By 1996, Ridley Scott had worked in almost every typical feature film genre: most notably historical drama (The Duellists, 1492), science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner), and police thrillers (Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain). But White Squall straddles several genres, sometimes all at once: coming-of-age melodrama, adventure, courtroom drama, and disaster on the high seas (like later peers Titanic and The Perfect Storm).
Aside from the rare exception of the fantasy Legend, Scott’s films are always about adults. But White Squall features teenage characters and is relatively mild in terms of violence, profanity, and sex (no bloody gunplay or slimy extraterrestrials here). The frequently shirtless young male cast, including star-to-be Ryan Phillippe, provided lots of beefcake that probably attracted a large teenage girl audience at the time. But the core of the story is still about male bonding, duty, and honor, placing it somewhat outside the bounds of a chick flick.
It’s also unusual in Scott’s oeuvre for being based on actual events. The screenplay by Todd Robinson is based on the nonfiction book The Last Voyage of the Albatross by Charles Gieg Jr. and Felix Sutton. In the 1950s, Captain Christopher “Skipper” Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) and his wife Alice (Caroline Goodall), a doctor, ran a series of boating excursions on the Caribbean Seas for young men. The trips, for school credit, provided a kind of high seas liberal education focusing on self-reliance, teamwork, and literature. An onboard English Literature teacher (John Savage, who resembles Ridley Scott) was always on hand to be generally annoying and pompously spout quotations. Unbeknownst to the boys’ parents, Sheldon’s concept of liberal education also included shore leave with abundant alcohol and the opportunity to meet hot young female exchange students the boys would never have to see again. This was a quaint time when sexually transmitted diseases were more of a rite of growing up than a life-threatening risk.
The physical task of operating the boat could be seriously dangerous, but one particular trip in 1960 became especially so in more ways than one. The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted while they were out to sea, and they were boarded by militant Cubans. After a narrow escape allowed as much by chance as by Sheldon’s quick thinking, they encounter an even bigger problem: dealing with a spoiled rich kid (I can’t figure out the actor’s name, but he looks for all the world just like Cillian Murphy). The seemingly cursed voyage ends in a mythical “white squall,” a freak weather event in which a sudden windstorm appears without the traditional warning signs such as dark clouds. The voyage ends in utter tragedy, and segues into a courtroom drama bogged down by speechifying.
The end titles reveal that Sheldon overcame his personal grief and professional discredit to become the first Peace Corps Director in Latin America, before dying in 2002.