Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.38.7: LIFEBOAT, Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock (1944) [MR]

V038-07_Lifeboat“Xu Lin just told me that he has shot himself and he is dead,” one of the observing students whispered in my ear.   Xu Lin would not be returning to the simulation. I had developed my simulation, Lifeboat 15, some seventeen years earlier, as a “game” for illustrating the limitations of rational decision-making under stressful conditions.   In Hong Kong in 2001 I had just created a Chinese version, with Chinese names for the players, and this was the first play of the simulation with Chinese students, after many years of playing it with my students and other professors’ students in America. And it was the first time ever that then player in the role of Xu Lin, the only player with access to a (toy) gun, committed suicide with it. Earlier in the simulation Xu Lin had “shot” another player who was being obstreperous; in shame for that rash act he decided to kill himself. It was a cultural revelation for me; clearly, Asian students saw decision making through an Asian morality, which was something I had not anticipated.


I think of the student who played Xu Lin when I see John Hodiak, who plays John Kovac in Hitchcock’s film about a group of Americans adrift in lifeboat after the ship has been torpedoed by a German U-Boat. I based Xu Lin’s role on Kovac. [1]   But I also “borrowed” other roles shamelessly from Hitchcock’s movie or, I should say, John Steinbeck, who received an Oscar nomination for the original story.


Hitchcock was a master craftsman of the mystery, and Lifeboat has many elements of a mystery.   Like one of those dramas in a big old house where people keep getting murdered, there is the plenary suspense of who is going to be left at the end. The film is also much like a play with a single set—the boat and, at first empty, the cast comes “on statge” one by one over the gunnels.


After a long establishing shot of debris from the ship Constance ‘Connie’ Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), an international journalist, is seen safe and dry aboard the lifeboat; she’s dressed in her jewelry and mink coat and has her 8mm movie camera with footage of the U-Boat, which was also sunk by a last minute shot from the ship’s gun. Bankhead plays her self-possessed and cynical.   Kovac (Hodiak) is the first to climb aboard, a member of the ‘black gang,’ or engine room and covered with oil.   Next, millionaire   industrialist Charles ‘Ritt’ Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) comes over the side and, crew member Gus Smith (William Bendix) whose leg is badly injured, a radio operator named Stanley ‘Sparks’ Garrett (Hume Cronyn), nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson) in whom Garrett forms a romantic interest, and a mother who believes the baby she holds is still alive (Heather Angel ) assisted by a Black steward named George ‘Joe’ Spencer (Canada Lee). Then two hands appear on the gunnels and a German U-boat captain they call Willy (Walter Slezak) is pulled aboard to complete the very-talented cast.


These dramatis personae make for a social cross-section that in turn drives the conflict. In the Lifeboat 15 simulation I “created” roles of a millionaire, a nurse, an ordinary crewman, and a young couple, and have an “injured” person as well (a young boy). [2] There is plenty of class distinction, with Kovac and the other crewmen representing working-class values, and the millionaire and the journalist the privileged classes.


I like this movie, not just because it is well-made, but because it is human social life stripped raw; a bunch of near strangers thrown together in a circumstance where they don’t know where they are going (their compass is broken) and don’t know if they will even get there.   The U-Boat captain, who seems to know more than they do gradually tricks them into heading, by sail and oars in the direction of a rendezvous with a U-Boat tender ship.   Eventually, they find Willy out, but not before he has caused the death of one of Gus (William Bendix).   Willy who has portrayed himself as an Aryan uber-menche , gets pounced on by the outraged group and thrown over the side.


I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen Lifeboat .   But each time I view it there is confirmation of some of the things I have learned over the years putting fifteen students in a “lifeboat” made of grouped chairs in the middle of a room and watching them try to come to grips with declining resources, storms that might kill them with a roll of the dice, and even sharks.   Like the actors in the movie they try to be rational and make decisions about leadership and such; but when conditions become more dire, principles and lofty values tend to break down when individual survival supercedes that of the group.   In my simulation I have built in different ways in which people might perish, some by their injuries, some perhaps by sharks, and even some by being “voted” to be put “over the side.”   What I have learned is that people would rather that fate took a hand in lightening the boat and eliminating mouths to consume dwindling resources, than to have to take things into their own hands.


As with films, sometimes we get more out of tem in the discussions of them.   In my simulations many insights into human behavior came in talking about what happened and why.   I used to like to tell the students that the analogue of the “lifeboat” might be extended in these times to what might be called “lifeboat earth.” [3]   I wonder if George Bush, Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez, and a bunch of other people would like to have a go at the Lifeboat 15 simulation.   At least they should see the movie.

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.27.2007)

[1] In the American version of my simulation the role is:   Ramon Cruz, male, age 30, Senior crewman, who served four years on Portuguese cod fishery off Grand Banks, eight years as crew member on luxury passenger ships in Caribbean and North Atlantic.   Has wife and four-year-old child in Lisbon.   His instructions include the following: You have been given a pistol which has five bullets. You are to keep the pistol hidden in your pocket for at least the first round of the game.   Afterwards, it is your discretion whether you wish to disclose that you have the pistol and whether you intend to use it, or give it to another player. See adescription of Lifeboat 15.

[2] My purpose was the same as Steinbeck’s—the social differences energize the interactions but also, for my empirical and pedagogical purposes purposes, they formed a microcosm of society in general. The injured boy (the role can also be played by an injured girl) serves as the disadvantaged, vulnerable element of society, for example. I also included other roles: a minister and his sick daughter, a judge, a politician, an athlete, a scientist, and an elderly couple (also vulnerable because the wife is injured), to round out the players and cover as much social diversity as possible.

[3] With apologies to the late British economist Barbara Ward, who a number oi years back coined the term “spaceship earth.”   But then a spaceship is in many respects no different than a lifeboat..