I’m a big admirer of John Frankenheimer’s early work from such live TV dramas as The Comedian (1956) and Days of Wine and Roses (1957) to his peak achievements of the sixties: All Fall Down (1962), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966). I’ve also enjoyed several of the more commercial projects he helmed throughout his career such as Seven Days in May (1964), Black Sunday (1977) and Ronin (1998). Unfortunately, his reputation has suffered over the years due to several box office bombs and critically maligned movies – The Horsemen (1971), Story of a Love Story aka Impossible Object (1973), 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), Prophecy (1979), Dead Bang (1989), and especially The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), which had a highly publicized and chaotic production history. Yet the most notoriously panned film of his career is easily The Extraordinary Seaman (1969) and in Frankenheimer’s own words, “It was the only movie I’ve made which I would say was a total disaster.” So, I finally decided to see for myself if the movie lives up to its notoriety.
Set against the backdrop of the Pacific Campaign during WWII, The Extraordinary Seaman opens as four American sailors get separated from their fellow servicemen during a small craft maneuver in thick fog. They accidentally capsize their boat and wade ashore to an unknown island in the Philippines which may or may not be occupied by Japanese soldiers. Upon further investigation, they discover a marooned ship, the H.M.S. Curmudgeon, which at first appears to be deserted but is actually the current residence of British Commander Finchhaven. Once he reveals himself to the sailors, they learn his back story and the boat’s past history – formerly a gunboat, it is now a wrecked supply ship with countless crates of whiskey and not much else. In exchange for passage off the island, they agree to help him repair the ship and go scavenging for materials and supplies. At a seemingly deserted plantation, they raid a warehouse for what they need but are threatened with a gun by the property owner, Jennifer Winslow. She is planning to flee the island herself before Japanese forces arrive but strikes a bargain with the sailors to escape with them in exchange for what they need. Once at sea, a romance develops between Jennifer and Lieutenant Morton Krim while further complications threaten to waylay their return to safety such as Japanese fighter planes, a bunch of shipwrecked natives, and Finchhaven’s misguided attempts to play the hero after disgracing his family name with a past offense.
In terms of classification, The Extraordinary Seaman falls into that genre known as service comedies like Operation Petticoat (1959) and The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960). It also throws in a slight fantasy/supernatural angle that is so downplayed it might not even register if you’re not paying attention. As soon as the elaborate opening credits began, underscored by Maurice Jarre’s jaunty Hogan’s Heroes-like theme song, a sinking feeling sets in as we’re treated to a would-be wacky montage of newreel clips, animated graphics, and colorized photos of WWII iconography that set up the movie’s lighthearted tone. There is a lot of talent on display here, in front of and behind the camera. The cast includes David Niven as Finchhaven, Faye Dunaway as Jennifer, Mickey Rooney and Jack Carter providing comic support and an almost unrecognizable Juano Hernandez (Intruder in the Dust) as a Native American sailor.
The Extraordinary Seaman was also the first major starring role for Alan Alda (as Lt. Krim) but since the film (completed in 1967) was held up from release for two years, Alda’s subsequent film Paper Lion (1968), appeared first and was assumed to be his first major role. In addition to John Frankenheimer as director – he had just completed Grand Prix (1966), a favorite personal project because of his love for auto racing – the crew also includes such Oscar nominees as cinematographer Lionel Lindon (I Want to Live!, 1958), film editor Fredric Steinkamp (Out of Africa, 1985), art director Edward C. Carfagno (Ben-Hur, 1959), and the renowned composer Maurice Jarre (1965’s Dr. Zhivago and countless other film scores).
Even a great cast and crew can’t be enough sometimes. There are so many other factors to consider in a film’s success from the screenplay to the marketing and often studio interference or cockeyed creative decisions can derail the best intentions. This has happened time and again and two of the more famous examples of this – Heaven’s Gate (1980) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) – have been well documented in two in-depth dissections of what went wrong – Steven Bach’s Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists and The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco by Julie Salamon. The Extraordinary Seaman was by no means as high profile a project as those two big budget flops. In fact, it never had an official theatrical release and disappeared after some disastrous test screenings before turning up later on television.
Considering the talent involved and Frankenheimer’s reputation at the time, The Extraordinary Seaman would have seemed ill-advised even then. Not only had Frankenheimer never directed a film comedy but his proven expertise was in visually dynamic dramas that often addressed social issues. In addition, The Viet Nam War was clearly becoming a national controversy and a comedic WWII farce seemed curiously out of step with the times and the interests of moviegoers. It would be another four years before Robert Altman’s black humored satire M*A*S*H* would more accurately reflect the growing cynicism of the culture.
But the main reason The Extraordinary Seaman seemed destined for failure was more obvious. As the director revealed in John Frankenheimer: A Conversation, edited by Charles Champlin, co-producer “Eddie Lewis and I did it together. We did it for all the wrong reasons. We did it to make money before we made The Fixer….What happened was that a friend of mine, John Cushingham, brought me a very funny script by Philip Rock and Hal Dresner, and we proceeded to ruin it. It was a much better script than the movie I made.” To make a movie for purely commercial reasons is nothing new but to fail in that endeavor could yield something much worse than an art film flop. At any rate, Frankenheimer continued to create obstacles for himself during production. After wasting time trying to find the perfect location in the Philippines where the film was set, he found what he felt was an acceptable compromise.
