Seven Waves Away: A Brief Analysis

by Mark English

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The metaphor of survivors competing for space on an overloaded raft or lifeboat has a long and deep history in the annals of human moral reflection. Such reflection differs from the philosopher’s more contrived and detached “trolley problems” in a number of ways, but mainly because emotional and social aspects of the moral questions involved are strongly in play. Fear of drowning is a primal fear, and the decision-maker in these cases is amongst the potential victims.

And, though few of us will ever find ourselves literally adrift and being dragged under by inconvenient hangers on, metaphorically speaking this sort of thing happens all the time, and this may be why nice people so often lose out in the cut and thrust of life. In the corporate world and politics certainly – and no doubt in many other areas – loyalty and other normally-desirable qualities often prove to be fatal to one’s career.

By contrast, situations in which one has control of a lever that will redirect a runaway trolley (or tram) – or even situations for which this may represent a rough analogue – are disappointingly uncommon.

Of course, decisions made solely on the basis of naked self-interest are generally considered out of bounds from a moral point of view. But logical and rigorously impartial decisions can also be seen as “cold” and morally deficient.

My view is that there are no definitive answers to many (most?) fraught moral questions. A moral dilemma is a problem about which reasonable people may disagree. It can be explored, but cannot be solved in any definitive way.

You are drifting in a small, overloaded boat hundreds of miles from land. A storm is approaching and there is little chance of rescue. You are in command. Do you just let nature take its course (everyone will die) or do you try to save as many as possible? Do you intervene or not intervene? Do you kill some to save some? If so, how do you choose who to save? This dilemma is explored in an honest, direct and confronting way in the film Seven Waves Away (released in America as Abandon Ship). It was written and directed by Richard Sale (1911-1993), an American pulp fiction writer-turned-screenwriter/director.

Ship’s officer Alec Holmes (played by Tyrone Power) is given command of the Captain’s shore boat by the dying Captain after the sudden sinking of a luxury liner. The boat, built to carry far fewer, is crowded with 27 survivors, some of them in the water, hanging on to the boat. Kelly, the ship’s engineer, is obviously dying. He tries to convince a very reluctant Holmes that if he does not lighten the boat everyone will die.

“You gotta evict some of the tenants,” says Kelly. “Anyone who can’t pay the rent… Like me.”

When Holmes rejects the suggestion and tells Kelly not to bring it up again, Kelly responds:

“Okay old buddy. I thought you had guts enough to save half of them instead of losing them all.”

As a storm threatens, Holmes gradually comes around to this view and chooses, on the basis of strength, resilience and ability to row, who will live and who will die.

Most of the drama relates to the subtly shifting reactions and moral judgments of the various survivors regarding Holmes’s actions. Counter-arguments (about “civilized” behavior etc.) are made but, on the whole, those who do not side with Holmes are presented less sympathetically (as hypocritical and two-faced, for example) than those who do. There is no doubt where the author/director’s sympathies lie, both in terms of the various characters and in terms of the basic moral (and, by extension, political) values involved.

I was a bit puzzled that Seven Waves Away could have been created by the author of Not Too Narrow… Not Too Deep, the novel upon which the 1940 film, Strange Cargo, was based. This story, about convicts who escape from Devil’s Island (the notorious penal colony in French Guiana), is infused with Christian symbolism and notions of redemption. Seven Waves Away takes an entirely different tack.

But Richard Sale resolved the puzzle in an interview, explaining that his wife at the time he wrote Not Too Narrow… Not Too Deep was a Christian Scientist and that he consciously drew on her belief system as a literary device to enhance the narrative. These Christian themes were quite alien to his own belief system.

Sale obviously had a habit of latching onto myths and traditions to enhance his stories. The seventh wave myth is referred to at crucial junctures in the film under discussion. The details don’t matter. Its main effect is to give a sense of the existence of a universal lore and culture of the sea, part superstition, part science (or pseudoscience), part philosophy.

There is more I could say about Seven Waves Away. It is tightly written and, on the whole, well-acted. Tyrone Power holds it all together, and some of the minor roles (Lloyd Nolan as the tough but sweet-natured Kelly, for example) are beautifully played.

As things get hectic there is a bit of overacting. It doesn’t help that the boat is so obviously in a big tub on a soundstage and not drifting in the open sea.

