“We all live or we all die.”BM1 Bernie Webber
- Director: Craig Gillespie
- Producers: Jim Whitaker, Dorothy Aufiero
- Starring: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, Eric Bana
- Released: 29 January 2016
Now that I’ve reviewed two books on the Pendleton and Fort Mercer rescues (Two Tankers Down and The Finest Hours), it’s probably only fair that I review the film of the same events. In 2016, Disney released The Finest Hours which was adapted from the book of the same name by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman. The film depicts the rescue of 32 crewmembers off of the stern section of the Pendleton that had split in a storm in February 1952. Involved in the rescue were Coast Guardsmen Bernard Webber, Richard Livesey, Andrew Fitzgerald, and Ervin Maske aboard the 36-foot motor lifeboat CG-36500.
I’ve had this film in my collection for several years and it slipped under the radar (not to mention bombed at the box office) when it was released. That being said, I recall that it got a lot of favorable publicity within the U.S. Coast Guard at the time with many Coast Guardsmen attending the premiere, including the (then) Commandant, Admiral Paul Zukunft. I even recall in my area that some places were offering sign-ups for this film so they could fill theaters with Coasties. These weren’t private screenings per se, but any film that favorably features the Coast Guard will naturally draw attention from a service that is often forgotten about. Not to mention that it depicts a very famous rescue in Coast Guard history. Anyway, here are my thoughts on it.
In November of 1951 U.S. Coast Guardsman Bernard “Bernie” Webber (Pine) meets and falls in love with Miriam Pentinen (Grainger). While at a dance on 17 February 1952, Miriam proposes to Bernie, but he initially declines, stating that he first needs to get permission to marry from his commanding officer, Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Bana) at Coast Guard Station Chatham.
During the night, a storm and heavy seas cause the T2 tanker ships Pendleton and Fort Mercer to split in half off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The survivors aboard Pendleton‘s stern section, led by their Chief Engineer Ray Sybert, devise a plan to run the hulk aground to buy them time for help to arrive before the vessel floods and sinks. Rigging up a manual tiller and operating the still-functioning engines, the crew successfully ground the stern section on a shoal just off the coast of Cape Cod and blow the horn to signal people on land.
Back at Coast Guard Station Chatham, Bernie Webber, and Richard Livesey (Foster) are dispatched to help fisherman tie up their boats. Arriving at the pier, Carl Nickerson informs them that he spotted a drifting section of a large ship off the coast after hearing the horn blowing. Arriving back at the station, the men confirm that two T2 tankers have broken up in the storm off of the coast. A rescue operation is already underway with the Fort Mercer and a plane has discovered the stern section of the Pendleton offshore near the station. Cluff orders Webber, Livesey, Andy Fitzgerald, and Ervin Maske to take the 36-foot motor lifeboat out over the treacherous Chatam Bar and rescue the crew from the Pendleton. Prior to leaving, veteran fisherman John Stello tells Webber he’s being sent on a suicide mission and suggests that he “get lost” while crossing the bar and return saying he couldn’t make it. Webber insists that he’ll try his best to cross the bar despite the dangerous conditions.
“In the Coast Guard they say, ‘you gotta go out.’ They don’t say, ‘you gotta come back in.'”Bernie Webber to John Stello
Arriving at the station, Miriam learns that Bernie has been sent out on a rescue and implores Cluff to recall him before he gets killed. Cluff refuses and sternly orders her out of the station. Reaching the bar, Webber struggles to steer the boat over the massive breaking waves and loses the boat’s compass in the process. Fortunately, the crew is successful at crossing the bar and then has to navigate the huge seas while searching for the Pendleton in the coming darkness.
Meanwhile, distraught from her argument with Cluff, Miriam gets her car stuck in a snow-filled ditch but gets help from a passing motorist whom she learns is the wife of a fisherman aboard the fishing vessel William Landry that Webber attempted to rescue in the past. Carl Nickerson eventually arrives to help Miriam dig her car out.
