Captains Courageous – father figures, and the figuring of fathers as they navigate their sons

Captains Courageous – father figures, and the figuring of fathers as they navigate their sons
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The Gloucester fishing schooners and the men who sailed them, and fished from them, were immortalized by Rudyard Kipling. The very same Rudyard Kipling who wrote The Jungle Book, Kim, The Man Who Would Be King, Gung Din…. That Rudyard Kipling.

Captains Courageous is his only American novel. Biographers attest to the delight Kipling took in learning about the skills, techniques, and livelihoods of the schooner fishermen. Through his onboard visits and interviews, he reeled in an authentic sense of the sea, its hardships and its dramas – along with the briny saying, sea shanties, jests and barbs voiced by the men who braved those voyages.

Kipling wanted readers to hear, see, feel – experience – the sea

He wrote, “Up and up the foc’sle climbed, yearning and surging and quivering, and then, with a clear, sickle-like swoop, came down into the seas…. the flaring bows cut and squelch, and there was a pause ere the divided waters came down on the deck above, like a volley of buckshot.” In sequence, there followed, “the woolly sound of the cable in the hawse-hole; and a grunt and squeal of the windlass; a yaw, a punt, and a kick, and the We’re Here gathered herself together to repeat the motions.”

“The fog had gone, but a sullen sea ran in great rollers behind it. The We’re Here slid, as it were, into long, sunk avenues and ditches which felt quite sheltered and homelike, if they would only stay still; but they changed without rest or mercy, and flung up the schooner to crown one peak of a thousand gray hills, while the wind hooted through her rigging as she zigzagged down the slopes…. the bow hatcheted into the troughs.”

In one of many “blinding thick days,” the crew hears the bellowing of a ship in need of coordinates. The plea comes via “the unmelodious tooting of a foot-powered fog-horn – a machine whose note is as that of a consumptive elephant.”

More tranquilly, “the low-sided schooner was naturally on most intimate terms with her surroundings” – “the gray, gray-blue, or black hollows of the sea laced across and across with streaks of shivering foam.”

The crew “saw little of the horizon save when the schooner topped a swell.” There was “the chilly blackening of everything at day’s end; and the million wrinkles of the sea under the moonlight, when the jib-boom solemnly poked at the low stars.”

The spoiled brat who is “un-bratted” by fishing-schooner chores

Harvey Cheyne, the fifteen-year-old obnoxious, super-spoiled conniver-dissembler, is so full of himself that he impairs his land legs and is washed overboard from an ocean-liner bound for Europe. The “leetle feesh” is rescued by the Portuguese dory fisherman Manuel, who plops him onto the deck of the We’re Here, and into a four-month indenture as a crew member at the very lowest echelon.

Thus begins Harvey’s real education and eventual transformation; and his graduation from the realm of servants, valets, butlers, and chauffeurs who had to cater to his every whim and fancy.

Onboard educators

The captain of the We’re Here, the salty Disko Troop, becomes Harvey’s “headmaster” – in his sea-spiced no-nonsense fashion.

Disko’s son Dan becomes the equivalent of the upperclassmen, who figuratively and literally shows Harvey the ropes.

Manuel, in his way, serves as what might be thought of as his tutor and guidance counselor.

Working the waves, chores, and mishaps, to the Grand Banks and back, provides a curriculum, and life lessons, that Harvey would never have sought. The working passage serves as a reform school. The pampered, over-indulged, wholly-unregulated odious snob-prodigy (in tailored sportswear) graduates into young-man-hood (in coarse fish-fouled foul-weather gear).

His tycoon father is so pleased with the sea-change he would like to endow Troop with a “chair.” Instead, he stakes Troop’s son, Dan, to an advanced degree in seamanship in his emerging Pacific tea fleet.

Captain Disko Troop

Troop is the dean of the schooner fishing fleet. Heck, he’s provost of the Grand Banks. As to Harvey, he’s the headmaster who brooks no mutiny from the boy who managed to go overboard in a calm, and who demands to be taken back to New York, immediately, because, he claims, his father can pay more than the creaky old boat and its crew are worth.

Troop commands with “the deepest voice Harvey had ever heard from a human chest.” When Harvey finally agrees to Troop’s terms of employment, Troop’s “eleven-inch hand closed on Harvey’s, numbing it to the elbow.”

