The Lightship

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The Lightship should be a great film but isn’t. It goes wrong somewhere, particularly towards the end, when there’s a mad rush for the exit (or, the filmic equivalent, a mad rush to get everything said that needs saying before the big finish).

It was released in 1985 and stars Robert Duvall and Klaus Maria Brandauer, two actors at the peak of their drawing power. At this point you could still smell the napalm on Duvall after Apocalypse Now, and his character here is a variation on Colonel Kilgore, the insane verbose genius. Opposite him the Austrian Klaus Maria Brandauer. In the wake of the success of 1981’s Mephisto (a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), Brandauer went on a ten-year run in Hollywood, turning up in second-string roles in films like Never Say Never Again, Out of Africa and The Russia House, as well as leading roles in more modest affairs like this, before returning to Europe.

He plays the captain of the lightship anchored off the coast of Virginia who has brought his sullen teenage son on board with him, to keep the boy out of trouble. Irony alert – the trouble finds Captain Miller (Brandauer) and his small crew when Calvin Caspary (Duvall) and his two associates climb on board after being rescued from a drifting boat.

Caspary is all Southern gentility and old world manners and is over-dressed in a way that indicates he is a big-screen psychotic wacko. He is your effete, dandy criminal with a tendency to over-talk, and he has two goons – the stupid Gene (William Forsythe) and the hair-trigger Eddie (Arliss Howard) – for when he needs anything actually doing.

What Caspary wants is nothing less than the ship itself, to use as a getaway vehicle, but that will involve raising the permanently dropped anchor, a gross dereliction of duty by the Captain, who sees his posting as more of a mission, a calling. Without his lightship sitting precisely where it is, other ocean-going vessels will be imperilled. He’s one of those people “happy in their chains,” as Caspary puts it, after having told the captain, in Ayn Randian terms, that “Freedom is choice unfettered by other men’s puny customs.”

Michal Skolimowski
Michal Skolimowski aka Michael Lyndon

In what’s meant to be a titanic clash of world views, Caspary’s freedom faces off against Miller’s duty and responsibility (how very teutonic). At the same time two very different acting styles also lock horns, Brandauer attempting to underact the hyper-florid Duvall off the screen by giving him enough rope and then giving him some more.

It’s interesting to watch. Which is handy because not much else is. The director is Jerzy Skolimowski and he’s cast his son, Michal (coyly billed as Michael Lyndon), as the captain’s antsy boy, a teenager whose lack of respect for his father is rooted in something shameful the Captain did in the war, when his father’s German roots didn’t prevent him from serving in the US Navy.

Michal/Michael is a mistake as a character and the attempt to swing the film’s focus towards him by using him in half-hearted voiceover is a catastrophic miscalculation. This film is barely about him, and the more it tries to be, the less interesting it becomes.

The same can be said for various other characters at the periphery. Was every lightship in the US Coastguard this overcrewed? There are at least three people too many on board and director Skolimowski’s tokenistic attempts to crowbar them into the action – in much the same way as he tries to keep his own son in the running – is a drag on the drama, an anchor this film does not need.

The odd technical fluff apart – put it down to a small budget for a foreign director making his first US film – it’s a well put together film. The actors know what they’re doing and all deliver, even though most of them are neither required nor desirable.

Because this is a simple one-on-one affair at bottom, and while trying to open Siegfried Lenz’s original story out into something cinematic might have seemed like a good idea at the pitch meeting, it doesn’t work half as well on screen as maybe it should have.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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