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[whitespace] Fathoms Deep

Seafaring author Jonathan Raban on the harshness of the sea, the 'melting pot' of America, and Captains Courageous

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a film review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"I've picked up this cold-flu thing from my first-grader, and it's made my head a bit buzzy," announces a husky-voiced, visibly beleaguered Jonathan Raban, peering into the massive lobby of the hyper-nautical San Francisco Maritime Museum.

As if on cue, Raban sneezes, a rafter-rattling explosion that turns heads and echoes down the cavernous hallways that were to be the picturesque location for our post-film discussion of Victor Fleming's 1937 high-seas epic Captains Courageous.

"You know, rather than meandering through a drafty museum," Raban hoarsely remarks, "perhaps I'd be better off going to find a tonic of some kind."

With that, we turn about and set our course for a nearby bar.

Born in England and now a devoted resident of Seattle, Raban is considered one of the world's leading writers on the subject of the sea. The critically acclaimed author of the best-selling Passage to Juneau (Knopf, 1999)--a one-of-a-kind adventure tale, in which a solo boat journey from Washington State to Alaska becomes a gripping and lyrical, time-traveling, historical detective story--Raban is currently touring the Northwest on a national book tour.

With its rich nautical history, San Francisco seemed the logical spot to drop anchor and chat about Captains Courageous. Based on Rudyard Kipling's classic novel, the film follows a bratty rich boy (Freddie Bartholomew) over the side of a cruise ship.

Plucked from the sea by a kindly Portuguese fisherman (the great Spencer Tracy), the boy is forced to earn his passage home by working among the multi-ethnic crew of a Gloucester-bound fishing schooner.

Tamed by the hard labor, the paternal kindliness of Tracy, and the harshness of the sea itself, the once-spoiled boy ultimately becomes, ahem, a man.

"So at its core," I suggest, "Captains Courageous is a story of fathers and sons, isn't it?"

"Nonsense. It's about America," Raban replies, carefully sipping his drink. "The fishing schooner was a symbol of the melting-pot view of America. The crew, in many ways, looks like America. We're all here--black, white, natives, immigrants, rich, poor.

"The hierarchy of the ship, in this movie, is seen as a sort of idealized industrial corporation," he continues, "in which all workers have profit-shares and stock-options--everybody on the crew gets a share of the fish--and their options will vest when they get back to Gloucester.

"But at the same time they are in fierce competition with this rival fishing vessel, a hard radical corporation-under-a-sail, just off the starboard bough, shouting the company slogan, 'We will break our backs to get our fish there first,'" he continues.

"Come to think of it," he adds with a deep, death-defying chuckle, "you could re-write Captains Courageous for Silicon Valley, and the story wouldn't have to change much."

Aside from its inherent similarities to Silicon Valley corporate culture, one can't watch Captains Courageous without also soaking up the offbeat notion that death at sea--especially the death of kindly Portuguese fishermen--is somehow nobler and more exalted a death than merely expiring on land.

"It wasn't until the middle of the 18th century that we began to look at the sea in this kind of ridiculous, romantic way, when the idea of drowning at sea came to be seen as a better way to die," Raban explains. "You were submitting yourself to the primal forces, you were going back to the sea. 'We will die alone, and nobly, instead of lying slumped in a stinking bed in some stinking slum in Chicago or New York.'

"The nicest thing about Captains Courageous is that it gives us a kind of frozen view of the sea, a view that demonstrates what we once believed to be true about the sea and man's relationship to it. It's a Late Romantic version of the sea, a testing ground for manhood, a theater of democracy and capitalism and competition, an arena of danger to be survived--if you can. And it's still the invulnerable sea, the bottomless larder of fish."

A sea in which Tracy can land a boatload of fish in less than an hour just by tossing a line and a hook over the side.

"That was probably not totally untrue, even in 1937 when the film was made," says Raban, "though it's quite unlikely today. Of course, the whole character of the sea is changing so fast right now that nobody has a handle on it. It used to be that the ocean's depths were infinite, unreachable, unravageable by man, but now you can put these submersible robot things down on the sea bottom to crawl around and look at whatever you want. You can salvage ancient pirate ships. You can raise the Titanic. You can catch all the fish and decimate whole species. You can do all kinds of interesting and terrible things to the sea."

"And yet," I remark, "we still seem unable to retrieve the bodies of deep-sea airplane crashes. Or is that the old noble 'burial at sea' thing?"

"Well, we're perfectly capable of bringing back any bodies that have the misfortune of being claimed by the sea," Raban notes, "and with the sons of assassinated politicians we certainly don't let a little thing like a plane crash in the Atlantic stop us from bringing the body home. But when it suits us, like with the poor EgyptAir plane crash, the ocean is suddenly the 'deathless, eternal, impossibly fathomless sea' again. And yet the next moment some techie will be launching a machine to drop 600 fathoms and parade along the sea floor shopping for collectibles.

"You see," Raban concludes, managing a final full-throated sneeze, "the sea is often talked of as a universal symbol--but it's not. It's the most protean of symbols. From the beginning of time, the sea means whatever we need it to mean at any particular minute."

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From the March 9-15, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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