Webber and his crew eventually locate the grounded stern of the Pendleton in the darkness and find that there are 33 survivors aboard. Livesey and Webber note that the boat is only designed to hold 12, including the crew, but despite that regulation, she can probably carry upwards of 20. Despite the heavy seas that are slowly pushing the stern off of the shoal, the crew begins rescuing the survivors who are coming down a ladder on the side of the ship. Unfortunately, as the stern shifts, one of the survivors, George “Tiny” Meyers, falls from the ladder and is violently swept by a wave into the hull of the ship; the impact killing him. Despite losing one survivor, and with the boat already heavily laden, the rest of the crew get off just as the stern of the Pendleton lifts off the shoal and sinks beneath the surface.
Lacking a compass, Webber radios Chatham Station and requests instructions. He’s ordered to proceed to the Pollock Rip lightship but instead deduces that even they don’t know his position. He turns his radio off and decides to proceed back to shore relying on his knowledge of the area and the currents. Just then, the power goes out in the town and people, who’ve been listening in on the rescue over the radio, realize that Webber won’t have any lights to find his way back. Miriam decides to follow others who are heading down to the pier to see if they can provide further assistance.
Despite the freezing temperatures and exhaustion, Webber pilots the lifeboat back to Chatham after the town’s people turn on their car headlights, allowing Webber to find his way back to the pier. Webber and Miriam are reunited along with the survivors and their families.
While this film is by no means a documentary, I did find a number of laudable things regarding its historical accuracy.
Preserving the memory of one of the greatest rescues in Coast Guard history
Or at least one-fourth of it. The Pendleton and Fort Mercer rescues have been fairly well-documented in books, personal accounts, and even artwork, but this is the first time I’ve seen it committed to film. While these rescues have been surpassed in size and scale, they still stand as the largest rescues involving small boats and cutters on the open seas. What this film does well, and with reasonable accuracy, is to keep alive the history of this particular event and provide the viewer with a decent visual interpretation. Even today, Bernie Webber is still hailed as one of the great heroes in the U.S. Coast Guard for his efforts during the rescue of the Pendleton stern.
While the film doesn’t go into the details, the T2 tankers had already been known to have structural problems with their hulls splitting due to fractures and metal fatigue (such as the SS Schenectady in 1943). At the time, many of the structural failures in these ships were attributed to bad welds, but the Coast Guard errantly continued to allow them to pass inspections and simply ordered more crack arrestors installed on their hulls. In fact, the stern section of the Fort Mercer would be refitted with a bow, renamed the San Jacinto, and would split again in 1964! The steel used in the construction of these ships contained high amounts of sulfur that made it brittle in cold weather. Ultimately, these ships were a product of lower standards due to the need to churn out vessels in WWII shipbuilding programs. Only in 1985, after the sinking of the SS Marine Electric and the impassioned efforts of Coast Guard Captain Domenic Calicchio, were these old WWII merchant vessels finally discontinued in service (Frump, 2008, p. 177).
Sense of scale
Another thing this film does very well is to give the viewer a sense of scale regarding the sea conditions that the crews faced on the night of 18 February 1952. By some accounts, the seas were up to 20 feet high on the Chatham bar and up to 40 feet high (in some cases up to 60 feet) outside the bar! Undoubtedly, there is some degree of exaggeration involving the size of the waves seen in the film. We could write it off as soul-less CGI, but in my humble opinion, that’s the only way to give the viewer an idea of the conditions and how dangerous they were. Visual representations are one of the few areas where films can surpass writing because they provide far stronger imagery than even still photographs can show. Even the photos of the actual rescues don’t convey the sea conditions at the time. In short, it looks a lot better than many films where the actors are just having buckets of water thrown at them on a set or where a small model is tossed around in a water tank. (You can always tell with the models because the water splashes don’t look to scale.)
