Ferry to Hong Kong (Lewis Gilbert, 1959) 🇺🇸
In Macao, we saw Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell landing in the port city from the Hong Kong ferry. Here we climb aboard the good old steam ferry, Fa Tsan, with the promise of plenty of romance and adventure ahead – although we’ll be needing our sea legs.
The colour film shot in CinemaScope gives us plenty of time to admire the enchanting surroundings of the sea crossing, dotted with chains of islands we sail past under a blazing sun. Nostalgic for the England of old, Captain Hart (the towering Orson Welles, his voice disguised with a fake Elizabethan accent) pampers his plants, cultivates his composure and keeps a watchful eye on the world. “Carry on” is the motto of the former crook, who wants everything to be smooth and polished and whose ferry is as clean as his past is murky. His regular passengers include a group of boisterous schoolgirls accompanied by their teacher, who looks like a princess (Sylvia Syms) and tries to stop her charges scratching anything. In the engine room, the ship’s engineer fuels the boilers while waiting to encounter the offspring he’s left in every port. And the ships sails on...
On the Hong Kong quayside, a man has just woken up in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the port. Emerging from a pile of crumpled newspapers, he has clearly spent the night outdoors. Be that as it may, on our poster we can see an adventurer who clearly shouldn’t be overlooked! Cigarette hanging from his lips and shoes slung around his neck, he consoles himself, a sneer on his face, with his faithful “Mrs Bottle”. We’re used to seeing Curd Jürgens dressed as an SS officer, but here he plays a former sailor who has fallen on hard times and soaks up the booze in the bars of Hong Kong. After making yet another scene at the “Dragon”, Mark is expelled from the perfumed port and frogmarched aboard the Fa Tsan, which will take him to Macao. “What the devil was he doing in that galley?” in Molière’s words.
It will definitely not be the best place for him to wash, shave and generally scrub up. He barely sets foot in Macao before he is turned away, his visa having run out. So he has to pursue his preposterous nomadic life, constantly criss-crossing the sea onboard the ferry until a series of incidents gives him the opportunity to redeem himself. As a junk is capsizing out at sea, he organises the rescue operation, a generous action that gets him in trouble with the captain. Despite having already deigned to transport a corpse with the accompanying flock of priests and mourners, he cannot tolerate the passengers he sees as dirty, illicit tramps. Tensions mount when the explosive-filled junk blows up and the ferry suffers some serious damage. It then gets even more battered by a terrible typhoon, and Mark takes the helm under the gaze of the captain, sporting a neck wound and stupefied to witness such a degree of bravery. The top of his body held in place by a plank (a makeshift solution to keep him upright), he loses every ounce of his dignity. Where is the Welles we have seen as Othello and Macbeth? When the sea is calm once more, the buffoon is not even capable of standing up to the pirates who attack the boat. One of the Portuguese sailors, dreaming of being a hero, dies after trying to kill the attacker. Mark tries to negotiate with his sidekick, an old acquaintance, but in vain. So he drags the mindless thug into the infernal engine room. The polygamous ship’s engineer attracts his attention and pushes him into the flames where he perishes, screaming in agony. Water floods the boat – it’s time to abandon ship. The women and children leave first followed by the captain, who is helpless to do anything but cry and watch, right to the last painful minute, the drawn-out, tragic sinking of the Fa Tsan, the only love of his life. At least there’s no chance of it getting any more scratches on the seabed!
In the meantime, Mark is back on the quays, a free man. He walks past the gleaming doors of the “Dragon” without flinching. Now he has overcome his demons, he deserves to marry his princess.
The title Ferry to Hong Kong, in red letters on a white background, invites us on a journey where we can relax and enjoy an exotic adventure at the wonderfully slow pace that made old-style ferries so appealing. Sadly, tickets are no longer on sale, but you can still dream about the good old days by acquiring this wonderful poster with its enticing holiday colours.
Trivia: Sylvia Syms also had a principal role in The World of Suzie Wong, another movie taking place in Hong Kong.
Check out the French version of this article.