A Healthy Fear of the Water

The DVD cover for the film All Is Lost.

Once, in my early teens, I came close to drowning. It was the type of experience that you don’t forget.

The circumstances of the incident were simple enough, I was at Camp Io-Dis-E-Ca (a church camp near Solon in eastern Iowa) and involved in a game of chicken fighting in the swimming pond. The game started with one or two of the counselors and a couple of the older campers hoisting a few of the younger campers on their shoulders. A couple of my friends – like me, in their early teens – said, “Come on, let’s get in on this!” They quickly grabbed the best (that is, smallest) kids available and joined the fray. My eyes swept the beach and shallow water looking for a child small enough to lift onto my shoulders, but old enough to be involved in a chicken fight. It was slim pickings. I was a fairly competitive kid, but I also knew that I wasn’t particularly strong – I guess you could say that, even then, I had the muscles of a librarian. I made a second scan. The best possible choice was a boy just a few years younger than me. He was far taller than anyone I’d prefer to partner with for such shenanigans, but at least he was skinny. I considered my options: 1) be the smallest “vehicle” in the fight, but carrying the largest “attacker” or 2) choose to sit this one out and take some razzing from my friends for not taking part. I decided to suck it up and take a shot. I figured that the worst that could happen was the embarrassment that I’d feel from an early exit.

I asked the kid if he wanted in on the fight. He nodded in the affirmative. With great difficulty, much greater than I had actually anticipated, I got the boy up on my shoulders and waded toward the other teams. Actually, it was less of a wade and more of a wobble. I couldn’t wait to get to deeper water so that his body might become more buoyant, thus less heavy. As soon as I made it to chest-high water, we were engaged by a superior foe. As might be expected, it was one of the shortest skirmishes in chicken fight history. We were violently toppled, and I stumbled away from the shore, into even deeper water. I ended up on my knees, but found it extremely difficult to stand up, for I had a fairly large boy on my shoulders who had tightened his legs around my torso and wrapped his arms around my head!

At that point, something happened to me that I had previously believed only occurred in movies: my life flashed before my eyes. Not my whole life, mind you, just some key elements. It was a jumble of faces, things, even impressions. It couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but it galvanized me. It convinced me that I was in serious danger and needed to take quick action. And, it made me realize that there were a lot of reasons to live.

Somehow, I managed to regain my feet, but I was now in water that was well over my head. I was disoriented enough that I didn’t know which way to walk, and it’d been a while since my last breath. I decided to just start walking. Fortunately, I was facing the shore, and after several steps (though it seemed like an eternity), my mouth cleared the water and I began gasping for air. Meanwhile, that unnamed boy, whose face must have cleared the water almost immediately, was still clinging to me like a barnacle. Even when we were completely on the beach, he didn’t attempt to let go, so I pulled him off and threw him to the sand. Exhausted and still breathing heavily, I forced out these words: “for Christ’s sake (not good form considering this was a church camp), why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t swim?” He just laid on the sand and grinned at me. Truthfully, at that moment, I wanted to wrap my arms around his head, or more accurately, his neck, to see if I could remove that grin from his face. I said a few more things to the kid – especially about how he’d nearly drowned both of us – some of which may have been described as “colorful.” His grin never dissipated, but I got some serious stares from most of the younger kids around him. Still fairly oxygen deprived, I stumbled away to an empty spot on the beach, and fell on my back. Laying there, my chest still heaving, I realized that there were far worse things that could happen to you at the beach than being razzed by you friends for not joining in a game.

Even before that incident I think that I’d had a reasonable respect for the water, but that experience certainly reinforced it, and then some. It’s no wonder that inherently dangerous water-set situations still give me the creeps. The film industry, always conscious that audiences are attracted to what they fear, has used water effectively as an antagonist in scores of movies over the years. Creeping you out, yeah, that’s one of the things they like to do. It might involve shipwrecks, lifeboats/rafts, predatory sea animals, hurricanes, floods, or any combination of the above, as long as they can give it a terrifying spin.  The following is a survey of some of the better examples.

The most infamous disaster at sea of all time is undoubtedly that of the RMS Titanic. That British passenger liner struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank in the North Atlantic during the early morning of April 15, 1912, resulting in the deaths of over 1,500 of the 2,224 passengers and crew aboard. Numerous retellings of the horrific incident have appeared on both the big and small The DVD cover for the film A Night to Remember.screen, notably 1953’s Titanic, a glossy, often inaccurate, but still effective version shot on 20th Century Fox’s backlot; A Night to Remember, the excellent 1958 adaptation of Walter Lord’s near-definitive 1955 book; 1997’s Titanic, the former all-time box office leader and Oscar mega-winner, and the four-part TV miniseries, also titled Titanic (2012). Surprisingly, the other major ocean liner calamity of the time, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, has never received the same interest from filmmakers as has the Titanic. The killing of 1,198 (including 128 Americans) of the 1,962 persons aboard the British ship was one of the reasons that the then-isolationist United States was later drawn into World War I. Aside from a few documentaries and the 2007 telefilm Sinking of the Lusitania: Terror at Sea, the Lusitania has not received her due. That slight, however, may soon be rectified, as Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) currently lists two separate Lusitania projects as being in production for 2016 release. The sudden interest shouldn’t be surprising in light of the fact that superstar nonfiction author Erik Larson’s latest bestseller is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