Past failed rescue
One interesting detail that the film references are the failed rescue of the fishing boat William J. Landry prior to the events in the film. Webber was also involved in this rescue that occurred on 7 April 1950 in a snowstorm. Unfortunately, Webber and his crew were unable to even get to one of the motor lifeboats because the dory they were paddling out to it kept capsizing and throwing them into the frigid water. After several attempts and suffering from hypothermia from walking several miles in the snow while being soaked, Webber and the crew had to call it quits. Unfortunately, they faced heavy criticism from Coast Guard brass for “not trying harder” despite the freezing conditions (Frump, 2008m p. 17 – 22). In the film, Webber feels guilty over this failed rescue attempt and several of the Chatham locals, like Carl Nickerson, are keen on reminding him of it.
The film does falter a bit, particularly when it comes to how it portrays certain characters, and most notably in omitting a major part of the rescue efforts.
The characterization of Miriam Webber
The film makes a big deal about the relationship and engagement of Miriam and Bernie to add a dramatic subplot to the story. It depicts Miriam driving around, arguing with Daniel Cluff at Chatham Station about calling Bernie back in, and then waiting down at the pier for Bernie to return. The problem is that the film’s depiction of Miriam Webber simply never happened. For one thing, they didn’t meet in November of 1951; rather, they actually met in 1950 and were married in July of 1950, nearly two whole years before the events of the film. On 18 February 1952, Miriam was at home sick with the flu. Finally, Bernie was able to navigate his way back to the pier because he spotted the buoy light in Chatham bar, not because he saw a bunch of car headlights, and he didn’t meet Miriam at the pier. While I can’t speak as to how accurately the film depicts Miriam’s personality, the only accurate thing about her actions in the film is that she was a telephone operator and that she was the one who asked Bernie to marry her.
The characterization of Chief Donald Bangs
The film depicts Chief Petty Officer Donald Bangs in somewhat of an unfair light. While his efforts to reach the Pendleton‘s bow section are mentioned, his attempted rescue is never shown, nor is the fact that he and his crew spent all night out in the storm shown (the film shows him and his crew return to Chatham Station before Webber). Furthermore, the film shows this strange, almost antagonistic, relationship between Webber and Bangs over the topic of Webber’s engagement with Miriam. In reality, Webber held Bangs in high regard and considered Bangs’ attempted rescue with the CG-36383 to be even more hazardous than his. At one point, Bangs was ordered to the Pendleton‘s stern but quickly ordered back to the bow section when a nearby cutter located a survivor, despite Bangs’ earlier search.
Donald Bangs served a distinguished 30-year career in the Coast Guard and received a Coast Guard Commendation ribbon for his efforts in the rescue.
The little “courtesy” things
Multiple times we see both Coasties and civilians wearing hats both indoors and inside the mess at Chatham Station. Take your freaking covers off! It’s just one of those old etiquette things. You’re supposed to uncover (take off your hat) when you’re eating, and when indoors for that matter unless you’re under arms (carrying a weapon). Almost certainly this courtesy would’ve been followed back in the 1950s because it’s still practiced today! Another thing in the film is that we sometimes hear enlisted personnel addressed as “Sir.” For example, at one point, Webber calls Chief Bangs, “Sir.” Any enlisted man, especially a Chief Petty Officer, will promptly correct you. “Don’t call me, ‘Sir,’ I work for a living!” (i.e. they’re not a warrant or a commissioned officer.) The only person who should be addressed as, “Sir,” in the film would be Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (at least the film got that part correct).
The efforts of the Pendleton crew
The film depicts the crew of the Pendleton‘s stern working to run the ship aground at the suggestion of Ray Sybert. While the crew aboard the stern section did manage to rig up a manual tiller and run the engines, whatever control they had was tentative, at best (Frump, 2008, p. 62). There’s no mention in the books that they intentionally “steered” the stern section onto a shoal, but it did eventually run aground on a reef. The books mostly mention that Sybert took a leadership role following the splitting of the ship, but it mostly involved having the crew stand watch as lookouts to signal for help. The film also displays some tension occurring between Sybert and Brown over whether or not to evacuate in lifeboats, but as far as the books are concerned, it wasn’t nearly as acrimonious as depicted. Finally, Frump (2008) notes that George Meyers was actually the one continuously blowing the ship’s whistle to signal for help (p. 63). Yet, the film depicts him as the ship’s cook.