Troop expects Harvey to assist his son Dan in sluicing the fish-cleaning tables and floorboards; in lugging buckets of offal and backbones topside and heaving those remains overboard; swabbing decks; and, eventually, hoisting cod, with a pitchfork, from sea-tossed dories onto the schooner’s deck; baiting hooks with tantalizers such as shiny pieces of squid tentacle; rowing a dory to help an experienced line-fisherman; and standing watch, with a highly-attentive and wary ear, in fog that blankets out sky and sea.

In his four-month semester at sea, Harvey comes to revere Troop – admiring his command of men and elements; his gruff humanity and fairness; and his at-sea intelligence, his knowledge of “the Banks blindfold” and his seamanship, his ability to “run her blind.”

Other schooner captains follow Troop’s lead, encroach and poach on the locations he stakes out. For as to fish-finding, Troop, an oil-skin cogitator, “thought of recent weather, and gales, currents, food-supplies, and other domestic arrangements, from the point of view of a twenty-pound cod.” With justifiable pride, Dan tells Harvey, “Dad, he’d find fish in a graveyard.”

A sounding line brings up “sand, shell, sludge, or whatever it might be.” Troop fingers it and smells it, and renders judgment. When Troop “thought of cod, he thought as a cod; and by some long-tested mixture of instinct and experience, he moved the We’re Here from berth to berth, always with the fish, as a blind-folded chess-player moves on the unseen board.”

Troop’s “board” is the Grand Banks – a triangle two hundred and fifty miles on each side – a waste of wallowing sea, cloaked with dank fog, vexed with gales, harried with drifting ice, scored by the tracks of reckless ocean-liners, and dotted with the sails of the fishing fleet.”

On and About the Deck 101 – Learning the Ropes

“For an hour, Long Jack walked his prey [Harvey] up and down, teaching things at sea that ivry man must know, blind, dhrunk, or asleep.”

The lesson is administered with pushes and shoves: “There’s good and just reason for ivry rope aboard, or else ’twould be overboard.” Not appreciating that Harvey would routinely receive, as pocket money, a fisherman’s season pay, Long Jack, explains that “’Tis dollars an’ cents I’m puttin’ into your pocket, ye skinny little supercargo.”

“Systematic spoiling” had invested Harvey with “a mulish obstinacy,” which he took pleasure in lording over young and old, alike. On the We’re Here, no one will stand for the least nonsense. Intelligent as he was, Harvey quickly learned that he could no longer get away with what he could command, as a millionaire’s only son. No longer able to dictate and be obeyed, Kipling tells us that Harvey learned a great deal “from a mere tone.”

As his father will readily appreciate when they are reunited, Harvey “took in knowledge of new things at each pore, and hard health with every gulp of the good air.”

Father and Child reunion – only four months away

Thanks to Disko Troop and the crew of the We’re Here, Harvey’s father, a formidable and feared American business tycoon, comes to realize that in building his inheritable railroad, mining, lumber, and shipping empires, he’s neglected to build the character of his son, and only heir.

On the bound-for-Europe ocean liner, Harvey (fifteen years old in the novel; ten years old in the movie) has “a pasty yellow complexion” which “does not show well on a person of his years.” His ocean-liner garb: a red flannel cap that complemented his cherry-coloured blazer, which drew the eye to knickerbockers, red stockings, and bicycle shoes. Kipling tells us that “the look was a mixture of irresolution, bravado, and very cheap smartness.”

In the smoking lounge, a passenger observes, “That Cheyne boy’s the biggest nuisance aboard. He isn’t wanted here. He’s too fresh.” Another observes, “The old man’s piling up the rocks. ’Don’t want to be disturbed, I guess. He’ll find out his error a few years from now.”

In the novel, the cocky heir, with airs beyond his years, takes the devilish dare to smoke a shiny black cigar – “the unlovely thing.” He declares, “Take more ’n this to keel me over.” The stogie in the novel, is replaced, in the film, by his boast that he can consume six ice-cream sodas. In both versions, Harvey staggers over wet decks to the nearest rail.