On the fictional side of ocean liner disasters, we have 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, based on Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel of the same name. Set on a soon-to-be salvaged luxury liner, early in the film, the SS Poseidon is capsized by a rogue wave caused by an earthquake on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea. The rest of the movie follows the attempts of a small group of passengers to reach the hull, while the ocean rises through the sinking ship. Partially shot on the RMS Queen Mary, the story is said to have been inspired by that real-life ship’s own encounter with a rogue wave decades before. The Poseidon Adventure was hugely successful upon its release in mid-December 1972, going on to become the top money-earner of 1973! It spawned a far-less successful sequel, 1979’s Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (also based on a Gallico novel), as well as two remakes: a 2005 telefilm, also titled The Poseidon Adventure, and a 2006 theatrical version, simply titled Poseidon.

Ocean liners aren’t the only seagoing vessels that face crisis situations. The Perfect Storm, a 2000 film adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s wildly successful 1997 nonfiction book, recounts the fate of the six-member crew of the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat from Gloucester, Massachusetts caught in the titular cataclysm hundreds of miles offshore. The so-called Halloween Storm (sometimes also referred to as the No-Name Storm) – a combination nor’easter and hurricane that took place between October 28 and November 4, 1991 – set wave height records off the coast of New England and caused damage as far south as Puerto Rico. Despite considerable property losses, there were only thirteen reported fatalities. In All Is Lost (2013), a fictional story written directly for the big screen, the captain of a small yacht on a one-man voyage has his seafaring skills and fortitude repeatedly tested after his vessel is struck by a loose shipping container in the Indian Ocean.

Some ocean-set dramas take place wholly, or largely, after a ship’s sinking, with the cast in a lifeboat. These include Lifeboat (1944) and Abandon Ship (1957), both of which deal with the problem of limited space and/or limited rations. In 2012’s The Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s bestselling 2001 novel, the trials faced by a young man during his 227 days in a lifeboat are somewhat alleviated by his own imagination. The two characters at the heart of Open Water (2003), on the other hand, find themselves treading water not because of a shipwreck, but because the scuba diving service they’d chartered leaves without picking them back up. If that isn’t bad enough, the couple is soon surrounded by sharks!

Speaking of sharks, let’s not forget 1975’s Jaws, perhaps the first major summer release, at least in the way that we now define such things. Based on Peter Benchley’s equally popular 1974 novel about a killer great white shark terrorizing a small resort town on the New England coast, Jaws was an absolute phenomenon. It was followed three years later by Jaws 2, as well as a further pair of even less successful sequels. The Jaws craze led to several copycat movies, including 1977’s Orca, about a killer whale, 1977’s Tentacles, about a killer octopus, 1978’s Piranha, about… well, you get the idea, the list goes on and on. A few of those low-budget, water-set gore fests may be good for cheap (really cheap) thrills, but unless you’re a fan of bad cinema, I’d skip movies of that ilk, except for the father of the genre: Jaws.

Although the majority of 2001’s Cast Away takes on an uncharted Pacific island, the stranded engineer’s island tenure is bookended by harrowing scenes showing how he was marooned in the first place and his attempts to escape the remote and inhospitable rocky outcropping. Unlike many other properties (books/plays/films) that deal with island castaways – Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, The Admirable Crichton, The Blue Lagoon, Lord of the Flies – that move most of the drama to the interior of the island, in Cast Away, the ocean remains an omnipresent threat.

Very few films have dealt with catastrophic flooding, or should I say, very few that have done it well. Perhaps depicting a believable The DVD cover of the film Lifeboat.flood has long been beyond the means of most filmmakers/studios. A couple of pictures that achieved a surprising amount of realism in this regard, however, were separated by more than seven decades! The Rains Came, based on Louis Bromfield’s 1937 novel and produced in Hollywood’s banner year of 1939, is set in India during a particularly devastating monsoon season. The Impossible (2012) focuses on a family on a vacation in Thailand when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck. That tsunami, with waves that reached 100 feet in height, killed 230,000 people in fourteen countries and went down in history as one of the world’s most lethal natural disasters.

So, a word to the wise. No matter what type of water activity you take part in this summer, be smart, be cautious, and be prepared (and don’t forget the sunblock!). If, however, you want some water thrills of the secondhand variety, checkout any of the aforementioned, linked titles at the Des Moines Public Library, where DVDs circulate for a week for a one dollar charge.