According to Faye Dunaway in her autobiography, Looking for Gatsby: My Life, “the location that John had finally chosen lay about halfway between Mexico City and the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. A tiny tropical outpost on the Gulf shore, Coatzacoalcos had little in the way of even the basic necessities…There are two images of Coatzacoalcos that stay with me above all others. The cockroaches, which were huge – three inches long on average – would move in herds so thick that the ground would look like it was alive. And the ocelots, sleek beautiful yellow cats with dark spots, which were jungle cats that had been tamed, as much as you can tame anything that is wild, and kept like pets by the people there.”
Besides the uncomfortable working conditions on such a remote location, the weather made filming even more unpredictable with daily tropical rainstorms extending the ten-week shoot into a much longer ordeal. Nevertheless, the more famous cast members were able to make the most of it. Dunaway recalled, “John and his wife, Evans Evans, whom I knew from our days on Bonnie and Clyde, tried to bring a little civilization to the nights there. They would have elegant dinners, with deliciously prepared food, and fine wines that John had flown in; those who were among the ones lucky enough to get a dinner invitation would all sit around being entertained by David Niven. He was a wonderful raconteur and would tell us tales of old Hollywood.”
Meanwhile a major miscommunication was occurring right under Frankenheimer’s nose during the filming of The Extraordinary Seaman. Unable to chose his own script supervisor for the location shoot, he was assigned one by the studio. This new crew member was used to working on Mexican films which had a completely different approach to shooting scenes. Frankenheimer later stated, “What we didn’t know was that the Mexicans do everything without master shots and coverage. In other words, if you have two lines of dialogue and I have two lines of dialogue, they won’t shoot the whole scene on you. They’ll only shoot your lines on you, and my lines on me….What they didn’t realize is that the way we work is to shoot a master shot, then the whole scene on me and then the whole scene on you…..”
The final result of all this was that Frankenheimer didn’t have enough footage to cut together the ninety-minute feature he had promised MGM. Going back and reshooting the missing footage was not an option so he had to pad the film anyway he could from the extended opening credits to adding chapter headings to each episode (borrowed from Winston Churchill’s six-part nonfiction work, The Second World War) and the generous addition of newsreel footage as an ironic running commentary to what was happening on the screen. For example, when we see Alan Alda and his sailor buddies struggling to climb aboard Niven’s derelict ship, the scene is juxtaposed against a film clip of training camp inductees performing a superior job of doing essentially the same thing. The fancy intercutting of archival footage and narration into the movie becomes a major annoyance but, ironically, the newsreel clips prove to be much more interesting than the contrived plot.
Only a handful of reviewers ever got a chance to see The Extraordinary Seaman before it was locked away for two years. Variety called it “strictly steerage cargo. A tepid story keel, not entirely – but almost – devoid of amusement strength…..” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, ” There is not one honest-to-goodness laugh to be found in it…The Extraordinary Seaman is the most total fiasco since the Edsel.” Frankenheimer’s flop was even immortalized in Harry and Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards in the chapter “The Worst Film You Never Saw” in which fellow contenders included Jerry Lewis’s unreleased The Day the Clown Died (1972) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977).
In his autobiography, Life is Too Short, Mickey Rooney, confessed, “I have to consult film indexes to remember the movies I did in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Skidoo, which was directed by Otto Preminger; The Comic, directed by Carl Reiner; The Extraordinary Seaman, with Faye Dunaway and David Niven and directed by John Frankenheimer; and a soft-porn documentary about Hollywood called Hollywood Blue.”
Dunaway observed in her autobiography, “You never set out to make a bad film; you make choices based on what’s offered you, and the talent attached to those projects – in this case, John Frankenheimer, David Niven – and you throw the dice. Nevertheless, The Extraordinary Seaman was a disaster.”
The only good thing Frankenheimer had to say about the film was in reference to David Niven: “My memories of The Extraordinary Seaman are memories of David Niven. He was one of the real gents of this business. I was having quite a run there, if you think of it: Paul Scofield, Yves Montand, Rock Hudson and David. Four nicer guys just never lived.”
So is The Extraordinary Seaman as bad as everyone says it is? Well, there are certainly worse films but it’s clearly a major Frankenheimer folly and you’d never guess he was the director of it if he was not listed on the credits. It seems closer in tone to a Blake Edwards service comedy like The Perfect Furlough (1958) or What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) but minus the laughs. The central premise is too fanciful and silly to warrant such a high quality production but that’s one of the reasons the movie remains watchable at all. The Metrocolor lensing is eye pleasing, Faye Dunaway is impossibly gorgeous, Alan Alda shows real comic flair and talent in a poorly written role, and there’s curiosity value in watching a bearded David Niven as an alcoholic ghost compete for laughs against scene chewers like Mickey Rooney and Jack Carter. Nothing works and the only time I laughed was at that famous newsreel clip of Bess Truman trying to christen a ship with an unbreakable champagne bottle. But knowing the film’s backstory and seeing what ended up on the screen makes The Extraordinary Seaman perversely fascinating as a cautionary tale about the hazards of moviemaking.
More than fifty years after its limited 1969 release, The Extraordinary Seaman continues to be a difficult film to see. Not available in the U.S. as a domestic release on DVD or Blu-ray, the film aired on Turner Classic Movies in 2010 and may resurface there again some day.
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