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The Navigator (1924)

by | Mar 1, 2016

A wealthy young man learns to be resourceful in an attempt to survive on a ship with no power, adrift at sea.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Clyde Bruckman, Joseph Mitchell, Jean Havez

Director: Donald Crisp, Buster Keaton

Production Co.(s): Buster Keaton Productions (A Metro-Goldwyn Attraction)

The Story on the Screen

In the silent film The Navigator, the main character, Rollo Treadwell, is a wealthy young heir to a family fortune who decides one day that he will marry the girl across the street, Betsy O'Brien—whose father is a wealthy ship owner. His decision to do so seems to be based on a whim sparked by the sight of two people just married passing on the street under his window.

Rollo Treadwell is a wealthy heir to a family fortune who decides that he will marry Betsy, the girl across the street, but is summarily rejected in his proposal.

He does not seem to be cognizant of the idea that the girl might refuse his proposal, and he directs his butler to order cruise tickets for the honeymoon just as plainly as he might ask his chauffeur to bring the car around. Only after doing so does he bother to ask the girl to marry him—in a matter-of-fact manner (although he does present her with flowers). And his proposal is rejected in no uncertain terms.

To cope with the rejection, Rollo decides that he will go on the honeymoon cruise alone, and that he will board the ship that very night. Unfortunately, due to a mishap involving the pier number, he ends up boarding the wrong ship and finds himself on the "Navigator," a ship that Betsy's father, John, has just sold to one of two small countries who happen to be at war with each other. The ship is new and nothing is working, but Rollo chalks up the lack of power to the fact that he is boarding late at night, and he settles quickly into a cabin to go to sleep.

To cope with the rejection, Rollo attempts to go on the honeymoon cruise alone, but due to a mishap ends up boarding The Navigator, a ship recently sold by Betsy's father to one of two countries at war with each other.

Coincidentally, that same night, John and Betsy visit the pier, so that John can pick up some important papers from the ship. But foreign agents who intend to prevent the ship from arriving in the custody of their enemy capture him and cut the ship loose from the dock, hoping for Nature itself to scuttle it on the high seas. And when Betsy goes onboard the ship to look for her father before it is set adrift, she finds herself stuck on a ship headed aimlessly out to sea.

Foreign agents who intend to set the ship adrift on the high seas capture him and set the ship loose, imperiling him and Betsy, who must figure out how to take care of themselves alone.

Thus Rollo and Betsy discover themselves the next morning (after a comical period of not being able to find each other) lost and alone, cold and hungry, drifting helplessly on the high seas on a ship without power of any kind. Their attempt at putting together a meal reveals how unfamiliar they are with taking care of themselves—as does their attempt to hail a passing naval vessel, by accidentally hoisting a flag indicating that their ship is under quarantine.

After a night filled with more mishaps, they somehow settle in, so that weeks later we find them having adjusted quite well to their life on the high seas—sleeping in the boiler furnaces that have never been used and having mechanized their kitchen routines. But when they run aground near a remote island populated by cannibals, they must take their resourcefulness to the next level, outfitting Rollo in a deep-sea diving suit so that he can fix a leak at the propeller shaft and fending off the cannibals in the process.

After a series of mishaps, including being chased by cannibals, they are saved—and Betsy gives a sign that there might be hope for their relationship after all.

Their efforts meet with success for a time, but ultimately they are forced to paddle out toward the open sea with nothing more than a single life preserver, chased by the cannibals in their canoes. When all seems lost, they find themselves suddenly lifted out of the water, having accidentally stumbled upon a surfacing submarine, where they climb aboard and obtain safety at last.

Once onboard the submarine, Betsy kisses Rollo (albeit with some uncertainty), suggesting (but not confirming) that there might be some hope for their relationship after all.

Behind the Scenery

Although the opening title cards suggest that the story is a commentary on Fate itself, the issue of the story lies elsewhere—specifically in the realm of resourcefulness. In this case, Fate (and her sister, Coincidence) do land Rollo and Betsy on the drifting ship, but the story centers around how they handle the situation, not how they came to be in it. And the fact that they are wealthy young people who have lived lives of ease, taken care of by others, further speaks to resourcefulness as part of the central issue.

Although the opening title cards suggest that the story is a commentary on Fate, the issue of the story actually lies in the realm of resourcefulness.

Because their resourcefulness is required for their survival, the issue of the story may be expressed in terms of "being resourceful in order to survive." In this sense, Rollo is a keep character whose treasure is possession of his own life and that of Betsy. Consequently, the proposition can be stated as:

  • One should attempt to employ resourcefulness in order to survive (keep alive), because success in the attempt will not only preserve his life but will also render him smarter and better able to take care of himself in the future.

Even in this simple tale, we see theme clearly expressed by the attempt of the main character to satisfy an intent.

In The Navigator, Rollo succeeds in being resourceful and is rewarded with his own and Betsy's survival. And although we-the-audience do not witness his life after the adventure, we can reasonably assume that he has acquired a better appreciation of what it takes to live and has honed his own life skills. The story, therefore, falls squarely in the camp of succeed/pleased stories. But because the consolations and collateral damages are not made clear (Betsy's kiss at the end signifies uncertainty more than devotion), the story cannot be pegged as clearly either happy or unhappy.

So even in this simple tale, we see theme clearly expressed by the attempt of the main character to satisfy an intent. And we have a few laughs in the process.

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms mentioned in this article, please refer to the resource materials.

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