Stars: Robert Peters, Collin Gaveck and Ron Bowen
While Mark Twain is a titan in American literature, most won't have read the obscure story that Travis Mills adapted into this film. The Captain's Story was first published in 1892 with roots in a travelogue which he published in The Atlantic Monthly fifteen years earlier called Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion. A key reason to adapt this rather than better known material like The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County must surely rest in how contemporary it feels. A hundred and forty years doesn't mean much to satirists of religion, after all, given that the writings they spear generally predate them by thousands. This one is a relatively straightforward narrative, given by an old sea captain, 'Hurricane' Jones by name, to a clergyman in plain clothes, the Revd Peters, on board his ship during a sea voyage. Without knowing that he's addressing a man of the cloth, he explains how the miracles of the Bible should be interpreted, with results that he apparently doesn't realise contradict his obvious unyielding faith.
While the captain's story is the heart of The Captain's Story, Mills adds bookends to introduce it. He has a very eager young man waylay his pastor to seek help because he feels that he's losing his Sunday School class, unable to explain what he's finding in the Old Testament. Collin Gaveck is well cast as Kenny, a well meaning, bright eyed youngster, clearly out of his depth but willing to ask for help, something of an open book waiting to be written on; and Robert Peters is just as appropriate as Pastor Larry, just as clean cut, if we can ignore his cigarettes, but an older, more cynical sort who would like nothing more than to be back home on his leather sofa watching the Knicks on his big screen TV. As is so often the case with priests, he delivers his answer in the form of a story, the captain's, as delivered to him as a seminary student losing faith while doing community service at a rest home. We receive the story in monologue from Ron Bowen.
And, if Gaveck and Peters are well cast, Bowen is a gimme for this role, suitably grizzled and with a well travelled accent. He has to sell the picture because, for the most part, all we see is him, his face and his pipe in front of a plain white background. It's a fun story, full of outright theological mistakes and aiming to impound a highly unorthodox view of miracles, but it does explain what a young man must do to keep his flock. In fact, quite deliberately, it even mangles the Biblical passage it aims to explain, the one from 1 Kings that pits Elijah against the 450 prophets of Baal on the slopes of Mount Carmel in a battle to see whose god will light the fire under an altar holding a bullock as sacrifice. The captain doesn't just forget the sacrifice or the fact that the Baalist prophets were slaughtered afterwards, he even transposes Isaac for Elijah. What's important is that he puts his faith not in God but the ability of man to convince people of His power. It's a circular argument that fails horribly but in a delightful and reminiscent way.
Given how minimal the setup is, there's very little on which to comment. The text is Twain's, albeit in an expurgated form, and Bowen delivers it with relish. The framing story is a decent addition that highlights an irony. Mills had his eyes set on a particular church outside which to shoot Kenny and Pastor Larry, but he gained permission to shoot for only two hours. With merely two actors and no other crew, Mills would have found it an easy task if it hadn't been for noisy road construction nearby. The three of them kept at it, recording take after take to provide clean audio throughout, and they finished within the two hours. It has to be a particularly cruel irony that it played with horrendous sound early on the Sunday morning at the 52 Films in 52 Weeks festival, thus prompting my desire to see this afresh to hear it properly, as it's hardly strong visually. A different event at the same venue after the Saturday screenings had ended had messed with the speakers and it took even James Alire a little while to get back to pristine quality.
The choice to shoot the majority of the film against a static white background is an odd one for a visual format; this would play almost as well on radio without any changes to the words. However, it does add to the timeless nature of the piece. Twain's story was sourced from a trip to Bermuda with a clergyman friend, Joe Twichell, and it's open as to which particular flavour of Christianity he had fun with, possibly the Presbyterians who are tangentially referenced in the text. However it rings true with any number of targets today, from TV evangelists through Southern Baptists speaking in tongues to snake handlers in the Pentecostal Church of God. The story has probably been ripe for reapplication every decade since it was written and removing visual context from this adaptation will aid its passage down the years in the same way. The only thing that leapt out as odd to me was the pronunciation of Baal, which is correct in English but highlighted to me that I've been using the Hebrew pronounciation instead. Baal humbug!