For a filmmaker as prolific as Ridley Scott he’s bound to have a lot of hits and misses. For every Gladiator (2000), there’s a few Someone to Watch Over Me’s (1987). It is some of the fascinating yet flawed outliers in his filmography that are the most interesting. Case in point: White Squall (1996), a dramatic recreation of the doomed school sailing trip lead by Dr. Christopher B. Sheldon on the brigantine Albatross, which sank on May 2, 1961, allegedly due to a white squall, killing six people. Adapted from Charles Gieg’s book The Last Voyage of the Albatross, the film received mixed reviews and, despite its cast, featuring a bevy of young, up-and-coming actors, performed poorly at the box office.
follows Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf) as it opens with the young man giving up his
last year of high school to sail on the Albatross.
His brother got into an Ivy League school on a scholarship and it is hinted
that he doesn’t have the grades to do the same. The rest of the boys are
loosely sketched and it’s up to the talented young cast to breathe life into
their respective characters. You’ve got Dean Preston (Eric Michael Cole), the
bully who thinks he’s cooler than everyone else; Gil Martin (Ryan Phillippe),
the meek one; Frank Beaumont (Jeremy Sisto), the spoiled rich kid who doesn’t
want to be there, and so on. We meet
most of these boys as they are prepared to board the Albatross for a year-long voyage at sea where they’ll learn
everything they need to know about operating a boat while also keeping up with
their academic studies. They are immediately greeted by McCrea (John Savage),
the grizzled English teacher who quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest to them. They go below decks and are greeted by boys
already there. True to Social Darwinism, a pecking order is quickly established
but as they will find out, everyone answers to Captain Christopher Sheldon
(Jeff Bridges) a.k.a. The Skipper who sets the ground rules when he addresses
them for the first time: “The ship beneath you is not a toy and sailing’s not a
game.” In this scene, Jeff Bridges tempers his innate likability and charisma
by playing the Skipper as a no-nonsense disciplinarian who demands his students
follow the rules. This is further reinforced in the next scene when he finds
out that Gil is afraid of heights and browbeats the young man to climb up the
rigging and in the process not only traumatizes him but humiliates him in front
of the other boys.
Scott shows us what it takes to get a boat such as the Albatross ready for sea, how everyone works together, and how a rookie mistake almost costs Chuck his life when he hangs himself on the rigging only for the Skipper to rescue him. Early on, the boat hits a rough patch of water, a foreboding taste of what’s to come, and we see everyone act as a team to rescue one of boys who is tossed overboard. To make up for the deficiencies in the lack of character development in Todd Robinson’s screenplay, Scott includes several scenes showing the boys bonding, whether its’s Gil’s tearful recollection of how his brother died or Dean admitting he’s a poor student that doesn’t know to spell. We slowly begin to care about what happens to these boys, which is crucial later when they are put in peril with the storm.