Warren J. Cantrell is back again. Our prolific contributor of verbose Top 10s has written so many lists for Scene-Stealers that he’s actually started his own site, 10rant.com. We’re glad to have him back with a fantastic list of the best boats in movie history. If you’ve got an idea for your own Top 10, email me at email@example.com. Here’s Warren:
Like any true man, there are few things I like more than a good boat. Liquor, outdoor meat-grilling, and a good explosion aside, there’s few things in this world more precious to me than the charms afforded to a man at sea. That you can combine all of the aforementioned pleasantries together to form a rollicking, drunk-by-noon BBQ and depth-charge party is what makes life worth living, and is what keeps me motivated to continue getting out of bed each morning. It’s no secret that boats are pretty friggin’ awesome, the plot options afforded to stories which utilize the lakes and oceans around us are diverse in both action and suspense possibilities. This list recognizes only the best offerings from the aquatic realm, ranking boats sometimes above even the picture in which they appeared. Indeed, this isn’t a list assessing maritime films, but rather a grading of the sweetest, most bad-ass yet thematically relevant vessels in movie history. Thus, while a rocking movie, the Alabama from “Crimson Tide” fails to make the cut as it was little more than an average, mutiny-ridden submarine with no particular charms outside the ordinary. Likewise, the patrol boat in “Apocalypse Now” was sturdy, but never really did anything except show up in a sweet movie and bail before the good stuff started. Also, Wesley’s ship Revenge (“The Princess Bride”) missed the cut as it was never really seen except in long shots, and proved little about its capabilities except that it was fast. With that in mind, I argue for…
10. Red October, The Hunt For Red October (1990)
Make no mistake about it: this is one hell of a ship. Aside from the fact that it gets immediate points because Sean Connery is at the wheel, the boat is tip-top in pretty much every way. Sure, it’s a little big and unwieldy, but it’s also near-silent, nuclear-equipped, brand-spanking-new, and capable of withstanding a full-fledged pistol battle within the weapons hold. Submarines are all pretty awesome anyway, but to accomplish all of the above and carry upon your back the mighty weight of a Baldwin (Alec) AND a Bond: now that’s saying something. And while it is a little big, let’s not forget that this thing ran the equivalent of a blindfolded underwater obstacle course with a torpedo on its ass and came out alright, not to mention that it totally walked the gauntlet of the combined American and Soviet fleets to get into Maine untouched by aggressive damage. The Red October survived all of this, as well as a saboteur raising all kinds of hell inside the guts of the beast, persevering against enemies both outside and in. We’re talking about a ship that had it in its power to start World War III with its eyes closed, so take time to recognize this boat’s capacities, as well as its accomplishments, as it’s one hell of a craft.
9. Jenny, Forrest Gump (1994)
Though Forrest and his vessel didn’t get off to a very good start, a freak hurricane and Lieutenant Dan calling out God Almighty from Jenny’s crow’s nest seemed to get the two on pretty good terms. And really, what else can you say about a ship except that it keeps you safe, and if you’re really lucky, also helps to make you filthy stinking rich? Not only did this plucky little bastard weather a storm that saw every other boat in the region go down like a fat chick on prom night, but it helped transform the movie’s protagonist into a Fortune-500 captain of industry. Make no mistake about it: this ship changed everything for Gump. Though something of a bottom-tier sports celebrity before embarking on his fishing endeavor, it was Jenny’s shrimp bonanza that put Gump on a fast-track to top-hat-and-monocle-level wealth. True, it wasn’t all roses for Alabama’s favorite son after that, what with the loss of his mother and childhood sweetheart: but don’t forget that Buttercup didn’t come running back until our man had pocketed himself a hefty fortune. Indeed, true to form, once the checks start rolling in at steady intervals and a dude gets into better shape as a result of a half dozen or so jogs across the United States, that which was once unattainable suddenly wants to screw. Of course, like any broad, she takes off until the flab is run off the love-handles, but remember that it was the ship Jenny that got the real one to come around, and considering what it went through at the hands of a mildly-retarded man-child (the fucking thing went through a dock for Chrissakes), that it floated around long enough to produce anything is amazing.
8. The fishing boat, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Speaking of boats helping out the slight of mind, there are few crafts that have done more for a group of fellas than this one. In the book the fishing trip is much more formal, with R.P. McMurphy requesting (and receiving) permission to take the group out on a supervised fishing trip for therapeutic purposes. With Jack, however, there can be no such compromise, his read on Kesey’s noblest creation taking full advantage of the character’s metaphoric undertones. As his character’s initials imply, Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy is all drive, all force and momentum: revving up the intensity of life in the small psych ward to levels intolerable for the sado-masochistic nurse running the show. Every time McMurphy slouches during group therapy or fails to snap to attention once Ratched starts turning up the heat, he is performing an act of defiance. For each argument and transgression, a small dent in the institution’s seemingly perfect façade appears, smudges on nurse station window far more profound than one might imagine. Though he went a little too far with the all-night bender at the end, what with Billy killing himself and all, he found the perfect balance of defiant rebellion and therapeutic recreation with the escape and unapproved fishing trip. Enough of a transgression to get in trouble though obviously positive enough of an experience for the medical staff not to condemn it too bitterly, with the fishing boat McMurphy scored a victory, albeit temporary, against an unholy bitch. This alone makes it a noteworthy entrant.