Another inaccuracy is that the film makes a big deal about water coming in from a hull fracture in the stern eventually reaching the engine air intakes and causing a loss of power. While the books do mention concerns over poor welding and cracks in the hull, at no point is there any mention of the Pendleton‘s stern section flooding from a crack in the hull or of the engine air intakes being flooded. Then again I’m not an engineer and have no idea of the specifics of the propulsion systems on the T2 tankers apart from the fact that they used steam boilers and turbo-electric drives.
The death of George “Tiny” Meyers
The film depicts Meyers’ death somewhat inaccurately. It shows him falling into the sea from the Jacob’s ladder and then being swept away by a wave whereupon he’s thrown into the hull of the Pendleton before the lifeboat can reach him. The force of the impact against his head is implied to have killed him. In reality, the crew managed to get ahold of him, but due to his weight, they couldn’t lift him into the boat. The force of the waves pushed the lifeboat towards the Pendleton where Meyers was killed by being crushed between the two hulls. I suspect that Disney found this to be too graphic or disturbing and changed it.
In addition, Meyers was missing his pants during the rescue but is fully clothed in the film. The reasons for Meyers missing his clothes are debated. Some say that he gave his warmer clothes to those in need, while Frump (2008) speculates that he was suffering from the advanced stages of hypothermia and had paradoxically undressed (p. 169 – 170).
The ending of the Pendleton stern rescue
There are some discrepancies between accounts regarding who was the last man off the Pendleton stern. In Tougias and Sherman’s book (2009), they write that it was Ray Sybert (p. 139). In contrast, Frump (2008) writes that it was David Brown (p. 100). Another inaccuracy is that the stern section didn’t sink as depicted in the film. In reality, it capsized to port about 20 minutes after they got the last man off. Photographic evidence shows it laying on its side and still visible above the water after the storm passed.
The complete omission of the Fort Mercer rescue
Perhaps the most grievous historical inaccuracy this film commits is that it leaves out any depiction of the Fort Mercer rescue which was happening at the same time and involved several Coast Guard cutters. The film pays mere lip service to this event and only goes so far as to mention it a couple of times in the dialogue, but no rescue is ever seen on-screen.
In reality, since both tankers split in half, there were essentially four rescues occurring more or less simultaneously.
- Pendleton’s bow section: The least successful, but it involved Chief Donald Bangs and the motor lifeboat CG-36383 attempting to rescue one survivor. One body was later recovered from the wreck.
- Pendleton‘s stern section: Webber’s rescue of 32 survivors with CG-36500.
- Fort Mercer‘s bow section: USCGC Yakutat rescued 4 survivors.
- Fort Mercer‘s stern section: USCGC Eastwind, USCGC Unimak, and USCGC Acushnet rescued 18 men from the stern in a masterful display of ship handling from the Acushnet. The stern was later towed back to port with the remaining survivors who stayed aboard.
I conjecture that there are a number of reasons for the omission of these other rescue efforts. One reason could be that jumping back and forth between four different rescues would’ve confused the viewer. Other reasons could be that the production was probably limited in runtime, money, and resources. Rendering CGI depictions of old 1950s Coast Guard cutters rescuing survivors from the Fort Mercer would’ve taken more time and money. They also probably wanted to keep the story focused on Webber and the 36500 since it has a sort of David vs. Goliath tone to it. Chief Bangs is mentioned as attempting a rescue, but his efforts are likewise never shown. Personally, I don’t think it would’ve been too confusing to the viewer to show at least parts of the Fort Mercer rescues. Title cards could’ve been inserted to provide the viewer with a reference as to the fact that this was a different rescue happening concurrently.
The resulting injustice is that it fails to give credit to all of the other heroic efforts that occurred during these events. Webber was very adamant that everyone in his crew on the 36500 also receives the Gold Lifesaving Medal because he knew he couldn’t have done it without them. It was a team effort and they all shared in the danger. Even to this day, Webber seems to get all of the credit, but in reality, many more men received accolades and not just the men of the 36500. In total, five people received Gold Lifesaving Medals, four people received Silver Lifesaving Medals, and fifteen people received Coast Guard Commendation Ribbons for their efforts in these rescues (Tougias & Sherman, 2009, p. 237 – 242).
