Stanley Kubrick, “The Seafarers” (1953)
Stanley Kubrick’s first film made in colour turns out to be a 30-minute documentary promoting a trade union for crews of cargo vessels. “The Seafarers” was commissioned by Seafarers International Union (SIU), a North American union representing mariners in North and South America. As an extended infomercial, the film extols the benefits of union membership for would-be sailors, including medical benefits, scholarships and fighting for decent pay and working conditions, and stresses the union’s democratic nature. In 30 minutes the film covers everything the SIU offers to sailors who join the union in a straightforward and succinct way. Cleverly appealing to sailors’ liking for creature comforts, the narrative begins by focusing on the SIU headquarters’ cafeteria and shooting close-ups of food in bain-maries before moving to the union’s recreation room and the department that pays out member sailors’ pay cheques. The film then goes on to explain how sailors apply for jobs on cargo ships and from then on punches out a list of benefits, rights and privileges sailors enjoy through SIU membership. From that, the film waxes expansively about how the SIU provides security and stability, not just for sailors but also for their families, and in this taps deeply into treasured American values about the sanctity of the family as a bedrock for society.
The pace of the film is leisurely and the narration provided by CBS news reporter Don Hollenbeck is matter-of-fact in that dull and deadly earnest style favoured by narrators of documentaries made in the mid-20th century. There is not much room in the film for Kubrick to show individual flair apart from a scene in the cafeteria where the camera pans leisurely from left to right over the food warming in the bain-maries.
As a promotional film, “The Seafarers” is quite persuasive but its historical relevance may be limited: oddly, no historical background is given and viewers will be left wondering how and when the SIU was formed, and what historical circumstances led to its birth. What actually does the SIU’s constitution promote, what are the values of the SIU, and how well does it uphold its principles and maintain its democratic spirit – these are things viewers might want to know. How has it grown over the years, what vision does it hold for the future – the film does not address these issues.
Viewers are very likely to find this documentary quite preachy and repetitive to some extent. Does it fit into Kubrick’s overall oeuvre of work? It may well do; the bulk of Kubrick’s films deal with crises of Western masculinity and how individual men coped and dealt with attacks on their masculinity from an America that more often than not repressed individual expression, enforced conformity and sent men to fight in wars around the planet to maintain control over other countries and their wealth. “The Seafarers” suggests that men will find their full expression of manhood in being both individuals capable of responsibility and self-control, and participants and team-players exercising their democratic rights and privileges in an organisation that serves their individual and collective interests. Of course, there’s nothing about what men should do if their individual rights and responsibilities clash with their collective rights and responsibilities, and it’s in that clash that the crisis erupts … so in a sense, “The Seafarers” does have a place in Kubrick’s work.