The Swedish actress Mai Zetterling is miscast as Julie White, a nurse and Holmes’s lover. And her accent is not the only problem. At times she becomes hysterical. If the script calls for it, fine. But somehow the effect is wrong. Rather than being shocking or affecting, her behavior at these times simply grates and becomes tedious and annoying. It pains me to say this, as I have always liked and respected Mai Zetterling as an actress. In fact, it was her presence in the film which led me to watch Seven Waves Away in the first place.

One other notable thing about the film is the score by the English composer Arthur Bliss. The loud and energetic orchestral music which accompanies action sequences is standard fare. Gentler themes are more effective: the concertina (I’m guessing, at first I thought it was a harmonica) melodies, for example, and the moving orchestral finale.

But the best thing about the music is that it is used sparingly. Bliss’s work Seven Waves Away: Three Orchestral Pieces was recorded in 1990 by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. It runs for eight-and-a-half minutes in toto.

Note that there is no music in the linked excerpt from the film, just intermittent dialogue, stillness and the sounds of lapping water.

9 Comments »

  1. Mark, this really is excellent. And moral philosophers — and especially Peter Singer — should be made to repeat these lines from the piece daily:

    “My view is that there are no definitive answers to many (most?) fraught moral questions. A moral dilemma is a problem about which reasonable people may disagree. It can be explored, but cannot be solved in any definitive way.”

    This is why I think W.D. Ross’s “The Right and the Good” is one of the best works of moral philosophy of the last century.

    https://theelectricagora.com/2017/09/22/course-notes-w-d-ross-the-right-and-the-good-ch-2/

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  2. the flight of the Phoenix, a great lesson in history, with so much change going on. looking forward to reading the full article, thanks

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  3. My view is that there are no definitive answers to many (most?) fraught moral questions. A moral dilemma is a problem about which reasonable people may disagree. It can be explored, but cannot be solved in any definitive way.

    Yes, I completely agree with this. And that’s why I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about made-up moral dilemmas.

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  4. The point about many fraught dilemmas is that each outcome is equally shitty – we can all agree that technological, legal, or social solutions that avoid us having to choose are better

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changes_in_safety_practices_after_the_sinking_of_the_RMS_Titanic

    “recommendations were made by both the British and American Boards of Inquiry stating, in part, that ships would carry enough lifeboats for those aboard…”

    Or, fencing off shallow pools so we won’t have have to ruin our shoes saving small children to whom we owe nothing 😉

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    • David

      “The point about many fraught dilemmas is that each outcome is equally shitty…”

      Each outcome is shitty. Not “equally shitty”. Some outcomes are shittier than others. Judgments differ about which are shittier, that’s all.

      “…– we can all agree that technological, legal, or social solutions that avoid us having to choose are better.”

      Yes, but it is a mistake to imagine that the sorts of remedies you mention — positive as many of them are — can transform the human situation. I see our lives as tragic *in a basic sense*, and the sort of reflection I am involved in here derives from this fact.

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  5. There are legal cases of this sort. Look at Cannibalism and the Common Law as a starting point. Of course people vary in how they want to consider and present the situations. My preference is for the historical record.

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    • The story is based on a real event. The seaman in that instance was found guilty of manslaughter, but given a light sentence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Brown_(ship) I cringed somewhat in response to the parenthetical suggestion that the story has “political” implications. I don’t see that. But it certainly has legal implications.

      However, this discrepancy doesn’t detract from the OP’s point that real situations are far more complicated than any ‘thought experiment’ or moral theory dictate could be.

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      • Revised reply to ejwinner…

        “I cringed somewhat in response to the parenthetical suggestion that the story has “political” implications. I don’t see that.”

        I was speculating about the author’s views. This is what I said: “There is no doubt where the author/director’s sympathies lie, both in terms of the various characters and in terms of the basic moral (and, by extension, political) values involved.”

        I deliberately decided *not* to get into this area. But as a matter of fact there are some (I think) politically charged bits of dialogue in the film. My parenthetical remark was an oblique allusion to this.

        It would be interesting to know what Richard Sale’s political views actually were. I am guessing he was on the right or influenced by the eugenics movement which was big in his formative years. But I could be dead wrong.

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