Apart from my issues with the film leaving out the Fort Mercer rescue, my biggest issue is that this movie feels very safe and by the numbers. A number of other reviews similarly found the film to be rather lackluster. This is perhaps an issue with many disaster films involving man against mother nature because it’s hard to depict the peril of mother nature in a way that’s gripping and thrilling to the audience. Thus, there’s a perceived need to insert human drama into the film. Much of this could also be chalked up to the fact that disaster films aren’t really in vogue right now. This isn’t the 1970s when we had a boom in disaster films like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. This film is also depicting a historical rescue, and a very successful one, at that. If you know the history, then you already know that it has a happy ending. As a result, much of the inserted drama falls kind of flat.
Another likely reason for the “safe” tone of this film is that it’s a Disney production. This film got a PG-13 rating for “intense sequences of peril.” Yet, it feels like a very low-end PG-13, and in a way, it seems almost bowdlerized with Disney removing all of the bad and scary things that would really upset parents and their children. For comparison, I found the 2006 film Poseidon, a remake of The Poseidon Adventure, to be far more worthy of its PG-13 rating given that it contains some graphic deaths. To that effect, all of the characters are fairly one-dimensional. Nobody has any vices or much depth to them and there’s hardly any foul language. In fact, the only real violence is the death of Tiny Meyers, but even that’s depicted incorrectly and in a fairly tame way.
Although the film does a good job of giving the viewer a sense of scale, it can’t really convey just how cold the conditions were at the time. It shows a lot of people falling into the water and getting splashed with waves, but in reality, the water temperature was around 38 to 42 degrees and none of these people were wearing immersion suits. Granted that the water wasn’t ice-cold, but that’s still pretty cold. Recall that this was during a snowstorm in February! The wind chill alone after being soaked would be enough to make a person hypothermic. Yet, when people hit the water, we don’t see any of them panicking from the shock of cold water immersion and they all move around just fine with hardly any signs of shivering or the reduced range of motion and dexterity that comes from being in freezing temperatures. In reality, many of the survivors were frozen to the point where they couldn’t even move and had to be carried.
My final criticism is that the characters are a bit flat. Even the main character of Bernie Webber doesn’t undergo much character development. Being played by Chris Pine, viewers might be expecting something akin to his portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek fame. Alas, Webber is not Kirk. I can’t speak much about the personality of the real Webber, but some have mentioned that he was very humble (although he was a bit of a wayward teen). Pine portrays Webber as a very soft-spoken person who, over the course of the film, gains confidence in his abilities and decision-making skills. By the end of the film, Webber is able to act decisively and confidently lead his crew with a firm voice. That being said, that’s the extent of his character arc. It’s not very substantial.
What this film does best is that it pays good homage to the bravery of Bernie Webber, his crew, and their amazing rescue of the Pendleton stern. It gives the viewer a good media representation of what conditions were like and what happened during that event, but it falters when it comes to some of the representations of the historical people and in some of the broader details regarding the events during the storm on 18 February 1952. Most significantly, it completely omits half of the story (that of the Fort Mercer rescue). That said, I would regard this film as “reasonably” accurate to the historical events because what it does depict it does so with a decent amount of faithfulness. It takes some minor dramatic liberties with the rescue of the crew of the Pendleton‘s stern, but none of these are serious.
Overall, it’s not the most dramatic film and it feels very unimaginative at times, but it keeps alive the memory of one of the greatest small boat rescues in U.S. Coast Guard history. In that respect, this is definitely a film that appeals to U.S. Coast Guard personnel. Anyone with a connection to the sea service or those who like disaster films will probably enjoy this film, but anyone looking for lots of character-driven drama should look elsewhere.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5 (Good. Borrow from a library.)
Frump, R. (2008). Two Tankers Down: The Greatest Small-Boat Rescue in U.S. Coast Guard History. The Lyons Press.
Tougias, M.J. & Sherman, C. (2009). The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue. Pocket Books.