Why Hollywood destroyed SS Île de France

When Andrew L Stone’s The Last Voyage premiered in 1960, both critics and cinemagoers alike mauled his 91-minute disaster epic. But the greatest disparager was undoubtedly Compagnie Générale Transatlantique – who watched Hollywood destroy their beloved SS Île de France.

Let’s face it. Disaster movies are formulaic at best. Our fascination with grand disaster films doesn’t stem from artistic temperament or relatable character arcs, but something far darker.

We derive pleasure from the schadenfreude installed in our DNA, watching Hollywood’s elite being gruesomely dispatched while attempting to survive inescapable situations. But what about when a globally-adored ship gets whacked?

It’s when you start to mess with the formula that all hell breaks loose. And that was very much the case with The Last Voyage; an MGM picture from the swinging sixties. Producers pushed the boat out (quite literally) when attempting to inject excitement into a dying genre, and opted to try something never attempted before for the silver screen.

They weren’t going to take the easy route and use cardboard sets or the confined safety of a studio. Oh no - instead, they were going to film the destruction of a real ship – explosions, ruination, devastation, sinking; the whole lot.

Yet, it wasn’t just any old cargo steamer in their crosshairs. The victim? The once grand SS Île de France, a vessel which boasted an insatiably long and proud history.

The ship’s original owners - Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) - had something to say about the proposed plans. And they opted for using their lawyers to drop the unwelcome news upon director Andrew L Stone.

SS Île de France at sea, before she was remodelled and lost a funnel. Credit: Picryl

SS Île de France: A reluctant film star

Although movie posters for The Last Voyage trumpeted names such as Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, the biggest piece of casting was CGT’s SS Île de France. She was set to portray the doomed fictional S.S Claridon; a ship with a dark (and rather fatal) secret.

The S. S. Claridon: a proud ship; a venerable ship; but as ships go, an old ship, a very old ship. For thirty-eight years she has weathered everything the elements could throw at her: typhoons, zero-zero fogs, the scorching heat of the tropics. Now she is scheduled for only five more crossings. Then a new ship, a plush, streamlined beauty, will take her place. It is then that the Claridon will fade into oblivion. She has an appointment with the scrapyard – but it’s an appointment she will never keep – for this is the last voyage…”

Upon learning of Hollywood’s intentions for their recently retired vessel (originally sold for scrap, we hasten to add), Compagnie Générale Transatlantique promptly spat out their breakfast wine and pronounced some profanities.

Despite her retirement, the SS Île de France remained an icon and CGT did not want any association with fictional shipping lines. Let alone one where a lack of maintenance and safety kick-started cinematic mayhem.

Let’s not forget, at the time, the SS Île de France was still regarded as seafaring royalty. CGT’s celebrated liner had previously dominated the Transatlantic route with her dignified aesthetics, luxurious appointments and Art Deco interior.

Although not the fastest ship to slice through the North Atlantic’s crested topography, nor the largest, she became a fashionable and popular option for the crème de la crème of society while in service.

She was also respected for feats of lavish heroism and dashing valiance. The vessel had been one of the last commercial ships to escape France only days before the full-blown outbreak of World War II. In doing so, she carried more than 400 people beyond capacity to North America and the promise of safety.

However, the SS Île de France wasn’t on that shipping route alone, for the waters had sixteen other ships on the same course. Each of them torpedoed and sunk by German submarines.

Having survived the Transatlantic dash, she was then pushed into war duties and loaned to the British as a troop ship. Luckily, she survived WWII and was subsequently employed to ferry US and Canadian troops home from Europe, regaining popularity as a commercial liner once more in 1947.

It was then, in 1956, that SS Île de France crossed paths with the inspiration for The Last Voyage; the SS Andrea Doria – Italy’s revered flagship.

The SS Andrea Doria had been mortally wounded following a collision off the Nantucket coast, and the SS Île de France rescued a considerable number of passengers from the stricken Italian liner.

SS Île de France was blown apart for the glory of cinema.

SS Île de France: The last voyage

As fate would have it, Andrew Stone had found the agonizing demise of SS Andrea Doria ultimately fascinating. Inspired to write his screenplay, he sold the script to MGM and placed himself in the director’s chair.

Yet, there was a snag. As Stone had been so adamant about filming the action onboard a real ship, he was tasked by MGM with finding one.

Naturally, shipping companies wanted nothing to do with the project. As cinema had now become the media choice for millions of potential passengers, association with The Last Voyage amounted to corporate suicide.

The feverish search for a vessel happened to coincide with Compagnie Générale Transatlantique retiring their beloved and venerable SS Île de France. Well, we say ‘retired’, but her fate secretly rested with Japanese scrap merchants. She had become unprofitable in a changing world and had to go - quietly, and without fuss.

Once Stone learned that the Japanese were to wreck SS Île de France, the logistics made perfect sense. Negotiating with the ship’s new owners for permission to film aboard, Stone argued that, if the ship were to be torn apart for scrap, surely they wouldn’t mind some damage beforehand.

Then the French got involved. Intervening and threatening lawful action amid flurries of ‘Sacre Bleu’, money-hungry legal representatives of CGT eventually reached an agreement with Stone in lieu of compensation.

