A Mariner's Movie Marathon

By Rick Martell

When you're landlocked, for any reason and in any season, get your fix by watching boating flicks.

Is your boat on the hard, in the shed, or whiling away the winter under shrinkwrap? Take heart. Nautical films can keep your spirits high when you're landlocked and feeling low. Here, in chronological order, are some of the best films ever made, both classic and contemporary, that revolve around boats and the sea.

Classic mariner movies


Captains Courageous (1937)

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Mickey Rooney | Director: Victor Fleming

When spoiled rich kid Harvey Cheyne falls overboard on a transatlantic cruise, he's rescued by a Gloucester fishing schooner. Forced to spend the duration of the boat's voyage working as crew, he soon discovers that his wealth is powerless at sea, learns some valuable life lessons, and returns a different lad. The film is based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling.

African Queen (1951)

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn | Director: John Huston

In Africa during World War I, a displaced missionary woman and a swashbuckling riverboat captain form an unlikely alliance when she persuades him to use his boat to torpedo a German gunboat that's patrolling a nearby lake and thwarting British attacks. Adventures abound as they head downriver toward their target. Eventually, true love blooms. The actors' performances have made this film an icon of American culture.

The Cruel Sea (1953)

Starring: Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker, Virginia McKenna | Director: Charles Frend

This World War II adventure is a no-holds-barred classic that focuses on the Battle of the Atlantic between the British Royal Navy and German U-boats. The drama unfolds through the eyes of the British naval officers and seamen aboard a British convoy escort ship. It illustrates the horror of war at sea and the difficult decisions that must often be made. The film is based on the novel by Nicholas Monsarrat.

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray | Director: Edward Dmytryk

Tension seizes the crew of the World War II minesweeper S.S. Caine after a new and inexperienced captain takes command. He is not only abusive but mentally unstable and rapidly unraveling. When his decisions jeopardize the safety of ship and crew, the first officer relieves him of command, then he faces court martial for mutiny. Based on the novel by Herman Wouk.

Moby Dick (1956)

Starring: Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn | Director: John Huston

This is one of several film versions of Herman Melville's novel, which has been called the best sea book ever written. Ishmael, the sole survivor of the sunken whaling ship Pequod, narrates the tale of the obsessed Captain Ahab and his destructive all-or-nothing quest for revenge on the great white whale, Moby Dick, to whom he previously lost his leg. Of all the film adaptations of the classic novel, this is deemed by many to be the best. The script was written by Ray Bradbury.

The Old Man and the Sea (1958)

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Felipe Pazos, Jr., Harry Bellaver, Don Diamond | Director: John Sturges

An old Cuban fisherman is having a dry spell: He's gone 84 days without a catch. Then his luck changes. He hooks a marlin, but it drags him out to sea. A three-day duel of mental and physical prowess ultimately becomes a test of the fisherman's soul. Based on Ernest Hemingway's classic novella, the film has been called the "most literal, word-for-word rendition of a written story ever filmed."

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

Starring: Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Richard Harris | Director: Lewis Milestone

Captain and crew clash soon after Bounty departs England in 1787, bound for Tahiti to load breadfruit for transport to Jamaica. En route, Captain Bligh is relentlessly cruel to his crew. His choice of route, westbound around Cape Horn, is foolhardy and impossible. The ship must backtrack to reach Tahiti, and the delay costs them. Bligh decides to load more breadfruit to atone, reducing crew water rations to compensate. Disasters, including mutiny, follow until the film's stunning conclusion. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.

Contemporary mariner movies


Jaws (1975)

Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary | Director: Steven Spielberg

A series of shark attacks causes a group of locals in the fictional New England island town of Amity to take to the water to hunt down the beast, revealed to be a great white. Full of action and suspense, it was one of the highest-grossing films of all time, keeping audiences glued to their seats (and out of the water!) for months. Based on the novel by Peter Benchley.

The Riddle of the Sands (1979)

Starring: Michael York, Simon MacCorkindale | Director: Tony Maylam

In 1901, a British yachtsman suspects something sinister is afoot in the Baltic Sea. He and a friend set out on a small-sailboat cruise through the Frisian Islands to investigate. They discover that a site rumored to contain hidden treasure is actually the hub of a possible German plot to invade England. They must navigate through fog and treacherous sandbars to solve the riddle and outwit the Germans. Based on the classic novel by Erskine Childers, this is espionage at its best.

Das Boot (1981)

Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann
Director: Wolfgang Petersen

This epic German film is a glimpse of the fictional but true experiences and wartime dramas of the crew aboard the German submarine U-96 during World War II. There is action, irony, and humanity aplenty. This must-see contemporary classic will stay with you for a long time.

Dead Calm (1989)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill, Billy Zane | Director: Phillip Noyce

To help ease their grief over the recent death of their son, a couple decides to set sail on an extended cruising vacation. In the middle of the Pacific, they encounter another vessel, apparently in genuine distress, and a very suspicious character enlists their help. They soon discover he's a murderer, and now they're involved. Kidnapping, high-seas drama, and action ensue until the bitter end.

