Nearly three-quarters of the planet’s surface is covered by water. Since no human in history has even been able to stay alive by treading on water—at least not for long—nearly three-quarters of this planet might as well be another planet. The deep, dark ocean is terrifyingly vast, and for a species such as ours that likes to be in control of everything, our inability to control the ocean creates a deep primeval dread.
This is why movies about being shipwrecked or lost at sea have such a perennial appeal—because like all good horror movies, they illustrate that true fear is derived from things we can neither control nor fully know. The following films, whether they strand their protagonists on remote islands or out in the middle of the vast ocean to deal with storms and pirates and whales, involve both fictional tales and true stories about people whose lives are sent into disarray by the sea’s violent whims.
As you will notice, Disney has played a huge role in the shipwreck genre with films such as Treasure Island, Shipwrecked, The Finest Hours, Adrift, and The Little Mermaid, which has a lost ship in it.
The 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the world to a son of the British aristocracy who was marooned as an infant on an island along with his family, who perished at the hands of nature and local animals. Tarzan grew up as as child of an ape tribe. Twenty years after Tarzan’s family was marooned, a young girl named Jane Porter was marooned along with other members of a boating party in the same jungle area where Tarzan was marooned. When Tarzan introduces Jane to primitive jungle living, she decides she likes it more than she likes civilization.
Olympic swimming star Johnny Weissmuller would star as Tarzan in a whopping 12 feature films beginning in 1932 and ending in 1947. The most beloved of those series were the first six, in which he costarred with Maureen O’Sullivan starring as Jane Parker: Tarzan the Ape Man (1932); Tarzan and His Mate (1934); Tarzan Escapes (1936); Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939); Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941); and finally 1942’s Tarzan’s New York Adventure, which convinces the lovestruck couple once and for all that the city is no place for them.
The Disney company would release a fully animated Tarzan in 1999 and direct-to-video sequels such as Tarzan & Jane (2002) and Tarzan II (2005).
This is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser-known achievements that has gained accolades over the years despite the fact that upon its release, it was widely criticized for being too sympathetic toward the Nazi character (Walter Slezak), since England and the USA were at war with Germany at the time.
The plot, based on a story by John Steinbeck, involves a group of Americans who survive a German U-boat attack by gathering on a lifeboat together. They face a moral dilemma after rescuing a Nazi who happened to be on the U-boat that sunk the American boat.
The film is set entirely on the lifeboat, adding a sense of helpless claustrophobia to the drama.
This is the first movie by Walt Disney Productions that featured absolutely no animation and instead was entirely live-action. It’s an adaption of the classic 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson novel about a young boy named Jim Hawkins who befriends a salty buccaneer named Long John Silver as they encounter one misfortune after another in their desperate quest to retrieve a bounty in gold doubloons that are marked on a treasure map.
This 1950 Disney version was the fourth film adaptation of the Stevenson novel. According to Wikipedia, there have been at least fifty remakes or adaptations of Treasure Island.
This yarn about a shipwrecked family is based on an 1812 novel of the same name by Johann David Wyss. It is the second adaption of the novel, following a 1940 film version by RKO Pictures.
It involves a Swiss family—parents and their three sons—who flee the Napoleonic Wars in an attempt to relocate to a colony in New Guinea, only to be attacked by pirates during a storm and wind up stranded on a remote island. Being resourceful, the boys help construct a living space for the entire family out of a treehouse, but their violent encounters with the pirates continue unabated. TV Guide praised the film: “It’s a tongue-in-cheek movie that avoids the sappy sentiment of so many ‘family’ films and concentrates on sheer entertainment instead. The scenery is lush and colorful; the film’s success made Tobago a tourist haven for many years afterward.”
Released in Japan as Matango, this dark film is partly based on a short story by William H. Hodgson called “The Voice in the Night” and involves a group of castaways from a yachting excursion who ignore all warnings not to eat the mutagenic mushrooms they encounter on the island where they’re stranded. The addictive mushrooms cause whomever eats them to mutate into hideous creatures—and the makeup jobs on the mushroom people were so reminiscent of the bombing victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the film was nearly banned in Japan.
