By Gregory Crofton
Let’s hang out with sailor and Hollywood heartthrob Sterling Hayden on his boat for two hours … why not?
You get to watch him say mesmerizing things like this:
“My world was the sea hm? And the sea is rough … huh? hm, hm? I mean the rivers and the canals can be rough, but the sea is different huh? … It’s an empty world, huh?”
I discovered “Pharos of Chaos” in the Criterion Collection, which recently did a retrospective on Hayden’s career. One of the movies it programmed to stream was this hard-to-find 1983 gem directed by Manfred Blank and Wolf-Eckart Bühler.
The documentary is many things. It is addictive, first and foremost. Listening to Hayden hold forth while he’s drunk and high is somehow intoxicating. Probably because he’s smart and a very, very dramatic man who knows the power of a camera.
As he should. Hayden worked with some of the industry’s finest directors including John Huston (The Asphalt Jungle), Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, The Killing), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), and Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye).
Hayden died in 1986, three years after the release of this film, from prostate cancer.
The filmmakers say in the doc — a mix of narrated archival shots and footage shot over about a week’s time on and around the barge — that it was difficult to track Hayden down.
Once they located him, parked in a canal in Eastern France, he invited them to turn on their cameras, even if they came away with a documentary about alcoholism. But there’s also an important part of American history that turns up too.
Sterling Hayden was one of the people from Hollywood who agreed to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, formed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to root Communists out of the U.S. citizenry.
Hayden helped the committee by identifying other Communists he knew. The FBI had threatened jail time and the loss of custody of his children.
“You’re destroyed, as you know,” he says in the film. “That’s why we’re here. Sure, Surely, Surely, Surely. Goddamn limb from limb … that’s a hard trip to come out of.”
Surprisingly Hayden had joined the Communist Party briefly in the 1940s after fighting alongside fellow members during WWII. He later told the New York Times that joining had been one of the “stupidest thing I ever did.”
Putting the disaster that was the Red Scare aside, “Pharos is Chaos” is a documentary about time and beauty.
“Look at the light on the water, the way the river is popping,” Hayden says in the film. “Yeah. Home is the sailor home from the sea and the hunter home from the hill. I raise a salute to you, to you, to all of you. A toast to you. An empty toast.”