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Charles Stewart, the "Pilgrim" owner's playboy son, finds himself shanghaied on his father's ship commanded by cruel Captain Thompson. When scurvy breaks out he leads a mutiny and is slapped in irons. Floggings and torture abound. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
This film rather than Shane marks the high point of Alan Ladd's golden Paramount years. By the time Shane was made, Ladd and agent/wife Sue Carol had made the decision to leave Paramount.
Sue picked a good one for her husband in Two Years Before the Mast. It's based on a book of the same title by Richard Henry Dana about his experiences aboard a typical American merchant vessel during the 1840s. Dana is played by Brian Donlevy and it is through his eyes that we see the action unfold.
As the film opens Ladd is the spoiled son of a rich merchant family. While out slumming with some of the 19th century brat pack he hangs out with, Ladd gets shanghaied aboard one of his father's own ships. That ship is commanded by an American version of Captain Bligh in Howard DaSilva.
DaSilva, who's career was to be interrupted by the blacklist shortly, is maybe the best one in this fine cast. He's a career naval officer who was cashiered and he runs his ship that way. Has the crew take gunnery practice even. The essence of that part is that he doesn't see himself as cruel. This is just the way things are at sea.
Barry Fitzgerald, like in the Sea Wolf, plays the ship's cook. But Dooley is 180 degrees different from the weasel Fitzgerald portrayed in The Sea Wolf. Shows his versatility as a player.
Bill Bendix was someone Ladd liked to have in his films if he could get him. He plays the tough, but respected first mate Amazine here. Bendix was in a different class than other character actors. He was a star on radio's and later television's Life of Riley and usually because of that, got roles with some depth. Even when the roles didn't, the talented Mr. Bendix put some depth in them.
The rest of the cast assembled to support Alan Ladd is a good one. Familiar folks like Albert Dekker, Frank Faylen, Luis Van Rooten, Ray Collins fill out their roles nicely.
One part is particularly poignant. Young Darryl Hickman is an office boy in Ladd's father's company and he stows away because he's filled with dreamy adolescent notions about life at sea. Despite all he sees around him and even what happens to him, young Hickman never loses sight of the fact that he's on a great adventure.
Considering the studio origins of the film, Paramount does a very good job in a realistic portrayal of life at sea. If you like sea stories, this one's a must.
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