“Doubled up in limp agony,” the reflux of his stomach tides, “joined with the surge and jar of the [ship’s] screw to sieve out his soul.” Kipling wrote, “His head swelled; sparks of fire danced before his eyes; his body seemed to lose weight, while his heels wavered in the breeze…. Fainting from seasickness, a roll of the ship tilted him over the rail… a low, gray mother-wave swung out of the fog, tucked Harvey under one arm, so to speak, and pulled him off and away to leeward; the great green closed over him, and he went quietly to sleep.”

Boy overboard = the catch of the day, and a dory rescue

“… wet and clammy chills ran down his back, and he was helplessly full of salt water. When he opened his eyes, he perceived that he was still on the top of the sea, for it was running round him in silver-coloured hills, and he was lying on a pile of half-dead fish, looking at a broad human back clothed in a blue jersey.”

On the row to the We’re Here, “the foamless sea” lifted Manuel’s dory a full twenty feet, “only to slide her into a glassy pit beyond.” Kipling described the voyage as nautical “mountain climbing.”

Aboard the We’re Here, Harvey wakes to disorientation. His ocean-liner stateroom had been fully-upholstered, and equipped with hot water and a bath tub. He wonders why his “stateroom” has become so small and why, nearby, black and yellow oilskins sway to and fro. The oilskins have “a peculiarly thick flavour of their own which made a sort of background to the smells of fried fish, burnt grease, paint, pepper, and stale tobacco… all hooped together by one encircling smell of ship and salt water.”

With disgust, Harvey realizes that there are no sheets on his “bed-place,” which is no more than “a piece of dingy ticking full of lumps and nubbles.”

Unlike the ocean-liner, the schooner moved “like a colt at the end of a halter.” And by contrast to his stateroom, his berth treated him to water noises that ran by close to his ear; “about him, beams creaked and whined.”

Matriculation at Sea

Kipling tells us that, “like many other unfortunate young people, Harvey had never in all his life received a direct order… he could not see why he should be expected to hurry for any man’s pleasure, and said so.”

The crew find it hard to believe a boy could live a life of unmitigated indulgence – a perfect, catered-to indolence. As to Harvey’s never having done “a hand’s turn o’ work in all his born life,” a crew member thinks, “Must feel kinder awful, don’t it?”

That changes quickly, as Harvey’s hands (and head) are put to work at a pile of fish that “shone like a dump of fluid silver.” Kipling gives readers an especially vivid “taste” of the gutting, salting, stacking and stowing of the fresh-caught cod, which has Harvey (and the reader) marvel at “the miraculous dexterity of it all.” Kipling’s descriptions provide all the sound-effects that one could imagine.

Holding on for dear life, comes with the territory: During one watch, sweeping waves have Harvey and Dan “jump at the foregaff where it lay lashed on the boom. They cling with arms, legs, and teeth to rope, spar, and sodden canvas, as big waves fill the decks.”

Harvey’s chores send him to “the forty-fathom slumber that clears the soul and eye and heart, and sends you to breakfast ravening.” Following which, on deck, Harvey “breathed to the very bottom of his lungs.”

Whether he liked it or not, Harvey was going to the Grand Banks and would have to work for his keep – and the chance to become “a Banker” unlike any banker his tycoon father deals with. His father will be pleased by this most fortuitous matriculation.

Fate and good fortune – in loco parentis

At their reuniting, his father finds Harvey’s voice had “thickened with living in the open, salt air; his palms were rough and hard, his wrists dotted with marks of gurrysores; and, round his rubber boots and well-worn blue jersey, there was the fine full flavour of codfish.”

With an earned pride, Harvey reports, “I worked like a horse, ate like a hog, and slept like a dead man.”

His father registered the transformation: “This well-set-up fisher-youth did not wriggle, looked at him with eyes steady, clear, and unflinching, and spoke in a tone distinctly, even startingly, respectful.” The father concluded that “someone’s been coercing him.” And with appreciation, he sensed that “there was that in Harvey’s voice, too, which seemed to promise that the change might be permanent.”

Without revealing his identity, the father inquires whether the rescued “extra-cargo” had been worth his keep. Dan replies, “He’s by way o’ bein’ a fisherman now.”

Cameras at sea: The 1937 film, from the 1897 novel

To capture the seas and the majesty of the schooners, film crews plied the waters from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, through the Grand Banks, and even found apt footage of blue-water all the way to the East Indies.