Captain Ron (1992)

Starring: Martin Short, Kurt Russell, Mary Kay Place, Meadow Sisto, Benjamin Salisbury | Director: Thom Eberhardt

A rich uncle has died, leaving his sailing yacht Wanderer to his Chicago family. Discovering that it once belonged to Clark Gable, and scenting money, they decide to retrieve it from the fictional Caribbean isle of Ste. Pomme de Terre, sail it to Miami, and sell it. But when they see it in person, it's obviously in terrible shape, so they hire a local skipper — a one-eyed chap with a dubious background — to help them sail it to Miami. Meet Captain Ron, who takes them on the comical misadventure of a lifetime.

The Sea Wolf (1993)

Starring: Christopher Reeve, Charles Bronson, Catherine Mary Stewart, Marc Singer | Director: Michael Anderson

When a passenger ship carrying a fiction writer and an escaped convict collides with another vessel and sinks, the two are rescued by the seal-hunting ship Ghost, with a psychopathic captain who specializes in terrorizing and abusing his crew. Attempted mutiny and escape result in suspense and high drama in a psychological thriller that pits man against man. Based on the Jack London novel.

White Squall (1996)

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Caroline Goodall, Ryan Philippe, John Savage | Director: Ridley Scott

When a white squall sinks their ship, the brigantine Albatross, during their senior year at sea in the 1960s, four teenage boys use the wisdom handed down by their teacher to survive, discovering not only discipline and camaraderie, but how quickly things can go wrong offshore. The film is based on a true story.

Titanic (1997)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett | Director: James Cameron

An epic romantic re-creation of the tragic voyage of the ill-fated Titanic. A beautiful but despondent 17-year-old aristocrat, traveling with her mother and fiancé, is saved from jumping overboard by a handsome working-class artist. Against all odds, they fall into a love that lasts beyond the movie's heart-rending ending. Many of the film's scenes, as well as its music, have become iconic. This is a film worth watching more than once!

The Perfect Storm (2000)

Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, William Fichtner, John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, Karen Allen, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio | Director: Wolfgang Petersen

In October 1991, the commercial fishing vessel Andrea Gail sets out from Gloucester, Massachusetts, wandering beyond the Grand Banks fishing grounds in search of an elusive catch. They find it, but a malfunctioning ice machine means they must head back pronto, risking exposure to a forecast storm. En route, they are hit by the mother of all storms, which seals their tragic fate. The film is based on the bestselling book by Sebastian Junger.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany | Director: Peter Weir

Patrick O'Brian's works are the source of this historical drama set in 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars. Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship H.M.S. Surprise pursue the French privateer Acheron around Cape Horn to the Galápagos Islands. Full of must-see sea battles, this film depicts life aboard a British warship during this era in riveting detail.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom | Director: Gore Verbinski

This is the first in a series of five films, but be sure to start with this one. A blacksmith teams up with notorious pirate Jack Sparrow to save the woman he loves from Jack's former traitorous shipmates, who have come back from the dead. This is great entertainment — funny, and with great cinematic effects.

Deep Water (2006)

Directors: Louise Osmond, Jerry Rothwell

This award-winning documentary focuses on the strange (and final) voyage of British businessman Donald Crowhurst, a participant in the 1968 Golden Globe solo round-the-world yacht race. This brilliant film examines a man obsessed with winning and how his obsession wreaked havoc with his mind and, ultimately, his sanity. London's Daily Telegraph summed up the film's power by saying it would "reduce the hardest of hearts to a shipwreck."

Life of Pi (2012)

Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu, Adil Hussain | Director: Ang Lee

A young man who survives a shipwreck at sea in which his zookeeper parents perish is cast away in a lifeboat with a handful of freed zoo animals, among them the only one that prevails, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. This epic saga of survival is also a tale of an unlikely alliance between boy and tiger, of adventure, and discovery. The film is based on the novel by Yann Martel.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi | Director: Paul Greengrass

The M/V Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship captained by Richard Phillips, departs from Oman with orders to sail through the Gulf of Aden to Kenya. The captain and first officer are concerned about possible pirate attacks en route, and their concerns are justified. Somali pirates attack; the captain is kidnapped; ransom is demanded. Drama builds to an edge-of-your-seat conclusion in this rescue film based on a true story.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Holland, Benjamin Walker, Chris Hemsworth | Director: Ron Howard

This biographical drama is a retrospective recollection of the 1820 sinking of the whaleboat Essex, the event that inspired Melville's "Moby-Dick." The film begins in 1850 with scenes of Melville interviewing the last remaining survivor of the sinking, then transforms into a re-creation of the event itself. The film is based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick.

The Finest Hours (2016)

Starring: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster | Director: Craig Gillespie

A recently released disaster-drama that recounts the true story of the U.S. Coast Guard's "most daring sea rescue" — the 1952 heroic retrieval of the crew of S.S. Pendleton, a tanker that split in two during a nor'easter off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts. If you like dramatic sea scenes, suspense, and heroics with some small-town spirit and romance thrown in, don't miss seeing this one. The film is based on the book by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman. 

Newport, Rhode Island, boatwright and potter Rick Martell has lived aboard and chartered his sailboat, Lands End, with his partner, the writer Elaine Lembo. Sources: Internet Movie Data Base (imdb.com), Wikipedia/LMC

— Published: April/May 2017

BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at WestMarine.com
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!