Carroll Ballard has directed just six films, and four of them are masterpieces: The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf, Fly Away Home, and this one. I had hopes that a fifth one, adapted from The Master, an almost unknown novel by T. H. White, author of The Once and Future King, would be a fifth masterpiece. I worked with Carroll for about six months on writing the screenplay. Alas, nothing came of it.
If there has ever been a better movie about sailing, I’ve never heard of it. It begins with an exciting race between tiny, two-person boats. (I know there is a name for them, but there are so many classifications of racing boats with the rules constantly changing that I won’t even try to get into that.) Matthew Modine and Jennifer Grey are aboard. We get right down into the heart of the action. Then we move onto the big boats, the America’s Cup “yachts.” (Again, the rules keep changing. The original racers were actual yachts, with living accommodations and full crews. These days they race catamarans that don’t even seem to have below-decks spaces.) Cliff Robertson is the rich owner-sailor, and Modine is the tactician. It is a fictionalization of the 1983 race when the U.S. lost the cup for the first time, ending a 132-year streak, the longest winning streak in sports. And it’s Modine’s fault, for hitting the turn marker and thus having to go back around, just as happened in real life.
Some time later, after a period licking his wounds, he joins Grey and Stellan Skarsgård at an abandoned airfield in the desert to design and build another boat to challenge the Aussies in Freemantle. (Skarsgård is standing in for Burt Rutan, the famous aircraft designer who really did work on the boat.) They go Down Under and win the cup back.
So there’s the plot. Nothing too unconventional, though there’s nothing wrong with it. The real joys of this movie, as in all the other Ballard movies, is the photography. It must have been a real bitch to shoot. We are aboard the yachts as they slam through the waves, watching these crazy men as they climb up to the top of the mast, and hang their asses out over the side to get that one more ounce of counterbalance to the howling wind. I have never aspired to even get on a sailboat, much less be part of the crew, so it is really wonderful to be able to see how exhausting and exciting it all is without having to get wet.
Since you already know how it comes out, I can share one sequence that I thought was brilliant. There is celebratory pandemonium ashore as the boats are paraded through town, and on the water as they jockey for position at the start. The music is pounding, the cheers are deafening, editing is fast and furious as they start. And then we cut to … the two boats just sitting there, totally becalmed. Not a breath of wind! If de wind don’ blow, de boats don’ go. It is a hilarious moment, as they desperately look for the least ripple on the water. Of course, once the wind blows it is edge-of-your-seat drama again. I just love this movie.