7. The riverboat, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
I don’t know what I like more about this scene: the creepy-as-shit song Wonka’s singing just off key, or the fact that he closes out that same song by screaming an unholy wail of the damned. The ship truly makes the moment, however, the spinning and gyrating mess of a vessel the product of a decade of doing way too much coke. The thing has both a canopy and a Mississippi River-style steamboat paddle engine, yet by all indications it’s powered solely by the galley-slave Oompa Loompas at the rear. Wonka’s boat is not only the creepiest and most fantastic ship that’s ever floated on a chocolate river, but it’s also quite the psychological tool. Even though a child had nearly drowned up to that point, the contestants and their children are all still relatively at peace, two of the fathers even swapping small talk about their respective business endeavors. That shit’s all over once Uncle Willy cranks up the paddle wheel and occult music, the boat entering some kind of nexus within time and space whereby all manner of acid-trippy shit goes down in the skies above. Not only is the ship able to withstand this madness, it comes out completely unfazed on the other side: none of its passengers are worse for wear. Now that’s a boat! Not only does it temporarily quiet and humble the whiny bitches following Wonka around, but it also succeeds in totally blowing their collective minds: well done, boat!
The powerboat Roman rents in this film is the perfect aquatic embodiment of Dan Aykroyd’s character: a loud, abrasive, high-octane vehicle operating in territory ill-equipped for such a striking presence. Rightly condemning the proposal to hire a pontoon boat, Aykroyd quickly gets to work shattering the peaceful calm of John Candy’s vacation by refashioning each aspect of the trip into a twisted version of his own money-driven personality. Innocent marital coitus is transformed into 80s amateur porn, hot dogs get upgraded into lobster tails, nights out to dinner evolve into gut-busting flesh carnivals, and low-speed family cruises on the lake turn into high-speed water-skiing trials. And I, for one, feel there’s nothing wrong with that. The boat is a more-than-appropriate metaphor for the larger issue at stake: Candy’s refusal to relax and live a little. Prior to the incident with Suck My Wake, J.-Can had little to show for his trip aside from two bored sons and a sad, pathetic life. After skimming the water at what looked like fifty knots on one ski with easily 300 pounds in tow, the man almost certainly became a community God, a reputation that had to have been cemented after his victory over the ol’ 96er. Aykroyd and Suck My Wake were all that was necessary to transform an average urban father into a low-level deity, proving definitively that a boat can indeed make a man cooler. The pilot of the next boat needed no such assistance, however …
5. Q-Boat, The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Though lacking a deeper intrinsic purpose than some of the ships on this list, James Bond’s Q-Boat is unavoidably cool, and the pinnacle of gadget-boat technology. Chasing down some bitch knee-deep in some international espionage shit, Bond catches sight of her hopping on a Sunseeker that’s tearing ass down the Thames. Not to be outdone by some broad with twin-mounted machine guns on her ride, Bond commandeers one of Q’s ships from MI6 and gives chase in a mini-boat equipped with a max speed at around 80 mph, heat-seeking torpedoes, digital readouts, and submersible capabilities. Yeah, this boat just made anything you’ve ever put to sea look like Tom Hanks’ raft from “Cast Away.” Unstoppable little bastard that it is, the Q-Boat catches sick air as well as gets a bunch of stuffy socialites wet as it pursues the villain, catching up to ‘Cigar Girl’ at the base of a giant hot air balloon. Points are deducted because the intended target got away at the end of the chase, and by “got away” I mean she killed herself rather than be taken alive. Because the boat failed in its intended purpose, it does not achieve the ranks of, say, the top three. However, stocked with an undeniably awesome complement of dangerous toys, bitching features, and righteous top speeds, the Q-Boat earns a spot, setting a fairly high bar for all Bond boats to come.
4. Belafonte, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Not only is the Belafonte a boat with bells and whistles to spare, but it is the perfect metaphor for a larger dynamic at play in this film, and for the world Wes Anderson’s meticulously constructed throughout his career. First things first, however: talk about a ship that has every conceivable amenity locked down to near-perfection! Sure, Goldblum’s yacht and research sea-lab are arguably better as it concerns the technology involved, but Zissou’s ship is the one that gets the screen-time explanation, hence the world will never know if Hennessey’s shit was wired tighter. Among other things, the Belafonte has a sauna, massage tables, helicopter and launch pad, mini-sub, editing room, dolphin storage, a safe, and a healthy side-arm complement. In the hands of a capable, if occasionally stoned, captain, the vessel gets its crew through a whole host of traumas including a shark attack, maritime theft mission, pirate raid, and documentary film. Also, much like Wes Anderson’s rich and textured universe, the ship exists as a slightly-skewed safe haven from reality: that place where the real world collides with the fantastic, and the fantastic stands triumphant at the end of the day. All of Mr. Anderson’s films operate in the same fashion, offering an improbable set of characters in the audience’s actual world, where eccentricities collide against well-worn expectation. Like the Belafonte, the characters in this film as well as those in “Rushmore,” “Tenenbaums,” “Bottle Rocket,” and “Darjeeling” run head-long into the real world (our world), yet transcend the bounds none of us ever will, and find the insight and peace we can only taste via observation. This ship, like the fantasy of life we engage in when we watch Wes Anderson’s pictures, can never be capsized or overcome, the safety it provides both a shield and weapon to combat the incursions of a world fighting against the wonderfully absurd.
