Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, like most American and British films released between 1939 and 1945, end on an optimistic note. Democracy will defeat fascism. One big exception is the 1944 movie Lifeboat. Based on a short story by John Steinbeck and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat asks a provocative question. What if the citizens of a democracy are incapable of governing themselves? What kind of dictator will they choose? What kind of dictator will choose them?
The great French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who would later become a Nazi, once wrote that an unorganized life is a death wish, the passivity of a man who does nothing with himself but wait for the grave. Lifeboat gives Céline’s idea a concrete physical reality, 8 American and British citizens, one of them severely wounded, who find themselves in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in a small, damaged lifeboat with a limited supply of food and water. If they don’t organize themselves quickly, they’re all doing to die.
The problem is that none of them is a trained navel officer. There’s C.J. Rittenhouse, a multimillionaire capitalist well into middle-age, who out of a sense of entitlement, briefly takes control, but who is just as quickly replaced by John Kovac. Kovac is masculine and belligerent, but he’s also pretty much useless, lacking any real skills in navigation or survival. Kovac’s friend Gus Smith, a German American who changed his name from Schmidt out of shame over the Nazi regime, is no more useful than Kovac. Even worse, he has a deep gash in one of his legs, which has already given way to gangrene. Alice MacKenzie, a nurse, has some skill in first aid, but has either the training nor the confidence to perform an amputation. Joe Spencer, a black crewman, is a passive religious man who does manage to save a young Englishwomen and her baby from drowning but is powerless to prevent her from committing suicide after she realizes her newborn has died. Stanley Garrett, an English crew member, is competent and dependable, but only as a follower not a leader.
The two most colorful of Lifeboat’s characters are the first and last to enter the lifeboat. Constance “Connie” Porter, a journalist, is there from the beginning. How she managed to make it into the lifeboat, and then the water, with a full suitcase is never explained, but she’s clearly a stand in for Hitchcock himself, filming their doomed ship as it slips beneath the waves, and taking notes about her fellow survivors as if the whole disaster had been staged for her benefit. She also speaks fluent German, which comes in handy when Willy, the captain of the U-boat that torpedoed their ship and machine gunned all the passengers in the other lifeboats before being blown out of the water by an American air attack, hoists himself over the side.
Kovac, a Czech American with vaguely socialist politics, initially wants to throw Willy over the side, but Connie and Rittenhouse, who represent the capitalist and media elite, get in the way. Rittenhouse believes in “rules,” especially rules against war crimes. Connie on the other hand, who doesn’t quite believe Willy when he protests he wasn’t an officer, but only a crew member, decides that the German may come in handy. Later, after Willy admits that he was not only an office but the captain of the U-boat, she’s proven right. Willy is the enemy, but he’s also a forceful, competent man who who seems to know what he’s doing. After he reveals that he’s not only a naval officer, but a trained surgeon, that decides it. Alice won’t attempt the amputation without Willy’s help. Throwing the German overboard means that Gus will die. In a feat of incredible skill, Willy amputates Gus’s leg without anesthesia during a raging storm, saving his life.
By this point, the 8, now 7 British and American survivors, have decided that Willy is not only their savior, but a veritable superman. Dying of hunger and thirst, they are in awe of the way Willy manages to keep up his strength and row towards what they think is Bermuda and British territory, but which is actually a German supply ship. But Willy is no Aryan superman. He’s not even a hard core German nationalist. As horrifying as it may sound, Willy is probably worse than a Nazi. He’s an amoral sociopath who has secretly horded food and water for himself and who possesses a secret compass he hides from the other survivors, thus allowing him to maintain the illusion that he alone is competent to navigate the boat. Indeed, he seems to enjoy tormenting the German American Gus more than the Slav Kovac or the African American Joe, both of whom would have been considered subhuman under Nazis ideology, but neither of whom seem to interest him personally. When Gus, who’s grown delirious from drinking salt water, discovers Willy’s secret horde of fresh water and attempts to tell Stanley Garrett, nobody believes him, but Willy decides to murder him anyway.
“Just don’t forget that your name is Schmidt and not Smith,” he taunts the simple-minded German American prole before pushing him over the side while the others are asleep.
If Willy is a sociopath who enjoys playing with his fellow passengers as though they were so many insects under a glass, hes also an arrogant and self-destructive sociopath who brings about his own doom. Up until the point he murders Gus, Willy’s plan has gone pretty much according to schedule. He’s successfully piloted the small craft to the meeting place that the U-Boat had arranged with its supply ship. All he really has to do is hold on for a few more hours, and he’d be on his way back to Germany. But he underestimates his victims, especially Alice and Stanley, who manage to figure out that the German has a secret compass and that he’s turned the boat in the wrong direction. After Alice accuses him of pushing Gus over the side, Willy not only admits it. He brags about it. Then brags about how easily he’s managed to gain control of all of them, to make himself dictator of a dysfunctional, multicultural democracy. He hasn’t done it for Germany. He’s done it to manifest his own superiority.
Willy’s boasting is too much for Alice, up until then the kindest, most gentle of the 7 remaining survivors, who goes berserk and leads a mob attack against the German, who winds up getting getting tossed over the side after getting his face bashed in by Stanley and Rittenhouse. It’s not a happy ending. Without their German dictator the English and American survivors are back where they started, an incompetent mob with no clue how to survive. Indeed, they all seem resigned to perishing at sea, with only Connie the artist and intellectual having any fight left. “I’ll carve this on your tombstone,” she says to Rittenhouse. “Ritt. He quit.” She then offers her expensive diamond bracelet up as bait, and the survivors manage to catch a fish, a source of food and moisture that might keep them alive for a day or two more. They still have Willy’s compass, but there’s no guarantee they’ll ever make it to Bermuda.
“When we killed the German,” Connie says, “we killed our motor.”
Just then Hitchcock executes a dazzling, double Deus Ex Machina. As they attempt to pull the fish on board, they spot the German supply ship steaming in their direction. “Oh well, Connie says, at least they’ll have food. Some of my best friends are in concentration camps,” she adds, admitting that Willy was probably right, that the confused citizens of decadent British and American capitalist democracy need German leadership in order to survive. As a launch full of German crewman row in their direction, however, an American warship appears over the horizon and blows the German supply ship out of the water.
The survivors, in other words, are saved, but by an outside intervention, the United States Navy, not through any effort of their own. Indeed, as they wait for the American warship to pick them up, they almost immediately revert back to the identities they had back home. Connie needs to put on lipstick. Novak shakes Rittenhouse down for money. Stanley and Alice, who have fallen in love during the ordeal, make plans to get married. The war against fascism, Hitchcock seems to be saying, did not make the American or British people any better at governing themselves. It just froze things in place while the superior brute force of the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire crushed the German upstarts. The American and British people remain passive and incompetent, ripe for another dictator.
Let’s hope Trump and Boris Johnson prove to be more benevolent than Willy.