“The adult world is, with few exceptions, cruel hypocritical or at best indifferent” – Birgitta Steene writing about the worldview of Bergman’s early films.
Ingmar Bergman’s third directorial feature A Ship Bound for India (1947) tells the story of Johannes, a young man confronting the cruel adult world that Steene mentions in the quote above. In this film, that adult world is personified in the immensely unlikeable character of Captain Alexander Blom, Johannes’ father. In the film, Johannes returns to his home town after seven long years away. The early part of the film reveals a past love that had gone awry and the bulk of the film is a long flashback sequence which details how this occurred. Johannes lived on a salvage boat with his mother and father as well as a few other men who worked for his dad. Into this life comes Sally, Captain Blom’s mistress. That a man would so openly flaunt his mistress in front of his son and long-time wife, shows what kind of a character Captain Blom is. To put it bluntly he is an unmitigated and irredeemable prick of a man. It is not giving too much away to say that Johannes and Sally come to fall in love, and the film recounts the efforts of this young man to escape the cruel clutches of his father and make his own way in the world.
The early parts of the flashback establish the two main male characters by contrasting them against one another. Johannes is kindly and quiet, exceptionally self-conscious of a small hump in his back. Conversely his father is a drunken jackass who gets into bar fights and cheats on his wife. This early part of the film shows that for all of his amazing talents as a director, shooting fight scenes was definitely not Ingmar Bergman’s strong suit. Captain Blom is not just a mean and cruel man, but a sadistic one. He loves the power he wields over everyone else in the film – his long-time crew, Johannes, his caring wife and his mistress Sally. He treats them all terribly for no other reason than he thinks that he can. However, gradually throughout the film, this hold that the Captain has over all of these people begins to weaken in one way or another. This manipulative man, who stirs up Johannes about his hump knowing full well how self conscious about it his son is, is truly one of the most unlikeable characters ever committed to film. It is well known that Bergman himself had a complicated relationship with his own father, so one has to wonder if that explains at least in part the character of Captain Blom. In many ways the emotional centre of the film is Alice Blom, Johannes caring mother and long suffering wife of the Captain. She is publicly humiliated by Captain Blom when he brings his mistress aboard. All she has ever dreamt of is a cottage in the country with her husband, and now that dream is being torn away from her. She illustrates her grief by recounting the heartfelt and symbolic story to Captain Alexander of when they first started out in the salvage industry and she operated the equipment that kept him alive underwater. She was literally responsible for him being able to breathe. Predictably, the Captain is entirely unmoved by the emotional pleas of this wonderful woman.
For me, A Ship Bound for India did not reach the heights of Bergman’s first two films. It is by no means bad, it just does not have the same heart running through its core. The love story between Johannes and Sally is rendered in a much more melodramatic manner than in the other two films which feature slow burn relationships that really build. My favourite aspects of the film thoughwere its nautical elements. The first real image of the film that we see is a ship being battered by a storm, and much of the film takes place on boats and the surrounding docks. There are plenty of shots of shipyards, boats and close-ups of ropes and propellers early in the film to set the scene. Success in this world is measured by one’s success as a seaman. Captain Blom puts his hunchbacked son down by scoffing at his assertions that he will one day be a successful captain himself. Johannes is lauded upon his return at the beginning of the film though because this is exactly what he has made of himself. This whole environment is a real change to the more urban or at least landlubber settings of the other Bergman films I have reviewed. The nautical aspect of the film also plays host to the film’s most riveting moment. In a Hitchcockian moment of tension, Captain Blom attempts to murder his son whilst he is underwater using the very old school diving apparatus. Great stuff!
A Ship Bound for India is an interesting, but minor early Bergman flick. Overall, whilst I did definitely enjoy this film, it is a touch more obvious and does not have the same delightful subtleties that pervade both Crisis (1946) and It Rains on our Love (1946). By all means though, the film is still worth checking out to see Bergman’s film journey continue.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
‘The Bergman Files’ Leaderboard
- It Rains on our Love (1946)
- Crisis (1946)
- A Ship Bound for India (1947)
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