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9 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Why are film-makers obsessed with the story of doomed British sailor Donald Crowhurst?

Two new films explore the mystery of the businessman and sailor who disappeared during the 1969 Golden Globe race. But is his story essentially unfilmable?

By Jonathan Coe

When the yachtsman Donald Crowhurst set out from Teignmouth, Devon, on 31 October 1968, as the last of nine competitors to enter the Sunday Times Golden Globe race for solo, non-stop circumnavigation, he might have had many possible goals in mind. There was the financial security that the £5,000 prize would bring to him and his family; the glory of going down in history – along with the newly knighted Francis Chichester – as one of Britain’s most heroic seafarers; the publicity and commercial success that would accrue to his invention, the Navicator (forerunner of today’s GPS in some ways). But there was something else that he could not possibly have foreseen: that his voyage – conceived in hubris and optimism, ending in tragedy – would turn out to be the inspiration for quite so many books, plays, TV programmes, artworks, musical works and, in particular, films over the next 50 years.

This year two new retellings of the tale reach cinema screens: The Mercy, James Marsh’s big-budget offering starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, and the smaller, leaner Crowhurst, made by the maverick British horror director Simon Rumley, with Justin Salinger in the lead role. By viewing them side by side, and looking back at earlier adaptations, we can perhaps start to understand the enduring appeal of this story for film-makers: although there remain doubts, in my mind, as to whether you can really capture the essence of Crowhurst’s downfall on screen.

Here are the brief facts, for those who still don’t know them. Incredibly, Donald Crowhurst was not the most inexperienced competitor to enter the Golden Globe race (that accolade must go to Chay Blyth, who’d never handled a yacht before and had to be towed out of the harbour because he hadn’t worked out how to steer). But he was still very much a weekend sailor, more used to pottering along the Devon coastline than rounding the Horn. He set sail on the very last day permitted by the rules of the race. His self-designed trimaran the Teignmouth Electron was hopelessly ill-prepared: the pioneering computerised steering system wasn’t ready, and the hull was far too vulnerable to leaks. Crowhurst had also fallen into the clutches of a ruthless publicity agent who was hyping up his story beyond all realistic expectations, and had placed himself at the mercy of an unscrupulous sponsor, signing a monstrous deal that stated that if he did not complete the nine-month race he would have to give all the money back and face certain financial ruin.

He had only been at sea a few weeks, and was inching his way down the West African coast, when he had to face up to the fact that his vessel was not seaworthy and he would die if he tried to take it into the roaring forties that winter. He decided instead to fake his log books, lie dormant in mid-ocean for a few months, then tuck in behind the other racers as they headed north back home through the Atlantic. He would be seen to have won an honourable third or fourth place, dignity would be saved, and he would be able to keep the sponsorship money.

Disastrously, all but one of the other racers dropped out and Crowhurst became a cert to win the prize for fastest sailor. He knew that under the close scrutiny that would result, his logbooks would be exposed for the forgeries they were. Weighed down by this dilemma, and suffering from months of intense confinement and solitude, he underwent a mental disintegration and finally – we must assume – stepped off the edge of his boat. The Teignmouth Electron was found drifting, unmanned, a few weeks later; he was never seen again.

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Crowhurst’s logbooks passed into the hands of two Sunday Times writers, Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, who quickly produced their masterly account of the tragedy, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, which appeared in 1970. It’s a book that has a profound impact on everyone who reads it, not least because of the unsparing way it records Crowhurst’s mental unravelling. He seems to have spent his last few weeks poring over Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (the subject of one of the few books he took with him for companionship), which in his final, feverish days he elaborated and twisted into a bizarre 25,000-word essay on his own dominion over space and time. Almost the last words he wrote were the ones that have become his famous, despairing epitaph: “It is finished – It is finished – IT IS THE MERCY.”

It’s no surprise that rights to the book should first have attracted the attention of Nicolas Roeg, whose own fractured narratives of people lost in the wilderness (Walkabout) or falling apart (Bad Timing) chime perfectly with the Crowhurst story. But Roeg never managed to crack the problems of adapting the book – perhaps there is a lesson there for other film-makers – and so the first version to reach the screen, unexpectedly, turns out to be a 1976 Canadian TV movie called Horse Latitudes. Viewable on YouTube today, it canters through the story in a brisk 41 minutes, but its star, Gordon Pinsent, can do little with a screenplay that casts the protagonist, most inaccurately, as a boorish con man, and some lurid cartoon sequences towards the end do little to capture the hallucinatory horror of Crowhurst’s final imaginings. The film was produced by an outfit called Rosebud Films, but Citizen Kane it isn’t.

Meanwhile a French translation of Hall and Tomalin’s book had caught the imagination of the actor and producer Jacques Perrin (best known, perhaps, as the sailor-suited, peroxide-haired romantic in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort). The result, eventually, was Christian de Chalonge’s film Les Quarantièmes rugissants, which updates the story to 1982, starring Perrin as “Julien Dantec” and Julie Christie (speaking creditable French) as his wife Catherine.

