Donald Crowhurst & The Mercy

Of all the tales of human tragedy at sea, few have caught the public imagination as much as the strange story of Donald Crowhurst. His tragic intervention in the 1968 Gold Globe Race has inspired several plays and books, as well as an art installation by Tacita Dean, a epic poem and even an opera. I devoted nearly a whole chapter to the story in my recent book book: Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea. This year, the fiftieth anniversary of the Golden Globe, two movies are being released – not about the race, but about Crowhurst's part in it.

I went to a press preview of The Mercy back in October and was completely gripped by it. Most films about sailing are so littered with technical errors as to make them almost unwatchable to a real sailor. The Mercy doesn't make the mistake of trying to recreate an authentic sailing experience; it's more interested in what's going on in Crowhurst's mind and the relationships with his family, agent and press. And of course it's the psychological aspect of the story that makes it so compelling and enduring: how a man can back himself into a corner through a series of small deceptions, until there is no way out. The sea is an essential backdrop to the story, but the human drama takes centre stage, as it should.

I happened to go to the same screening as Sir Robin Knox-Johnston – the man who won that historic race and became the first person to sail around the world non-stop and singlehanded (at the very same time as Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon). There was something quite disconcerting about having the person being depicted on screen sitting just a few inches away – like watching a movie about the Second World War with Winston Churchill sitting next to you.

When the film was over, I asked Sir Robin what he made of it, and he seemed to think it was a very fair depiction. His only criticism was that the waves in the Atlantic aren't as big as they were made out to be in the film – they are only that big in the Southern Ocean, and of course Crowhurst never made it that far.

Having researched the Crowhurst story in detail for my book Off the Deep End, I'm not sure Colin Firth has the emotional intensity to portray a man in the full throes of a mental breakdown – there's something too genial and likeable about him – but it's still a great film. And the shots of Teignmouth in glorious 1960s technicolour are wonderfully uplifting – a pean in an otherwise dark tale.

Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea
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Published on January 03, 2018 07:34
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