Everything you see on screen involved destroying SS Île de France.

The public are not fooled

Stone was given permission to use the ship, but only upon one condition. All insignia and tell-tale signs identifying the ship (and CGT) had to be removed.

Despite the smokescreen, these manoeuvres did nothing to disguise the SS Île de France from audiences. It was a catastrophic failure of epic proportions for the ship’s paint scheme and trademark looks were recognized by cinemagoers worldwide, while journalists congregated to give the film a damn good thrashing.

The Last Voyage attracted passionate anger for subjecting a socially adored grand lady to an undignified end. A bit like beating up Princess Margaret for the glory of paying audiences.

While some publications walked a fine line between admiration of the production’s ambition combined with abject horror at proceedings, most simply went for the director’s jugular. Life Magazine spoke of the SS Île de France as “the ill-fated victim of movie realism”.

In perhaps the biggest piece of ego-inflating news ever delivered, Stone had been told he could do just about anything he liked to the ship; on the basis that significant opposition from local authorities did not arise. Which, of course, naturally did.

Director Andrew Stone used dummies and willing Marines to film the really dangerous stuff.

Mayhem behind the scenes

Stone originally wanted to film his project off the English coast, but his concept was rejected faster than Prime Minster Harold Macmillan’s kettle could boil.

Unperturbed in his quest for cinematic perfection, the SS Île de France was instead anchored within Osaka harbour. She was set to be scrapped nearby, so it made for more logistical sense, even if the warmer waters around Osaka were full of poisonous and hungry marine life. But those in the water – actors, production crew, Marines – could worry about that.

Right from the start, there was repeated interference from the salvage company, continued groaning from CGT, and opposition from the Osaka authorities. Needless to say, nobody involved was happy.

To gain even a single frame of acceptable celluloid, Stone resorted to bribery. The legal threats kept on coming, with a toxic blend of belligerence and stubbornness getting the job done.

Almost everything presented to the audience was achieved on location through practical means; the flooding of the engine room, the on-deck explosions, and even the forward funnel crashing down upon the bridge. Flooded cabins were recreated in the ship’s swimming pool, and priceless fixtures and fittings were either set alight or blown apart.

It was this ambition that had initially wowed the press, but Stone fought for more. The biggest aspiration involved tilt-sinking the vessel to capture footage of propellers lifting from the water. However, the salvage company prevented such homicidal madness.

The ship could not defend herself from the chaotic onslaught, but the cast and crew were a different matter entirely.

Stone had several periods of mutiny aboard that exceeded most of the scripted drama. Main players had more discomfort and peril presented than their paychecks permitted, and despite firm protests, certain safety precautions were keelhauled and dismissed.

One actor called the director “a psychopath with a death wish”. Others grieved for the ship’s unnecessarily violent demise, while authorities encircled the production seeking any reason to shut everything down.

That reasoning came close when Stone detonated explosives in the dining room where the background extras refused to participate. To get around the problem, Stone turned to a handful of on-set American Marines hired as his personal ‘demolition crew’.

Stone figured that, as no Marine would falter from a request in front of his comrades, he could therefore manipulate them into participating when others baulked at the danger. He managed to convince some to wear women’s clothing and masquerade as female characters.

Perhaps disproving the ‘psychopath with a death wish’ mantra, those closest to the actual explosions were highly-disguised mannequins. However, through the power of HD picture quality and the ability to pause frame-by-frame, these dummies are now amusingly evident.

The SS Île de France after her facelift. Credit: Picryl

The End Of A Liner

Even by Andrew L Stone’s homicidally dangerous standards, the finale of his script was considered too treacherous for practical filming. As the fictional S.S Claridon tumbled beneath the waves, the onscreen closing sequence had to be faked. The climax was filmed within the safety of a studio in Santa Monica.

By this point, the relationship between Stone and the main cast had deteriorated beyond saving. Certain actors refused to participate, leaving their characters mysteriously absent amid the penultimate rushes.

After filming had wrapped and Stone had exhausted his negotiated permits, the Japanese scrap merchants refloated SS Île de France and towed her away. Her inevitable appointment with the breaker’s yard had to be kept. By 1961, she had been fully torn apart and dismembered.

For modern audiences, The Last Voyage symbolises the fading embers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Unlike other critical failures of the time, Stone’s film doesn’t command a cult following, nor is it currently available to purchase on the UK market.

The aspects which provoked a critical backlash at the time – the mindless destruction, the reality of the settings, the never-ending barrage of relentless peril – ironically allows The Last Voyage to outclass more successful genre titles of the time. Even if the ship’s explosive dismantling is hard to stomach.

Despite overwhelmingly negative press reviews and audience reaction, the allure of watching SS Île de France being reduced to her component parts was a hit. The box office returns and Oscar nomination for 'Best Effects' allowed MGM bigwigs to rest easy at night, lighting cigars with $50 notes, and burning Bette Davis scripts to pass the time.

If anything, while the film seems to be largely forgotten, The Last Voyage does at least allow a technicolour venture into one of history’s greatest vessels. If you can find a copy.

Huge thank you to You Call Yourself A Scientist? for the base story.

The SS Île de France during her prime. Credit: Picryl

About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.