The presence of Christie puts a solid focus on the relationship between the absent mariner and his abandoned partner, with bewildered children often to be glimpsed in the background (Crowhurst, only in his mid-thirties when he attempted the voyage, already had four children). This aspect of the story is handled well: a powerful scene towards the end of the film conveys Catherine’s rage when a long-awaited personal call from her missing husband is turned by the villainous press agent into a huge gathering of journalists and onlookers: private grief and anxiety cruelly made public. Perrin, too, makes a convincing if implausibly handsome Crowhurst figure, and has some nice dialogues with a wounded seabird he invites on board his ship, a device that reminds us of one of the central cinematic problems with this story – that the hero has nobody to talk to for most of the running time. This is the same problem Billy Wilder faced when making The Spirit of St Louis, his film of Lindberg’s solo transatlantic flight, and which he solved – after a fashion – by having Jimmy Stewart chatting to a fly that finds its way into the cockpit.

The fact that Les Quarantièmes rugissants is still somewhat underwhelming makes us realise something important about the Crowhurst story: anyone who wants to adapt it must have a clear idea of what it’s about – or rather, what they want to make it about, because one of the explanations for its resonance and longevity must be that it can be interpreted in so many different ways. Tacita Dean made a book of photographs of the wrecked and abandoned Teignmouth Electron, now rotting on the Caribbean island of Cayman Brac, and for her Crowhurst’s story is about “human failing” and “what can happen at the very extremes of the human personality”. In my own novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (and in Michel Leclerc’s fine 2015 screen adaptation, La vie très privée de M Sim) the story is retold as a parable of loneliness, exploring how post-1968 advances in technology might only have increased our sense of isolation.

Certainly the makers of the next film version on our list, Race of the Century (1986), have decided what the Crowhurst story is all about. This is a solid Soviet adaptation of the material, and although the copy I viewed online has no subtitles, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. This version unequivocally casts Crowhurst as victim: victim of the Western media’s insatiable thirst for stories, victim of his commercial sponsor’s greed, victim of a father’s duty to be a hero to his children. A victim of Western capitalism, in other words. Actually it’s as good an interpretation as any – and not dissimilar to the line put forward by Paul Foot in his dour, scathing 1970 BBC documentary, Donald Crowhurst – Sponsored for Heroism. Stylistically, however, the Russian film is heavy and depressing.

In 2006 the excellent documentary Deep Water was released. The directors, Jerry Rothwell and Louise Osmond, had crucial access to the film footage and sound recordings made by Crowhurst himself on the voyage for later broadcast by the BBC: this is the best place to start for anyone who wants to get quickly up to speed on the events. Of the two retellings reaching our screens this year, interestingly, Rumley’s film Crowhurst is executive-produced by Nicolas Roeg, while The Mercy is co-produced by Jacques Perrin, suggesting the latter will follow the emphasis placed by Les Quarantièmes rugissants on marital fall-out, while the former will focus on mental breakdown. And so it proves.

Remembering that the now celebrated circumnavigator Robin Knox-Johnston was the comfortable winner of the original Golden Globe race, one might also characterise this as a stand-off between two films, with The Mercy as the Knox-Johnston of the contest – gliding serenely onwards, full of modest self-assurance – and Crowhurst as Crowhurst himself: the plucky, unlikely challenger up against daunting odds.

Marsh’s film seems to share with its French predecessor a curious softening of the source material, a reluctance to make this story anything more disturbing than the study of a loving couple torn apart by circumstance. That makes for a touching drama, but there is surely more to the Crowhurst myth than that. In this respect Rumley’s film, despite its visibly lower budget, is the more ambitious of the two. He has a clear take on Crowhurst, and it’s a good one: he sees this as a story about delusions of grandeur on a national scale. Rumley’s Crowhurst wants to hark back to an ancient tradition of heroic British mariners, but now it’s all based on lies. In a bold stylistic move, the narrative proper is intercut with sequences of the background players – the press agent, the sponsor, the wife – singing patriotic anthems, and at the moment of his final collapse, Crowhurst himself (a most affecting portrayal by Justin Salinger) sings “God Save The Queen” in an unbearably fragile, cracked, unconfident voice – on and on, he goes, verse after unfamiliar verse. As a metaphor for collective nervous breakdown, and the national mythologies underpinning Brexit, it’s not exactly subtle, but perhaps subtlety is not what we need from our artists at the moment. This sequence certainly offers a welcome, complicating antidote to the nostalgic tub-thumping of recent Churchill drama Darkest Hour.

Elsewhere, using Roegian techniques, Rumley also has a good stab at conveying Crowhurst’s mental disintegration – but you would still get a clearer, starker sense of that from reading the logbooks. Perhaps the only conclusion we can really draw from these versions is that the Crowhurst story, despite its obvious allure, is essentially unfilmable. “Film,” as BS Johnson once pointed out, “is an excellent medium for showing things, but it is very poor at taking an audience inside characters’ heads, at telling it what people are thinking.”

Inside Crowhurst’s head is precisely where the real drama was always taking place, and the only way we can really get there is by reading his own unvarnished thoughts, as transcribed by Hall and Tomalin. As so often, the old saying holds true: if in doubt, buy the book. 

“The Mercy” is in cinemas from 9 February; “Crowhurst” will be released later this year 

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry