- The Real and the Realistic in Down to the Sea in Ships (1923)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 10, Number 3, September 1980
- pp. 33-38
- View Citation
- Additional Information
THE REAL AND THE REALISTIC IN DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS (1923) By Ronald J. Zboray Ronald Zboray is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University. Moviegoers usually see "history" unfold before their eyes when they watch Elmer Clifton's Down to the Sea in Ships (1923). They believe they witness documentary footage of a whale hunt: that a hardened crew ofwhalers took a seventy year old bark, the Charles Morgan, to the Caribbean whaling grounds, that both star and crew risked their lives on the open water chasing whales. Nautical museums at Mystic, New Bedford, and New York support this view by presenting it to visitors for its documentary value. Film critics too, share this view and even add to the mystique. Myron Morris Steam wrote, "Clifton organized the company." Robert E. Sherwood believed that "Clifton induced the town ofNew Bedford to pay" for the film. Richard Schickle's introduction to the movie on the PBS series, The Silent Years, added a new dimension to the film's interpretation. He poised the glories ofthe whalehunt, miraculously and accurately captured on film, against the present day outcry against cetaceocide. All believe the movie to be Clifton's brainchild, though he revealed a curious polarization of the lobes, between high melodrama and action documentary. (1) Was it Clifton's idea? Is it a documentary? No one ever went to the historical record to find out. If they had, many ofthe myths surrounding the film would have been dispelled long ago. Newspaper clippings, corporation records, and production stills on file at the Old Dartmouth Historical Society and the New York Public Library Theatre Collection, testify to the falsehood ofthese beliefs. First ofall, Clifton played no part in the early stages ofthe production; it was not his idea. That honor belongs to John Legget Everett Pell, an obscure newspaperman and unsuccessful author, who grew up listening to whale tales in the New Bedford area. Based on only peripheral experience in the Fort Lee film scene, he threw together a maudlin and sentimental scenario entitled, "The Brawn ofthe Brine." (2) Undoubtedly, much ofPell's scenario survived to the finished work, where one can still detect the heavy hand ofconventional romanticism. A summary ofthe plot shows why early critics saw the storyline as passe. Around 1 850, the Quaker whaling magnate, Charles Morgan, wants his daughter, Patience, to marry a Quaker whaler. Her beloved, Allen Dexter, is neither, while a stereotyped Oriental, pretends to be both, hoping to marry into the Morgan fortune. Siggs, the Oriental, arranges for Dexter to be shanghaied aboard a whaler where he learns harpooning and seamanship. With Dexter out ofthe way, Siggs persuades Morgan to give his daughter's hand. The night ofthe wedding, Dexter returns, makes the run to the rescue and denounces Siggs just before the final vows are spoken. (3) A story such as this was tucked under Pell's arm when he went knocking at the doors ofNew Bedford's business elite, in August, 1921 . Surprisingly, they let him in, but not without severely altering his romantic intentions. Either out ofcivic pride or 33 boosterism, they hit upon the idea of filming an actual whaling expedition. Drawing on the advice ofveteran sea captains and the maritime records ofthe Old Dartmouth Historical Society, they would have authenticity reign. "Every detail, not matter how trivial, will be as accurate as we can portray it," Pell now said. The crew, he continued, "will be made up ofall expert whalers." He derided previous attempts at reconstruction, stressing that the whaling sequences would be documentary. (4) With these strong, documentarían values and with the production schedule set, Pell and his backers looked for a director. Oddly enough, given their suspicion of reconstruction, they sent the script to D. W. Griffith, who is not generally noted for his documentary talent. He promptly sent the script back, recommending his one time assistant director, Elmer Clifton . (5) By putting Clifton forth as the film's prime mover, they unwittingly gave him more power. He used it to damage the Corporation's documentary intentions. Early on he balked at employing only "expertwhalers," as the Corporation intended. Black-skinned Cape...