3. Molly Aida, Fitzcarraldo (1982)
I’ve said on many occasions that while I appreciate historical accuracy in a motion picture, I do not feel it is a requisite component when crafting an awesome period piece. Werner Herzog, the magnificent bastard that he is, heard something about the factual Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald taking a ship into a remote part of the jungle during the early 20th century, and figured the real story wasn’t quite cool enough. Assuming that a deeper, metaphorical take on the story allowed for a more complex and emotional narrative, Herzog discarded the practical, factual element of the tale and turned it into a laborious shoot more grueling than the original historical endeavor. While the real Carlos just took his steamer apart and hiked it over an isthmus to the other side for reassembly, Herzog thought it far more dramatic and manly to physically winch an actual (not prop or scale model) 320-ton mass of steel and iron over a very real mountain. Of course the director felt special effects cheapened the experience, thus the audience watches genuine, non-staged scenes of a real steamboat getting hauled over a very real mountain by people holding very real death lusts for the maniacal Herzog. This ship gets props here for its audacity, for not only is the vessel an actual, serviceable ship that did indeed swim for a number of its own shots, but it blew its historical predecessor out of the water (pun totally intended). Fitzcarrald’s ship was in the neighborhood of 30 tons, almost 300 tons smaller than Herzog’s boat, and the crazy Dane didn’t even take his shit apart to get from A to B! Any movie that sports a vessel that can out-awesome its historical predecessor, and do so in a manner that leaves all the smoke and mirrors at home: that’s a ship worth recognizing.
2. Nautilus, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
This thing’s rocking a pipe organ, viewing window, electrical defense force-field, and a god-damned nuclear engine in a film that was made in 1954, one year before the U.S. put its first glowing sub in the water (coincidentally named the USS Nautilus, SSN-571). For a film released by Disney right in the armpit of Eisenhower’s conformity utopia, the picture uses the boat and its crew to throw around some fairly serious messages regarding political dissention. To hell with The Black Pearl: this was Disney’s crowning aquatic contribution. Captain Nemo’s crew is obedient to their master, a captain that delights in the murder of other rival sailors in the name of preventing a greater evil in the days to come. True, most remember the ship’s epic struggle with a giant squid, one which by all accounts has to go in the boat’s favor as it was still standing at the end of the day, but take a closer look at the man-to-man fights in this picture. Nemo is not officially at war or under the sanction of any sovereign nation, yet does not see this as any reason to prevent him from acting as a rogue agent of justice, dispensing the will of the righteous in a sleek underwater death-boat. He uses the ship not only to prevent an enemy nation’s vessel from delivering dangerous war-time supplies, but also to avenge the loss of his family, the whole lot of them murdered by the countrymen of his newly-vanquished foes. For a United States very recently out of the fetid shadows of McCarthy hearings and larger arguments over ends justifying means, the questions posed by a captain, his blindly obedient crew, and a “modern” ship have rarely been more profound (and difficult to properly answer).
1. Orca, Jaws (1975)
There’s never been a smaller boat for so big a job than that which was presented to Quint’s craft in “Jaws.” True to its name and the beast’s reputation as the only natural aggressor to the mighty Great White, the Orca takes absolutely no shit from the 25 ft. leviathan stalking its perimeter, going head to head with the demonic beast during every step of their timeless battle. Though Brody quipped that, yes, maybe a bigger boat would be appropriate to slay a fish roughly the same length as their vessel’s hull, the guy was by his own admission a land-loving scaredy-cat, and didn’t understand the basic human truth surrounding a man’s need to conquer that which has transgressed the traditional natural order. When one of God’s beasts steps to you, and starts encroaching upon humanity’s domain, a man needs to stand up, draw nails over a chalk-board, grab the attention of the checkbooks in town, and get to fucking work putting the world right again. The Orca’s quest to smite a shark who’d transitioned out of the larger cosmic order was a fight not only to ensure man’s proper place atop the food chain, but to reclaim the most sacred of human traditions: killing those things which frighten you. Our fathers and theirs before them and so on before that, all understood that if an animal has the capacity to kill a person and is doing so on a fairly regular basis, the best thing for all involved is to put the uppity creature out of its misery. Like Ahab and his Pequod, Quint knew that such an epic struggle could end with only the beast or the man avenging their destiny at the bottom of the drink, and it’s the Orca that ultimately facilitated the chief getting the job done in the end. Unlike the Moby Dick’s ambiguous end, there can be no mistake that with her final moment above the drink’s lip, the Orca helped blow that shark cocksucker straight back to hell, propelling man back into his proper, well-deserved place atop the world (until the sequel).