Two of my favourite silent Scandinavians in a film that is enjoyably imperfect… One can get a bit too precious about the “greats” and The Canon but there are times when you just want to relax and watch what was always intended as entertainment.
So, Eld Ombord (aka The Hell Ship) doesn’t carry the social message of Ingeborg Holm, the emotional intensity of The Outlaw and His Wife or the spiritual questioning of The Phantom Carriage and Sons of Ingmar. It doesn’t have the raw sincerity of Jenny H’s performance in Sjöström’s under-rated Vem Dömer nor her performances in Gosta Berling or Johan. It doesn’t even allow the prima ballerina the opportunity to show her comedic touch and to dance as in Lubitsch’s Sumurun… and she could dance!
|The film features a number of repeated motifs|
Jenny lives with her mother (Ida Blumenthal) in their well-appointed garden and, following the news of Jan’s impending return, goes happily into their garden to collect a garland. The camera lingers on Jenny as she picks the flowers and is soon showing the point of view of Dick (Victor Sjöström) an old acquaintance – maybe even boyfriend – who carries the largest of candles for Ann-Britt – having only met “headwinds” since he saw her last.
|Director and star in the beautifully-lit garden sequence|
Ann-Brit is surprised by Jan in the garden an assumes it’s Dick… she tells him to stop before realising who her assailant is and no amount of her genuine joy at his return can persuade her stubborn husband to do anything other than instantly view Dick as an enemy.
|Old rivals meet again...|
Downcast, Dick returns home to the house he shares with his mother (Tekla Ahlander) and his cousin Eulalia (Julia Cederblad). His mother, always sad for her son, hears his leaden feet approaching and knows he has suffered another disappointment. His countenance confirms this but he loves his mother and doesn’t want to disappoint her and resolves to head off and find work.
|His mother waits...|
We’re slightly confused by Dick, he is listless and seems to delight in winding up his former rival for Ann-Britt and yet, when pushed by a detective (Nils Lundell) to become a police agent with the implication that Jan will eventually turn bad, he defends his honour and gives the copper a swift box around the ears.
As Dick returns he remembers to lighten his step in order to convince his mother that he’s had good news, but as he enters the house his determined positivity is immediately dissolved by the sight of his mother passed away on her chair: he’ll never know that she “heard” his “good news” footsteps only to smile as her old heart finally broke…
|The family that sails together, stays together...|
In desperation Jan accepts one of Roff’s dodgy deals – black market gunpowder – and in his haste to load the disguised barrels on board, one of his men falls and breaks his legs. There’s little time to lose as they must depart before customs investigate and, needing an immediate replacement, accepts an unknown freelancer on board with just enough time to cast off…
Well… can you guess the name of the mystery sailor?
The surprise re-appearance of his despised former rival re-ignites the worst aspects of Jan’s inherently untrusting nature and tension mounts. But Dick’s not all that bad and proves himself by rescuing Lill-Britt when a part of the rigging falls down on her. Ann-Britt runs to his aid and bandages his bloodied hand using the broach given to her by Jan… Dick’s place on board is assured though but there’s a storm guaranteed when he discovers the explosive in the hold… and all Hell does indeed break loose…
The characters don’t always ring true, Jan is too angry, Dick too comfortably in the way and even Ann-Britt too slow to react to her touchy husband’s need for re-assurance but the story is enjoyable if slightly predictable and undemanding. In fairness Sjöström set such a high standard that not every film could live up to his very best and if this was made with a more commercial eye then it’s still a very interesting production.
It’s always a joy to watch Jenny Hasselqvist in action and, as you all know by now, she’s one of my favourite performers even when, as here, she has less to do… allowing for one pretty brave stunt when she falls off the bridge – who was mad enough to risk the ballerina’s legs on that?!
|Jenny takes a trip...|
Eld Ombord is well worth seeking out – I was sent a copy by a mysterious European benefactor… and in a sensible world would form a part of Sjöström and Hasselqvest Blu-Ray box sets… with new scores, extras and extensive liner notes… on the latter point, I would happily work for free…