Even with film footage in the Atlantic, many of the action scenes were filmed on the Pacific, out from Los Angeles, with requisite fish flown in from the Northern Atlantic.

Those sea-born cameras, along with archival film footage, captured what Kipling conveyed: there were close to a hundred fishing schooners, “all bowing and curtseying to one another.”

“The swell had passed in the night, leaving a long, oily sea, dotted round the horizon with the sails of a dozen fishing boats. Between them lay little black specks, showing where the dories were out fishing.”

The film captures Kipling’s vistas: “From every schooner, dories were dropping away like bees from a crowded hive. The clamour of voices, the rattling of ropes and blocks, and the splash of oars carried for miles across the heaving water.”

Across Kipling’s Grand Banks panorama, “A gentle, breathing swell, three furlongs from trough to barrel, would quietly shoulder up a string of variously painted dories. They hung for an instant, a wonderful frieze against the sky-line, and their men pointed and hailed. Next moment the open mouths, waving arms, and bare chests disappeared, while on another swell came up an entirely new line of characters like paper figures in a toy theatre.”

“The schooners rocked and dipped at a safe distance, like mother ducks watching their brood, while the dories behaved like manner-less ducklings.”

When the fishing and the weather beckoned the “ducklings” home, “Each schooner in sight seemed to be pulling her dories towards her by invisible strings, and the little black figures [at the oars] in the tiny boats pulled like clockwork toys.”

Harvey’s up-close-and-personal with a whale

Before returning to the mother ship, Harvey’s dory experiences a show: “The sea round them clouded and darkened, and then frizzed up in showers of tiny silver fish, and over a space of five or six acres the cod began to leap like trout in May; while behind the cod, three or four broad gray-backs broke the water into boils…. the deep fizzed like freshly-opened soda-water; cod, men, and whales together flung in upon the luckless bait…. In all the wild tumult Harvey noticed, and never forgot, the wicked set eye – something like a circus elephant’s eye – of a whale that drove along almost level with the water, and, so he said, winked at him.”

Massachusetts Premiere

May 17, 1937: Colonial Theatre, Boston:

Ten authentic Gloucester schooner skippers were the guests of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the inaugural New England showing of the “talkie movie.” They arrived at Boston’s T Wharf via schooner.

Archival navigation, done for me by the staff of the Gloucester Lyceum & Sawyer Free Library, yielded still more in the way of retrospective:

The Gloucester Daily Times reported that the skippers “were unanimous in their praise of the manner in which they were treated and acknowledged.” While they credited the film as “great entertainment,” they did express reservations about the “picturization of the homebound race between the two cod-loaded fishing schooners.” The seasoned fishing captains “wondered why [on an exacting voyage back from the Grand Banks] the competing vessels kept crossing each other’s bows in such reckless fashion; and they wondered how the schooner We’re Here could ever reach port after being dismasted.”

Departing from Kipling’s novel

The Gloucester men were right on. For all the fidelity and wonders so well conveyed up to the point of the return voyage, screenwriters and filmmakers went Hollywood toward the end – staging an America’s Cup like duel between two fishing schooners racing for the glory of being first back to Gloucester.

Kipling’s Disko Troop does not take unnecessary chances, he sees “no sense in dares” and lays down his law of the sea: “Risk breeds recklessness, and when greed is added there are fine chances for every kind of accident.”

By contrast, the film has him behave recklessly, out of foolish pride. In the film, his homebound hubris leads to catastrophe and loss of life, which turns Harvey into a mawkish griever; and turns the film into a maudlin piece of tear-jerker bathos.

Kipling’s ending is far more satisfying. The ultra-pampered over-indulged super-spoiled kid learns graduate-level life lessons, magna cum laude. As a result, his father (who skipped parenting class and was in need of remedial training), acknowledges his debt to Troop and his son Dan, who took Harvey in hand.

To the screenwriter’s great credit, the film’s set-up adds more texture to the brat’s need for reform school (Harvey’s serial dishonesty gets him expelled from his private school).

And most assuredly, the film’s many fishing and sailing scenes are marvelous. Its depictions of open-seas’ perils – both natural and steel-hulled versions – are faithful to the novel.

On the whole, the 1937 film is extraordinarily engaging and visually wonderful – up until the last twenty minutes. Have your remote handy – and your library card.

First edition illustrations by I. W. Taber, London, 1897

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