Monday, February 08, 2016

Look Back in Discomfort

Films offer a fascinating window into the past.  Not just in terms of the fashions people were wearing, or the lifestyles of an earlier era or even the paraphernalia of the past, such as cars and kitchen utensils.  They also offer us an insight into changing public attitudes to a range of ideas, activities and opinions.  Often they portray their protagonists participating in activities which were then considered acceptable, but which would now make them a villain if they were shown doing the same thing in a contemporary film.  This was certainly the situation with regard to an old British adventure movie I was watching over the weekend.  Hell Below Zero (1954) was one of a pair of action films that Alan Ladd made in the UK for Warwick Films, (owned by Irving Allen and a pre-James Bond Albert R Broccoli), the other being the 1953 war movie The Red Beret.  As the title implies, most of the film's action takes place in Antarctica as Ladd's character attempts to get to the bottom of what really happened to the captain of the factory ship of a whaling fleet, who has apparently vanished and is presumed to have fallen overboard to his death.  Whilst most of the movie's action is pretty routine, it is this whaling background which seems startling to contemporary eyes.

For one thing, it is quite a jolt to be reminded that as late as the mid fifties, there were still fleets of whalers roaming the planet's oceans, decimating the whale population.  Equally jarring is the fact that the film presents these activities quite uncritically.  Indeed, at the time that it was made few, if any, people challenged the existence of the whaling industry - which was still huge - or the fact that so many everyday consumer products were produced using materials sourced from whales.  The scenes of whales being hunted and killed with explosive tipped harpoons, before being sliced up on the factory ship, which are presented in such a matter of fact fashion in Hell Below Zero now seem appalling.  Even worse, from the point of view of the contemporary viewer, is that that the whalers themselves are presented as predominantly sympathetic characters and Ladd himself, the film's undisputed hero of the piece, is seen happily harpooning whales.  All of which factors make Hell Below Zero a difficult watch for many modern viewers - even when one tries to put what's happening on the screen into a proper historical perspective, (as I always try to do with older movies), parts of the film make for uncomfortable viewing.  That said, whether we like it or not, within living memory there was a whole industry based around the hunting of whales - an industry upon which the livelihoods of thousands of people depended.  And those people weren't villains, no matter how much we might be tempted to characterise them as such, they were just trying to earn a living.  Times change, attitudes change, but film preserves to posterity a snap shot of those attitudes at any given time.



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