31 March 2010

We need the Mary Celeste!

The title of this post is an exaggeration. I’m using need in the weak sense that “boy, it would sure be great for all of us if . . .” And it would be great for all of us if a sharp group of filmmakers made a new movie about the mysterious Mary Celeste.

In case you’ve never heard of this ship, the Mary Celeste was a brigantine sailing ship that was found abandoned in 1872 in the Atlantic about six hundred miles from Portugal. It had set sail from New York, bound for Genoa, with a cargo of alcohol destined for Italian wine merchants, a crew of eight, and two passengers. The ship Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste seaworthy, rigged, and undamaged—with nobody on board, and no apparent reason for the crew and passengers to have abandoned the ship.

The Wikipedia entry can give you most of the important details as well as the various theories, although the article contains more of those annoying [citation missing] tags than usual for a Wikipedia entry. The hypothesis that Captain Benjamin Briggs ordered the ship abandoned because of fear that the cargo might explode makes the most sense; by Occam’s Razor, this is the likeliest explanation. It has some holes in it, but far less than some of the other theories, like pirates attacking the ship. If pirates did raid the Mary Celeste they must have been both the kindest and stupidest pirates in history, since they didn’t upset anything on board and took only some standard navigation equipment with them, leaving the valuable cargo worth $35,000 untouched. They also took the lifeboat, for some reason. (Hey, could always use another lifeboat. Just ask the folks on the Titanic who didn’t make the cut.)

I’ve loved “real life mysteries” from a young age; I first encountered the mystery of the Mary Celeste in a World Book Enyclopedia volume for children that contained stories of the sea. The telling of this perfect “ghost ship,” where everyone aboard seemed to have simply vanished, was chilling and intriguing. Unfortunately, the book fed me some of the common myths about the ship, such as the old canard that the crew of the Dei Gratia found that dinner was laid out and uneaten, meaning the people aboard the Mary Celeste got up right before the evening meal and decided to leap overboard in a moment of collective mania and/or odd humor. Today, this gives me the hilarious image of Captain Briggs, right after saying grace, suddenly declaring to everyone at the table: “Hey, you know what would be really amazing? If we all went up top right now, got in a lifeboat, and sailed off to our doom. It would so mess with people’s heads!”

A few years after my first encounter with the Mary Celeste, I read another account aimed at juvenile readers which included the fictional “Fosdyk Papers” as actual evidence for the disappearances. Add another myth on the heap.

Legends aside, we’ve still have a very strange occurrence on the high seas of the Victorian Age and a goldmine of storytelling potential. Only one major has ever been released about the vanishing, the 1935 British movie The Mystery of the Mary Celeste. There is a short black and white British telefilm called The Wreck of the Mary Celeste from 2004 about which I can find little info. This was followed by another Brit TV project, called The True Story of the Mary Celeste, which is an hour long and aired in 2007. German TV had its own television version in 1972. It’s time for a full-length, high-profile feature. Television is probably the best venue, although an independent, limited-release theatrical version could also work. In a time with too many rehashes of material less than two or three decades old, here’s a great piece of public-domain drama and fascination waiting around for somebody to grab it and to do something with it.

There are a few directions that a Mary Celeste film project could take its subject, but it narrows down to two broad categories for me: period drama or speculative fiction. In the first choice, similar to the 1935 film, Mary Celeste’s mystery is treated in a realistic (if romanticized) fashion. Fictionalized or completely fictional characters have their drama aboard the ship, building up to the reason they either abandoned it or were taken off it. The second option . . . well take your pick: time travel, giant squid, alien attack, dimensional warp, sea zombies, Rod Serling, etc. All sorts of fun!

The Mary Celeste does have a presence in our pop-culture, but usually as a reference. I’ve done this myself, since I named a character in one of my novels—a woman trapped aboard a “ghost space ship”—Celeste. However, it’s time for the whole story to get back in the mainstream. I’d certainly pay money to see it. As long as it isn’t in retroactive 3D.