One of the most successful of all the “disaster films” of the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s, The Poseidon Adventure is based on a 1969 novel of the same name. Gathering together five Oscar winners, the plot involves passengers on an ocean liner that is turned upside-down by a tsunami on New Year’s Eve as everyone is reveling in the main ballroom. A small group of plucky adventurers—who, as luck would have it, all happen to be former Oscar winners—attempts a rescue by walking upward toward the ship’s hull and somehow carving open a hole before the massive craft sinks entirely to the ocean’s bottom. The Poseidon Adventure won an Oscar for Best Original Song with “The Morning After.”
Released in the UK as Knuckle Man, this movie takes place in an America that has abolished the death penalty. Instead of being killed in the gas chamber, irredeemable convicts are instead sent to Terminal Island, where they can only survive by fighting it out with other dangerous criminals on an island where all dangerous convicts are sent. A civil war eventually breaks out among the convicts, and it is split strictly along gender lines. Roger Ebert says, “The island is furnished with several grass huts, a goat, and apparently, a great beauty salon for the women.”
Set in World War I, this children’s adventure film based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel involving a German U-boat that sinks a British ship and then takes its survivors onboard. Veering off-course, they find themselves in the primitive land of Caprona, an Antarctic nightmare world which is ruled by cavemen and dinosaurs. TV Guide says: “The special effects are unrealistic, as are the dialog and performances. However, despite everything, the picture still makes for great fun.” It spawned a 1976 sequel called The People That Time Forgot.
The Blue Lagoon is the second film based on a 1903 novel about two children who are marooned on a South Seas tropical island paradise but whose family members were killed in the process. As they grow into adulthood together, safely protected from the murderous savages who inhabit the island’s other side, they find that they are experiencing strange attractions for one another. It starred Christopher Atkins as the male lead and Brooke Shields as the girl, the latter of whom was widely criticized for what was thought to be a wooden performance. Roger Ebert referred to The Blue Lagoon as “the dumbest movie of the year.”
This is the second film version of the classic William Golding novel about schoolboys who wind up stranded on an island and descend into savagery—the first version was in 1963. The boys were on a plane carrying two dozen young cadets that crashed into the ocean near a remote Pacific jungle island. They eventually split into two warring factions until the leader of one faction grinds the other down through brute force and charisma. The title refers to a pig’s head the boys place on a stake to ward off a cave “monster” that they don’t realize is merely the corpse of their crashed plane’s pilot.
A young Norwegian cabin boy is separated from his crew in the midst of a violent sea storm and wakes up alone on a stranded tropical island. He soon realizes that some of his former shipmates were pirates and that one in particular is posing under a fake identity to evade murder charges. In the style of Home Alone, the boy sets traps for his antagonists before they arrive.
Surrealist comedian Chris Elliott stars as Nathaniel Mayweather, a spoiled-rotten rich “fancy lad” who was invited by his father to board the Queen Catherine to Hawaii but due to his own bumbling winds up on a ship called The Filthy Whore along with a bunch of crusty sea salts who quickly form an intense dislike for him. The crew members put him through a series of comical tortures, including an extended stay on a raft during which he grows so delusional that he hallucinates a giant talking cupcake that spits tobacco at him.
Robert Cameron’s massively successfully film dramatization of the iconic sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912 became the most profitable film of all time after its release, only to later be eclipsed by another Cameron film, Avatar. Although it tells the story from several angles, it focuses on the love story between a rich teenage girl (Kate Winslet) and a poor artist (Leonardo DiCaprio) she meets on the ship. Titanic would win 11 Oscars, tying a record along with 1959’s Ben-Hur. Roger Ebert said, “Its passengers are a cross section of way of life that would be ended forever by the First World War. In a way, the iceberg represented the 20th century.”
Tom Hanks stars as a FedEx employee who is so obsessively meticulous about time management that he is flown around the globe to solve efficiency problems at individual FedEx locations. A thunderstorm in the Pacific Ocean causes his FedEx cargo plane to crash on a remote island, where Hanks is completely alone until he smears a bloody handprint on a volleyball, names the ball “Wilson,” and begins talking to it. He is eventually rescued but is a better man due to the personal transformations he underwent while scrambling to survive.
