Human beings are tribal animals: We love to put ourselves in boxes with labels and other identifiers that distinguish Us from Them. Groups provide comfort. Mobs provide anonymity. There’s pride in association, a kind of spiritual connection we feel with those who share our politics or genealogy. But while we may choose (or be forced) to identify with one particular group, the real test is the degree to which we’re willing to coexist with others. We might find it convenient to associate in peace, or we might find it necessary to obliterate our enemies with extreme prejudice. Alfred Hitchcock, ever the critic of social mores and institutional ambitions, brings these questions to light in his underrated wartime film, Lifeboat. Shot almost entirely on one set and featuring a limited cast of characters, it examines the reasons we associate and the divisions that those associations create between us. By forcing a diverse group to fight for a common interest, Hitchcock asks us an important question: is it better to survive together or to die alone?
Like Hitchcock’s best work, Lifeboat’s major strengths are its complex characters and morally-ambiguous tone. It’s a world not unlike our own: a melting pot of cultures, classes, and genders all floating together along the same current. Predictably, racism and class warfare take center stage: the proletariat bruiser Kovac belittles Connie for her jewelry and clothing, while Rittenhouse offends him with his immense wealth and capitalist ideals. Kovac is the first to suggest quarantining the German sailor and the first to stir up xenophobia amongst the rest of the boat. His shipmate Gus is more genial, a lovable dope. His only concern is meeting his Rosie back on the dance floor. But even the delightful Gus sneers at the thought of Al Magaroulian, the flat-footed Armenian who has eyes for Rosie. His quiet sadness develops into an existential crisis and proves that, as in life, we often turn the pain and insecurity inside ourselves into hate and distrust for others.
Hitchcock also received pushback for humanizing the Nazi sailor, Willi. He’s the subject of frequent discussions and tribunals aboard the ship: should they treat him with the dignity and respect commonly afforded prisoners of war, or, given their limited supplies and living space, toss him overboard? The ethical questions become even more complex as Willi reveals himself to be much more capable than originally thought: he’s actually a U-boat captain who speaks perfect English. How can they trust him? How can he trust them? It’s here that Lifeboat asks just how important our pride and prejudice become in survival situations. How long can we maintain decorum before we lose control? Willi is often the smart one: he privately rations food and water, keeps his abilities and knowledge as vague as possible, and manipulates the reckless disorder of the ship to his advantage. But does that make him evil? He certainly isn’t above petty revenge: his heartbreaking final scene with Gus proves that he’s still a man of his people. Would we have done any different?