon realize what actually happened and 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 Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), an African American. Presumably those who made the movie did not want to offend audiences in the South by showing a black man taking part in the killing of a white man, even if that white man is a Nazi.
Shortly after that, 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, German 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 (writers John Steinbeck and Jo Swerling, and director Alfred Hitchcock) put this into the story. We cannot say it was to show that Willi was evil. We already knew that before he killed Gus. But if a murder was needed to really drive home the point, it was not Gus that had to be murdered. For example, it could have been Canada Lee that saw Willi sneaking a drink of water and who was then murdered by Willi and thrown overboard. Willi could then have tried to justify why he didn’t save Canada by saying, “Like the Jews, Negroes are inferior. They are better off dead and the world is better off without them.” That would definitely make it clear just how evil Willi is.
One could come up with other ways of dramatically showing how evil Willi is, but there is no need. 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. They did it to make those in the audience feel better. The audience then and we today would have been uneasy if the movie had ended with Gus still alive in that lifeboat. Sure, Rosie might have not cared about Gus’s leg. And she might have married him 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, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) agrees to marry Homer (Harold Russell) despite the fact that both forearms have been replaced by prostheses and despite the fact that her parents want 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 Wilma, 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.
And so, rather than leave the audience suspecting just such an outcome for Gus and Rosie, which would have been depressing, Steinbeck, Swerling, and Hitchcock killed Gus off. In this way, the audience was able 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 the movie as well as those who watched it then and those of us who watch it now are essentially in agreement with Willi when he asked, “What good could life be to a man like that?”
We shake our heads No. We insist that Gus could have gotten over the loss of Rosie and dancing, that he could have lived a full, rewarding life nevertheless. But if that really were the way we all feel, Gus’s death would not give us a sense of relief. Those who made the movie and those of us who watch it are all complicit in wanting Gus’s death so that we can all feel better.
Of course, there is a big difference between committing an actual murder and merely writing a story in which a man is murdered, between saying the dead man is better off and saying that the death of that man makes the story better. And so, whereas Willi was guilty of a horrible crime, we are only guilty of liking a movie better because such a crime takes place.
And yet…, and yet….