Movie and TV tales typically feature a cast of characters focused on a dramatic theme, whether interpersonal or strategic. In most instances, the background is passive and static, a backdrop, sometimes punctuated by violence.
Tales on water or in space, however, involve an additional and often unconsidered character: a vessel. The 1902 poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield evokes that theme around this most essential element: “all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”
Where to Find Ships on the Small Screen
Due to budget and schedule constraints, only on occasion can the small screen present naval vessels at sea. The “Horatio Hornblower” miniseries (1998-2003) based on C. S. Forester’s novels, exhibited many Napoleonic-era ships, most prominently frigates Indefatigable and Renown. “The Last Ship” (2014-2018) features the fictional guided-missile destroyer Nathan James in their perilous world struck by a catastrophic plague and subsequent famine.
Scale models against blank canvases and later computer graphics enabled television to extend these imaginative shapes into space. A few network and cable series have braved ship-based themes.
Of course, “Star Trek” (1966-1969) featured the starship cruiser Enterprise. Its can-do optimism revolved around a muscular fleet of majestic faster-than-light phaser-armed instruments of beneficent power for keeping interstellar order.
That futuristic vision inspired sequel movies and follow-on series. Named after two American aircraft carriers, Enterprise reminded audiences of its predecessor’s Pacific theater exploits in books such as “The Big E” by Edward Stafford and continuing Cold War saga of her subsequent first nuclear-powered flattop, then newly commissioned.
The all-too short-lived “Firefly” (2002) gathered around interstellar freighter Serenity with her fugitive passengers and rag-tag crew. An eponymous movie “Serenity” (2005) returned the iconic freighter to advertise our aspiration for freedom.
Finally, “The Expanse” (2015-2022) presents many interplanetary craft from the 23rd century orbiting between Venus and Saturn, but the main characters swivel around a commandeered Martian corvette renamed Rocinante after the noble steed in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.
Where to Find Ships on the Big Screen
Cinema provides opportunities for more expansive budgets, but with a more compressed story in which to introduce the period setting, the characters, and the capabilities of any vessels. At sea, various naval ships take center stage among their casts.
“The Caine Mutiny” (1954) presents a World War II-era court-martial over events during Typhoon Cobra aboard an obsolescent minesweeper Caine. “The Bounty” (1984) leads to a 1789 mutiny in the South Pacific aboard merchant vessel Bounty repurposed for a botanical mission.
Struggles against nature and enemy combatants in “Master and Commander” (2003), based on Patrick O’Brian’s novels, occur almost entirely aboard the British sailing frigate Surprise during the Napoleonic era. “Pirates of the Caribbean” (2003, etc.) features the adventures of Jack Sparrow aboard his pirate barque Black Pearl.
“In the Heart of the Sea” (2015) reveals the travails and demise of the sailing whaler Essex and the crew’s harrowing survival. The film is based on the 1820 sinking of that ship described by Nathaniel Philbrick. Those events inspired Herman Melville’s epic novel “Moby Dick” about an enormous white sperm whale hunted by the Pequod under the command of Captain Ahab.
A Compact Location for Big Drama
Ships have place—iconic locations where crewmembers work and interact. Star Trek ships most often displayed the Bridge, where the commanding officer issued orders regarding heading and weapons engagement, Engineering in which the drive controls were operated and power levels maintained, the Sickbay for treatment of the injured and infected, and corridors in between.
Aside from the claustrophobic confines of the Great Cabin at the stern, almost all of the scenes aboard the HMS Surprise occur on the Upper Deck, with shore excursions at the Galápagos. In scenes across these films, the quarters, galley, mess hall, and gun deck also depict cramped locations where personnel gather.
The rhythms of daily toil, repairs from storms or firefights, the mourning of the dead—all these remind the viewer of the challenges and hazards encountered by those not only braver than ourselves but able to traverse a heaving floor secured to a keel while buffeted by waves.
Don’t Forget the Submarines
Not a few of these films involve submarines. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954) witnesses investigators discovering Jules Verne’s submarine Nautilus that attacks post-Civil War slaving ships through technology far beyond the era’s 19th-century technology. “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1961) encounters atmospheric disaster via the submarine Seaview with bow windows.
“Das Boot” (1981) features Kriegsmarine submarine U-96 during World War II, with her company witnessing both its merchant-sinking exploits and harrowing escapes. Based on Tom Clancy’s first novel, “The Hunt for Red October” (1990) exhibited a race between Soviet and American navies to secure a Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine during the Cold War.
The comedy “Down Periscope” (1996) exploits the idiosyncratic abilities of her personnel aboard an antiquated diesel submarine Stingray engaging in war games stacked against her officers and enlistees.
How Ships Affect the Plot
Space epics usually center around a transport platform equipped for extended survival and habitation. “Forbidden Planet” (1956) travels to Altair IV by the starship C-57D to investigate the fate of a previous expedition.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) pivots about an enormous interplanetary explorer Discovery. “Apollo 13” (1995) tells how its astronauts endured aboard lunar-journeying spacecraft Odyssey and Aquarius during their aborted 1970 mission. “Galaxy Quest” (1999) humorously pivots about a fictional space patrol Protector.
Sometimes, the vessel is but a conveying transport that behaves passively beneath the drama. “Silent Running” (1972) depicts an environmentalist’s rebellion in which the tree-hugging conserver destroys the merchant transport Valley Forge that supports horticultural repositories beyond Saturn’s orbit. “Titanic” (1997) exhibits an elaborate ocean liner that ferries passengers compliantly until her final descent that frigid 1912 spring in the ice-packed Atlantic.
However, stories in which the craft actively participates in these journeys can evoke closer bonding with audiences. While unoccupied, a ship is but ordinary inert matter, but when manned by skilled personnel and commanded by a competent captain, she comes to life against the elements and her crew’s foes.
Wonder and Danger and Love
In a second-season “Next Generation” episode, the alien entity Q scolds Captain Picard after his first and near-fatal encounter with the Borg, “It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.” Those swashbucklers who venture at sea or in space exhibit daring and competence by operating their vessels in hostile zones, which is why such stories resonate so often.
In all these presentations, the ship, large or small, is home, sharing her dangers and travails with the passengers and complement. Under fire from enemy combatants and buffeted by an unforgiving and deadly expanse about them, the margin of error for all concerned is minuscule, and everyone must work together to mend any damage incurred and pull through to the next destination.
Malcolm Reynolds in “Serenity” echoes the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 about his small freighter, “You can learn all the math in the ’Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ’fore she keens. Makes her a home.”
These stories’ dynamism isn’t limited to the human characters, but includes the vessel that brings them to a place of wonderment. Ships exhibit the technological prowess of the cultures that produce them, and function as instruments of grace and power.
Although most of us do not travel so boldly, we can nonetheless vicariously observe such exploits in these epics on screen. Thinking of ships as fellow characters of the acting cast reflects, however dimly, our participation in the societies we construct and inhabit, whether past, present, or future.
Thus, accounts of legendary ships denote not merely the exploits of their commanders and crews under fire. In granting these vessels form and function, their destinies become ours as well.