And this is one of the great films. It is not a story about whaling, though it mostly takes place on a whaling ship and has wonderful scenes about life on a whaling ship. It is the story of a boy's relationship to two men, two men's relationships to to the boy, and the relationship of all three to life.
Lionel Barrymore, in one of his last roles, and like his character only able to move about with difficulty using crutches, raises the presentation to rarefied company with a masterful performance. He is able to bring all the gruffness of his Henry Potter role of "It's A Wonderful Life," but with the humanity he was not allowed to show in the latter. That he loves his grandson with all his heart, and feels great pride in him, is made evident in the endearing shore side preamble. But aboard the vessel of which he is Master, his way is to change into another persona completely; one in which he dare not show the slightest feelings for the boy. As Master, he is second only to God for all his crew, and to this role he must devote his entire soul 24 hours a day.
A vacuum thus develops in his relationship with the boy, and into this vacuum Richard Widmark, the new Mate of the vessel, is thrust. He is of the age the boy's dead father would have been, and has duties and the opportunity to interact with the boy in ways Barrymore cannot, and has qualities which naturally lead him to become the father figure. Initially not interested in the human qualities the boy represents, he is before long won over, and replaces Barrymore in the boy's affections.
Not until a crisis overtakes the ship's company is the alienation between Barrymore and the boy overcome. With Widmark's efforts propelling him, the boy returns to his grandfather's affection and the two are reunited in their hearts, and the gulf that has lately divided them despite their proximity aboard ship falls away like it was never there.
Widmark's performance is very able indeed in his role of importance and some nuance. This is one of his finest performances, certainly one of his most human, and at the end most agreeable. But it is the 13 year old Dean Stockwell who cements the story with his performance of a lifetime. The way he makes his character grow from a boy to a young man during the film, the way he conveys the range of human feelings which is required of his role, is faultless and quite breathtaking.
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