A classic sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth has been adapted by Tony Basgallop and the late Leigh Jackson. A modern masterpiece by Nobel Prize winner William Golding, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, the film comprises Golding's three books: Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below.
To the Ends Of the Earth tracks, in visceral detail, the rite of passage of Edmund Talbot, a young English aristocrat as he experiences life onboard a passenger ship making its hazardous voyage from England to Australia in the early nineteenth century.
Golding used the world of the ship as a modern microcosm in which to explore the themes of human obsession, love and guilt, and man's capacity for both self-delusion and brutality. It's no coincidence that it's set at the beginning of a new century -- this is a tale with an absurdist, blackly comic edge. The prospect of their destination fills Talbot and his fellow travelers with a hope that allows most of them to survive -- but this is contrasted with an ever-present sense of danger and a real fear of imminent death.
It took years to bring this epic drama series to the screen; director David Attwood was involved from the very beginning. "I read the first book, Rites of Passage in 1980 and I remember thinking then, 'God, some mad idiot might try and make a film of this and it would be almost impossible to do,' but when I was asked if I'd be interested, I said yes. I liked the ineffable bigness of William Golding as a novelist... It's a mature and intelligent piece of writing, that can be funny, ribald, sexy, mad, violent and dangerous. It is all those things, but it is also an examination of what people do to each other in a claustrophobic situation. It's an epic, but at the heart of it is an extremely detailed and microscopic view of human nature."
William Golding, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1983, is best known for his first novel, Lord of the Flies. He wrote his sea trilogy at the end of his life. Golding had an all-encompassing knowledge of the sea; he was a naval commander during World War II, and he became a passionate amateur sailor after the war ended. He also lived by the sea.
The late Leigh Jackson took on the task of adapting these great novels for the screen. "It was a great partnership with Leigh and it was an absolute tragedy that he fell ill while we were working together," said Attwood. "He had done a massive amount of work on the first film and quite a lot on the second and third. He was still working hard at it up until the last week of his life, with incredible tenacity, courage and amazing humor. He loved this project and he wanted it to carry on. We turned to Tony Basgallop. He brought his own significant contribution and his own individual voice. I think Leigh would have been very happy with what Tony has done. In fact, they could have worked together. We dedicated the films to him because they are very much in the sprit of Leigh Jackson."
Attwood's qualifications for bringing a sea epic to the screen don't only extend to his considerable abilities as a director. "I've been across the Atlantic about seven times, I've done cargo ships and I've crewed on yachts. The journey itself is just an extraordinary thing to do, in all weather, so from the very smallest boats to quite large ships I've been in quite big storms and I don't think I'd ever seen them portrayed accurately. The sea is unpredictable and difficult and changeable, all the things that filming hopefully isn't."
Building the ship
One of the many problems that Attwood and the production team had to face was building the ship itself. "I sat down with Donal Woods, our production designer, and we discussed how we were going to make the ship. This kind of ship was built 'by the yard' -- churned off a conveyor belt in the 1760s, at a time when the navy needed a vast number of ships."
"Golding was very specific about what kind of ship it was, what size and how many guns it would have carried when it was a war ship -- a 74-gun third rate ship of the line. I found the drawings of a similar ship and we determined to build it."
The ship had to be built in stages. Together, Attwood and Woods designed a whole deck, the deck of a second ship, all the various cabins, the passenger saloon, the Captain's state room and the hold for the emigrants, sailors and supplies.
"We then had to find a way of making it move, to make it appear as if it's at sea," continues Attwood. "The best way to do that was to put it all on water and then there followed the whole practicalities of how we'd achieve that." It was eventually done by putting the two boats on pontoons.
The disparate group of passengers in Golding's tale, crossing from one side of the world to another in an old boat "which renders like an old boot" was not easy to cast. "It was a difficult and long process." admits Attwood. "It's a large cast of very specific and well-drawn characters. The novels are centered on Edmund Talbot. Golding doesn't 'dumb down' or patronize his readers; he tells you what you need to know and it's all written from the point of view of Edmund.
"We found Benedict Cumberbatch fairly early. We needed a very good actor, someone young enough to be believable as an aristocratic, an almost slightly dislikeable character who is an adolescent in terms of his views of the world, his upbringing. But we also needed someone who could hold the screen for four and half hours, in every scene. We needed someone with experience who was not only a very good actor, but also with terrific comic timing. Benedict was the ideal answer to that.
Says producer Lynn Horsford: "Benedict was remarkable. He carried the Golding novels with him on set and constantly referred to them. We needed him every single day and he just didn't stop, nor complain. He simply became Edmund Talbot. And that commitment spread to every cast member. The process of making this film echoed the journey the characters went on in the story -- we really got to know each other during our four months on location and we became very close."
Decisions about where to film were crucial to the success of the drama. Unpredictable and mostly inclement British weather was not an option, especially when it was necessary to create the illusion that the boat is crossing from the northern to the southern hemisphere.
"If you're doing a "Boy's Own" story it doesn't matter whether it's raining or calm," says Attwood, "but in To the Ends of the Earth the weather and what happens to the ship is integral to what happens to the characters. One of the things I needed to have as director was control of the weather -- which of course is the most difficult thing to control."
Weather was one of the reasons the decision was made to film in South Africa, where Richard's Bay, three hours north of Durban, was chosen. "A lot of this story happens near the equator or in the doldrums, south of the equator. We needed calm weather and some sunshine, but we also needed storms and all the variations you get of weather at sea -- drizzle, grey days, choppy days, Channel weather, big ocean swells. They all have an effect on the story. So although it seems a crazy and megalomaniac to say 'I've got to be in charge of the weather on this,' that had to be part of our thinking."
Things didn't go quite as planned, as Lynn Horsford recalls. "In fact, we experienced some of the worst weather they'd had in years -- even making headlines in the local press! That had a big impact on our schedule. We were in a very beautiful location, but filming at sea is always a nightmare. The sea is either too rough or too still. Just getting the cast and crew and all our equipment on the ship each day was a major operation."
Attwood concludes "People want to see intelligent drama and intelligent television. Our characters are confined in a claustrophobic atmosphere and you get to know them intensely over an elongated period of time. Thanks to Golding, they are people in whom you have a strong and opinionated interest. They are worried whether they are going to survive the journey, survive the storms, have to fight a sea battle, go to war. Are they going to be seasick for nine months, are they going to die? People are stuck with each other on this ship... But the characters are a wonderful cross section of different aspects of British and European society and in them we see ourselves. In this drama we see the worst, the pettiest, the smallest aspect of ourselves, but we also see the noblest aspects of human beings."
In addition to the original music composed by Rob Lane for the production, another piece heard in the film includes:
Hymn: "Lord, whom winds and waves obey," words by Charles Wesley, Hymns for the Nation, 1782; music, Nuremberg, alt. from Johann R. Ahle, 1664.
Lord, Whom winds and waves obey,
Guide us through the watery way;
In the hollow of Thy hand
Hide, and bring us safe to land.
Jesus, let our faithful mind
Rest, on Thee alone reclined;
Every anxious thought repress,
Keep our souls in perfect peace.
Keep the souls whom now we leave,
Bid them to each other cleave;
Bid them walk on life's rough sea;
Bid them come by faith to Thee.
Save, till all these tempests end,
All who on Thy love depend;
Waft our happy spirits o'er;
Land us on the heavenly shore.