Most Memorable Boats in Cinema History

Most Memorable Boats in Cinema History

Whether gliding across calm seas or yawing in the troughs of huge waves, there’s just something majestic about a boat’s movement on the water. I mean, those hulks of metal and wood floating? That’s some magic (and Boyle’s law be damned)! Perhaps that’s why boats hold a special place in our collective consciousness, a place marked by the role they’ve played in the history of cinema.

There are so many vessels that could make the list of great cinematic boats: Pi’s small life raft, replete with fearsome Bengal tiger, in Life of Pi; any of the U-boats in the Sean Connery classic Hunt for Red October; the warring HMS Surprise and French Archeron of Master and Commander; the hijacked MV Maersk Alabama of Captain Phillips. But some of the most memorable boat moments of cinematic history have occurred in films where the boat seems to take on a life of its own, to almost become a character in the film. Here then are five of the most interesting and impactful nautical films and the boats that made them famous.

  1. Titanic: While this may seem too easy, no ship has tickled our fascination for as long as the ill-fated Titanic. It was no surprise then when James Cameron’s 1997 film, starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett, became an instant hit. While the love story drives the film forward, it is our dread fascination with the ship itself that keeps us fixated. The majesty of the rolling staircases that descend into the salon contrast starkly with the fiery scenes from the engine rooms below. It’s as if we have a microcosm of heaven and hell contained in the nearly 900 foot, 46,000 ton vessel. And all hell breaks loose when a crewman calls from the crows nest, “Iceberg, right ahead!” In the end, is it really Kate and Leo that hold our attention or the sight of that huge ship upending, snapping in half, and sinking to the bottom of the sea where it lay in our imaginations for nearly a century before being discovered?
  1. The African Queen: No discussion of iconic boats in films would be complete without mention of the 1951 Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn masterpiece The African Queen. The eponymous river steamboat was built in England in 1912 to be used by the East Africa British Railways company for ferrying hunters, missionaries, and cargo into the heart of the continent and was actually used in the film. The boat continued to do service in Africa until 1968, well after the film, when it was decommissioned. In 2012, the African Queen was brought to Key Largo, Florida, where it was named an historic site and refurbished to be put to new use as a tourist boat.
  1. Jaws: Oh, you know the Orca. How could you not? When Sheriff Brody steps from the stern into the wheelhouse and announces, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” the Orca sailed into our nightmares. But did you know that the Orca was actually two vessels? Orca 1 was actually a lobster boat called the Warlock that was used for most of the fishing scenes The Orca 2 was a fiberglass mold of the original Warlock and was used in scenes where the boat was sinking or destroyed. After the gnashing was over, after Captain Quint went screaming into the jaws of the shark, after the vessel was ripped to shreds and the great white took a scuba tank to the jaw, the Orca 1 spent time on the Universal lot before mysteriously disappearing. The Orca 2 did a stint on a stretch of privately-owned beach in Menemsha, Massachusetts, where eager fans in search of souvenirs slowly dismantled the vessel. It was eventually broken down into parts and sold.

  1. Forrest Gump: The Jenny was introduced to us and to Lieutenant Dan when it rammed unmanned into a dock and Forrest announced, “that’s my boat.” But from then on, the Jenny, just like its namesake, had a huge impact on Forrest and the life of the movie. Captain Dan comes to terms with the loss of his legs as he rages at the huge storm that destroys almost every other fishing vessel in the area, and post-storm, it’s the Jenny that makes Forrest wealthy. But the Jenny is emblem of the woman who enriches Forrest’s life and, like her, it goes through hell to come out the other side, although sadly only for a short while.

  1. Perfect Storm: The 2000 film that told the true story of the Andrea Gail and it’s crew is harrowing to say the least. When Linda Greenlaw, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, radios George Clooney’s Billy Tyne and says, “you’re headed right for the middle of the monster,” she’s not exaggerating. The Nor’easter that absorbed Hurricane Grace and later became a hurricane itself, produced sustained seas of over 30 feet with some buoys recording even larger swells. Much of the film’s experience of the storm was fictionalized, but like the real life vessel, the Andrea Gail of the film disappears along with its crew and was never seen again. But the actual film boat is a swordfish vessel called the Lady Grace that was auctioned off after filming and donated to Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center in 2002. Ironically, in 2004, it wasn’t stormy seas but rather a fire that nearly destroyed the boat.

Ivan Young is a writer in partnership with Mealey Marine boating accessories and services.

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