Sunday, February 18, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: Horse Latitudes


‘Horse Latitudes’ is a TV movie made in 1975 with a running time of 41 minutes. For all its brevity, it takes a long hard run at including as many of the salient points of the Donald Crowhurst story as it possible: Crowhurst as amateur sailor, his boat as unready/untested, the mid-voyage dilemma, the invented log, Crowhurst’s psychological depletion, the concept of a cosmic being, the discovery of the unmanned vessel.

The weird thing about the film is that it does all of these things while almost wilfully fictionalising Crowhurst. The character presented to us by writer-director Peter Rowe is called Philip Stockton, he’s an expatriate Canadian living in England, he’s an entitled yacht club bore (albeit a more proficient sailor than the real Crowhurst), and he cooks up a scam to kill time in the calms of the South Atlantic (the horse latitudes of the title) then rejoin the race on the return leg before he’s even set sail.

Stockton is so evidently Donald Crowhurst in terms of the narrative context – ‘Horse Latitudes’ aired six years after Crowhurst’s unmanned Teignmouth Electron was found, and five after the publication of Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’s much-lauded book on the subject, so the story would still have been very familiar to audience – and yet is completely unlike him in virtually every way the script could conjure.

For this reason – and also for the inclusion of a genuine weird animated sequence – ‘Horse Latitudes’ is an odd film to watch. There’s probably more to enjoy in it if one is unfamiliar with the story. Having seen ‘The Mercy’ on the big screen and ‘Deep Water’ on the small within the same 24-hour period in which I approached ‘Horse Latitudes’, I struggled with the latter’s fictionalisations. Why make him Canadian, apart from the fact that Peter Rowe is Canadian, as is Gordon Pinsent, the actor who plays Stockton? Why suggest that the deception was premeditated when the mid-voyage desperation that drove Crowhurst to his fateful decision is far more dramatic?

Both decisions weaken the film. Most subsequent approaches to the story – be they feature films or documentary works – address, to a greater or lesser degree, the very fact of Crowhurst’s Englishness. Not so much from a class perspective (the working class don’t, as Toad of Toad Hall would have put it, “mess about in boats”), but more a matter of Crowhurst fulfilling a national archetype: the underdog, the have-a-go hero, the armchair adventurer who decided to quit his armchair and live the adventure. Having Stockton as an ex-pat completely scotches these considerations; to the point, in fact, where Rowe struggles to identify Stockton’s motivation in joining the race. This may account for what seems like directorial impatience on Rowe’s part to get Stockton out to sea and have things start to go wrong for him. While ‘Horse Latitudes’ focuses on Stockton alone on the boat, Rowe is confident in his material. The land-locked scenes, however, are shoddy.

The idea of premeditation – that Stockton is nothing but a conman from the outset – does the most damage to the film. There is no sense of Stockton as anything more than a big-headed twat, a characterisation that effectively waves goodbye to the audience’s sympathy. It’s only the taut running time and Pinsent’s commanding performance that mitigate against utter loss of interest in the proceedings. Rowe’s implication that the falsified journey had always been Stockton’s back-up plan not only leeches tension at a crucial stage in the journey, but seems curiously un-sync’d, narratively and emotionally, with Stockton’s subsequent mental breakdown.

There are two ways to go as regards Crowhurst’s disappearance: accident or suicide. And while psychological derangement is a fit for both scenarios, the suicide angle plays more effectively in a dramatic context if it’s done with some degree of rationality: fear of being unmasked and bringing shame on his family; guilt that his fictitious achievements have spurred on a competitor to risk-taking and the loss of their vessel. Going mad and taking one’s life is very theatrical. Glumly and understatedly doing oneself in for lack of other options is very English. For all the romanticism and yearning for adventure and the lure of foreign climbs, there’s something about the English mindset that is almost claustrophobically narrow minded and more than half in love with failure. And for a country whose historical imperialism once saw it ruling half the globe, the island race mentality of foreignness as something that is bloody awful is deeply – psychologically – ingrained.

‘Horse Latitudes’ wants to have the madness in all its animated glory – I’m being sarcastic here: aesthetically, it makes your average Loony Tunes cartoon look like da Vinci – as well as the calm, almost pragmatic act of suicide. And it tries to reconcile these aspects without a single enquiry into the nature of Crowhurst’s national identity.

It’s one thing to fictionalise a true story – there may have been rights issues around Tomalin and Hall’s book; maybe Crowhurst’s family objected: I don’t know – but quite another for that fictionalisation to strip away the most crucial aspects of the story; the very underpinnings that define the story, that make it unique. Granted, there are some effective moments – Stockton’s meltdown at the difficulty of creating the log of a journey he hasn’t taken generates a real sense of the deception closing in on him – and Pinsent is never less than compelling. A more sympathetic script, an account of Stockton as a personality closer to Crowhurst, and Pinsent would have been so much better served. He’s the best thing about ‘Horse Latitudes’ and my cautious recommendation is entirely based on how well he sells some very difficult scenes in the last third. But – sweet lawd! – his director gave him a poisoned chalice.

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