Donald Crowhurst’s story is truly a unique one, combining British derring-do and proud flag waving adventurousness with an intimate story of a dream gone very badly wrong.
In the late 1960’s when men were landing on the moon, it seemed like nothing was impossible. Sir Francis Chichester had just sailed single-handedly around the world (stopping in Sydney for a well earned quick rest) while Sir Chay Blyth and Sir John Ridgway rowed across the North Atlantic, all modestly brushing off these daring feats as being only marginally more dangerous than going to buy a pint of milk at the local shop. The idea that a man might sail around the world with as little experience as Crowhurst still seems vainglorious and crazy although, in reality, both the aforementioned Blyth and Ridgway also set out on the same Golden Globe race with equally little, if not less, experience. Crowhurst’s story is tragic not only because he (probably) committed suicide but also because he left behind a wife and four children. Yet here was a man who was ultimately neither hero nor anti-hero but in a strange way both because his reasons for entering the race were entirely admirable; he wanted to win the £5000 prize money so he could support his family and extricate himself from financial debt. Forget that he cheated and lied to the whole world, somehow his comeuppance still feels too excessive for what seemed more like a series of white lies rather than deceitful, harmful falsifications. Robin Knox Johnson (winner and only man to finish the race) famously said that history should not judge Crowhurst too harshly and this is something we have taken to heart in the film.
With our modest budget, there was no way we’ll be able to compete with a larger production in grandiosity of scale and have massive Perfect Storm or White Squall type sea-spraying storm scenes. So artistry, imagination and suggestion came to the fore in telling this unique story in a unique way.
The main thing we’ve concentrated on is the emotional and psychological journey that Crowhurst went on; the narrative is about a man on a boat after all, and during this journey there are a few highs and quite a few lows. Not only is his loneliness and isolation explored but also, the ultimate irony that as each of his competitors drops out, so he comes closer to winning – the last thing, it turns out, he ever wanted to happen. There’s something terribly British about cheating to come last yet, perhaps worse, is cheating to come last and actually failing and winning by mistake.
When not concentrating on Crowhurst himself, we cut away to give the film a dynamism and pacing beyond its man-in-a-boat origins. The film is interspersed with descriptions of each of the other sailors, read by a BBC newscaster with maps to illustrate where they dropped out of the race. At the beginning of the story, after two sailors already crash out, Crowhurst humorously notes that he hasn’t even left home and he’s gone from 9th place to 7th. As the race progresses it becomes apparent that if the other contestants continue to drop out, then Crowhurst’s benignly cheating ways will have disastrous consequences for him. So, just by having these inserts, a great drama and tension is imbued into the film as the dawning realisation that disaster looms.
To emphasise the Britishness of the situation and how important honour and the Empire were back in the 1960’s we took inspiration from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia where the whole cast sing Aimee Man’s ‘Wise Up’. From when Crowhurst departs to his final demise, we have various rousing and traditional British hymns/carols sung by various members of the cast – starting off with ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ when he leaves Teignmouth Harbour to The National Anthem when he realises his mission is in tatters. In between, we also have ‘Jerusalem, I Vow To Thee, My Country’ and ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’. The songs are sung by Crowhurst’s supporters but as his plight progresses they, bit by bit, fall away so that it’s only him singing with his family (him on his boat, them at home in England) and for one of the final scenes singing the National Anthem, it’s just Donald alone, on his trimaran.
Working alongside Nicolas Roeg during development on this project has been a terrific
experience for me. Nic’s legacy to the art of film is enduring. Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Walkabout, Bad Timing, Eureka and the ultimate in filmed madness, Performance, all contain huge elements of the outsider, the alienated and the the horror and seduction of loneliness. Nic’s contribution to this film in terms of his support, influence and advice has been huge.
The goal of the film has been to treat Donald as the honourable man that he was before leaving on his voyage; a dreamer, a man with a vision, a father and husband, and more than anything, a British underdog. I hope the audience will empathise with his situation, share his hopes and dreams and ultimately his horror at the crazy turn of events the race unpredictably took. In Justin Salinger (Everest, Heartless, Enduring Love) I cast an immensely powerful and captivating actor who completely projected Donald’s charm – perfectly capturing his affable optimism yet never letting go of that sense of being a dreamer with a tangible vulnerability.
I’m very proud of this small but intense movie. It’s an incredible film about an incredible journey by an incredible man.
by Simon Rumley
Simon has been described by Screen International as ‘One of the great British cinematic outsiders’. His career started at the end of the 1990’s when he made a triptych of youth culture films set in London – STRONG LANGUAGE and THE TRUTH GAME were both released by the BFI and premiered at the National Film Theatre whilst CLUB LE MONDE was released more widely. They were critically praised and STRONG LANGUAGE garnered two BIFA nominations including one for Best Newcomer. After that, his films went into a darker, more psychological territory and gained him a strong following on the worldwide genre circuit. Both THE LIVING AND THE DEAD and RED WHITE & BLUE premiered in Rotterdam and the latter also played at SXSW. Together the films won over 50 awards around the world including best films at all the major genre festivals such as Sitges, Fantasia and FantasticFest. After these, he directed parts of two successful horror anthologies, LITTLE DEATHS and ABCs OF DEATH, the latter of which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Most recently he has finished filming a true story in Louisiana, THE LAST WORD, produced by veteran Hollywood director Frank Mancuso Jr (Species, Ronin, etc). He has recently directed FASHIONISTA and ONCE UPON A TIME IN LONDON. Simon’s films have played all around the world and been distributed likewise. Empire Magazine described him as ‘One of the most important and intelligent British film-makers working today.’
You can hear Simon Rumley on episode 45 of the Slow Boat Sailing Podcast. The critically aclaimed Crowhurst film is currently running in the UK.
The director’s notes and bios were taken from the Studio Canal UK Crowhurst Production notes. The picture above features Justin Salinger as Donald Crowhurst.