Val Lewton and the Madness of Authoritarianism

June 12, 2006 | By | 4 Replies More

I’ve always been a fan of Val Lewton films, and I recently discovered a “new” one which can be enjoyed for reasons which go beyond the Lewton trademark cinematography and low-budget creativity. The Ghost Ship (dir. Mark Robson, 1943) was pulled from theaters almost immediately after its release due to a copyright dispute, and has only recently become available on DVD.  It’s not the greatest Lewton film: indeed, the dialogue seems at times to have been written by Ed Wood’s only slightly smarter brother. But the theme expressed in The Ghost Ship is as relevant today as it was in 1943: the madness of authoritarianism.

The plot of The Ghost Ship concerns the progressive madness of Will Stone (Richard Dix), captain of the Altair, and the realization of, and triumph over, this madness by Tom Merriam (Russell Wade), third officer of the Altair. At first, the captain seems a pleasant fellow, although he does seem to have an obsession with cleanliness and some extreme ideas about authority, including one memorable dinnertime speech when, speaking of the crew, tells Merriam “I have the rights over their lives”. Strongly stated but perhaps not unreasonable, thinks Merriam: after all, a ship’s captain must be a figure of authority, because he is ultimately responsible for the ship and the lives of everyone on it.

As the plot develops, however, it is made clear that the captain’s authoritarianism is a manifestation of his progressive insanity. Further, challenges to his authority only exacerbate his condition. Stone interprets his “rights” literally, and a remarkable number of the ship’s crew meet their deaths in circumstances which implicate him. As the bodies pile up, however, the remaining crewmen refuse to acknowledge that anything is wrong; in fact, Merriam finds himself shunned after unsuccessfully bringing charges against the captain.  

A leader who demands blind obedience, who causes the deaths of others and refuses to consider that this might be wrong, who apparently hypnotizes those around him so they do not react to his crimes, who exists in isolation with no checks on his behavior: does this remind you of anyone? Always a recipe for disaster, in Germany in the 1940’s and in America in 2006.

I don’t think the political implications of The Ghost Ship are accidental. Its script was adapted by Donald Henderson Clarke from a story by Leo Mittler: the latter was a film director in Austria before emigrating the U.S. I can’t find much information about him, but judging from his surname and national origins I would guess that his departure from Austria was necessary to ensure his continued existence. So Mittler would have had personal experience with the madness of authoritarianism, and he expressed it in this screenplay.

Interestingly, Mittler’s most notable contribution to Hollywood may be that he wrote the story which was adapted for the screenplay Song of Russia (dir. Gregory Ratoff, 1944). This film, a lavish but otherwise innocuous melodrama involving a romance between Robert Taylor as an American conductor and Susan Peters as a Soviet pianist, was later denounced by HUAC as pro-Soviet propaganda.


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Category: Culture, Films, Media, Politics, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

I'm a biostatistician for BJC HealthCare and an adjunct professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. In my spare time, I'm a musician, work on several kdhx-tv shows and write on various topics.

Comments (4)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I have not yet seen The Ghost Ship, but your analysis is intriguing.

    What do they say about the road to hell? In the case of Will Stone and the current president, the exercise of totalitarian authority (spying, censorship of alternate viewpoints and economic strong-arming through so-called tax reform) always starts with that "good" motive. "Sure, nobody likes it," these thugs claim, "but someone has to be totally in charge for the good and safety of the country."

    Authoritarian figures always do this mental gymnastic as a prelude to asserting rights over others' lives in good conscience; I cannot think of a single real life exception. They can thus convince themselves that they are ultimately empowered due to those (ubiquitous) issues that concern matters of life and death. What society doesn't have such issues? Without that little mental move, what sane person would be willing to assert such control the lives of others to this extent? I therefore agree with you.

  2. Sarah says:

    Good points, Erich. The Ghost Ship is sort of a precursor to The Caine Mutiny is that they both are about leadership gone mad in an isolated situation (a ship at sea) where the ultimate source of authority is the person who is not competent to wield it. Of course both films were made when the Hays Code was in force, so evil had to be vanquished and good allowed to triumph.

    There's no real examination of whether the model of authority in effect is valid: this is a 65-minute B picture, after all. It is interesting that although it may be true that "a ship can have only one captain", such a model of leadership is not appropriate in most contexts and yet some people want to apply it to, say representative government. Or what is worse, pretend that each underling is supposed to both be completely loyal to the leader and his wishes, and maintain his independent judgment. I wonder how many officers will do hard time for the atrocities in Iraq, for instance, versus how many enlisted men.

    I guess someone could write their doctoral dissertation on movies about authority at sea, because The Caine Mutiny is another examination of authority and power in an isolated context. And all these films begin with the understanding that, at sea, the capain is the ultimate authority.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    “a ship can have only one captain”

    Sarah- on the local Christian talk radio last week (KJSL ) the co-hosts were discussing this issue in the context of a fundamentalist Christian marriage. They went to great pains to point out that they weren't being sexist in proclaiming that the man (not the woman) is ultimately in charge of a marriage. It's not sexist (they explained) because a man has a duty to treat others with the same respect as he treats himself. Therefore, marriage is actually a partnership after all! Well . . . except for those times when the man and the woman disagree. In those cases, “a ship can have only one captain."

    [This is the same station where one of the shows presents financial investment advice for Christians. That show begins with a prayer before getting down to money. It's the same station where an automobile dealer commercial advises that the car salesman is a really good guy. You can come in and pray with him before or after buying your new car!]

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich's comment about praying with a car salesman reminds me of a spoof television ad several years ago about a "holistic" auto repair shop. You'd bring your car in and the mechanic would say a prayer to faith-heal your vehicle.

    As regards authoritarianism, one of my biggest concerns about corporate influence in government is that corporations are about the least democratic institutions on the face of our planet. True, an authoritarian organization can be more efficient than a democracy (which is why it is used by corporations), and is arguably a superior form of governance when the organization faces a crisis (which is why it is used by the military), but the rest of the time authoritarianism tends to be a nightmare for everyone except those at the top….which is rarely desirable in a government.

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