Two Russian boys who are living with their single mother are forced to deal both tactically and emotionally with the fact that their father who abandoned them 12 years earlier has suddenly returned and seeks to bond with them. The Return (Russian Vozvrashcheniye) has their father seeking to reconnect with the boys by taking them on a remote island holiday that will test their strength and resolve in every imaginable way. In a creepy coincidence, actor Vladimir Garin, who played the older of the two boys, later drowned to death in a manner similar to what occurred to his character in the film.
Director Ang Lee’s award-winning story about a young writer named Pi Patel, who shortened his birth name of “Piscene” to Pi because English-speaking bullies mocked how much it sounded like “pissing.” While sailing on a freighter to Canada, Pi’s ship encounters a storm, leading a deck member to throw Pi alone onto a lifeboat. But Pi also finds himself with a strange shipmate on the lifeboat: a fierce Bengal tiger who will share an exhilarating and terrifying 227-day trip across the sea with him.
If you’re looking for a survival ocean drama, look no further than filmmaker J. C. Chandor’s All Is Lost. This one is for you if you love isolation movies and films with only one character. The movie has also received much critical appraise.
The Finest Hours is based on the true story of the oil tanker Pendleton, which was split in two during a vicious off-coast storm in Massachusetts in 1952. Three sailors are forced to head straight into a bitterly cold and dark winter’s night in a desperate attempt to find the sunken ship. The Austin Chronicle said the film is “not terribly memorable but considerably more exciting than you might expect.”
Another lost-at-sea nightmare story based on true events, Adrift recreates a September 1983 catastrophe in which a woman named Tami Ashcroft and her fiancé Richard Sharp were hired to sail a yacht 4,000 miles from Tahiti to San Diego, only to run smack-dab into Hurricane Raymond way out in the middle of the Pacific, giving Ashcraft a head injury while facing the unenviable task of guiding the yacht 1,500 miles to Hawaii all by herself. A reviewer at RogerEbert.com said, “It’s not just a story of an incredible feat of survival. It’s also a love story, presented with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The frequent aerial shots of the tiny yacht surrounded by immense ocean are chilling: the frame looks almost existentially empty.”
Other Disaster-at-Sea Films
- Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) director F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) filmed this “Romeo and Juliet” story of lovers stranded on an island near Tahiti.
- Bird of Paradise (1932) Hollywood stars Joel McCrea and Delores del Rio are lovers stranded on a Polynesian island.
- Island of Lost Souls (1932) a mad doctor conducts sick experiments on human subjects on a remote South Seas island.
- A Game of Death (1945) a shipwrecked man realizes he’s landed on an island ruled by a man who hunts humans as prey.
- The Lost Continent (1968) a ship’s crew become stranded amid monsters in the murky Sargasso Sea.
- The Deep (1977) opportunists seek to salvage a giant cache of morphine from a sunken ship.
- Six Days, Seven Nights (1998) a man and woman (Harrison Ford and Anne Heche) find themselves stranded together on a desert island.
- The Little Mermaid (1989) is a blockbuster animated Disney feature that won two Academy Awards and grossed nearly a quarter-billion dollars worldwide. The title refers to lead character Ariel, a 16-year-old mermaid who lives in the underwater kingdom of Atlantica. She falls in love with a human named Prince Eric one night while watching his birthday party on a ship from her vantage point in the water. During the party a violent thunderstorm wrecks the ship and strands Prince Eric on an island, where Ariel helps nurse him back to help. Eric then vows to find the beautiful girl who saved his life.
- The Perfect Storm (2000) a violent oceanic storm imperils a group of seasoned fishermen.
- Swept Away (2002) in this remake of the Lina Wertmuller classic from 1974, a rich woman and a communist sailor find themselves shipwrecked together, and their social roles quickly change.
- Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) is a documentary by James Cameron about spending six weeks exploring the remains of legendary sunken ship RMS Titanic.
- Ostrov (2006) is a Russian thriller with gloomy and moving cinematography about a monk on a remote island in the Baltic sea.
- Uninhabited (2011) a couple who seek a romantic getaway by being dropped off alone at a remote Great Barrier Reef island begin suspecting that someone else is on that island.