Captain Schettino: Hero or villain or just an ordinary man?
The controversy over the alleged "cowardice" of captain Francesco Schettino shows us that real life is seldom like the movies.
The captain of the Concordia allegedly abandoned ship while passengers were still aboard the cruise liner. We should never succumb to trial by media and so, until all the facts are in the public domain, we must avoid passing judgment on Schettino. We do, however, have access to a tape recording of a conversation between Schettino and captain Gregorio de Falco of the Italian coastguard in Livornoin in which Schettino is ordered to re-board the vessel after he had "jumped" or "fallen" onto a life boat. Schettino effectively pleads with his superior not to order him back onto the boat. Schettino even says "please", a bit reminiscent of John Hurt in the film version of 1984 as he faces the rats in Room 101.
British audiences in particular have been raised on wartime heroics. One of the most inspiring cases of wartime blood n' guts courage was that of Douglas Bader, the World War 2 fighter pilot who was itching to get back in the cockpit after losing both legs. At no point does Bader (as played by Kenneth More in the movie Reach For The Sky) express the remotest apprehension – let alone fear – at all.
Brits have many other examples of this fearlessness in the face of death. We have Richard Todd in the Dam Busters, Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea and Bridge On The River Kwai, Stanley Baker in Zulu, David Niven in A Matter Of Life And Death. This last movie was impeccably produced and riveting – Niven even engaging in banter with a female flight controller on the ground before his death. Then there was the case of his friend, played by Robert Coote who cheerfully registered himself in heaven after being killed. Tally ho, old boy! It was all such fun...
In some of these fact-based films it was later revealed that reality was rather different from the celluloid recreation. That, however, is another story. My point is that this is not the age of heroism. In real life very few people, as private citizens, ever perform a deed that could be deemed truly "heroic". By this I mean an act of potential self-sacrifice to help others in danger. British life, in particular, is full of examples, quoted by the press, of people FAILING to help others. It seems that the UK has become a "pass by" culture. People are attacked in the street and nobody intervenes.
When someone dies, say after a long illness, we are always told their illness was "bravely borne", that they showed "remarkable courage". But, in truth, that's a different kind of bravery. Stoicism is rather different from selfless heroism.
It's a cliche to say that people never know what they would do in certain circumstances. I have to say, however – and I would love to be disabused of my view – that I see few cases of people helping strangers in life-threatening situations. I am not talking about cases of people rescuing family members. That is a different situation entirely because it is a given that parents would do anything for their children. Neither am I talking about the great deeds of nurses who work to help patients.
By "bravery" I mean the case of Lisa Potts, the nursery school teacher who defended the children in her care against an axe-wielding madman in 1996 and almost lost an arm. I mean the kind of person who would re-enter a burning building to rescue someone trapped on the top floor despite suffocating smoke and unendurable heat.
Captain Schettino is currently the most hated man in Italy. We always need a hate figure. It's worth emphasising that cruise liners do not generally run aground. So although Schettino might have known, theoretically at least, that his duty was to stay aboard the vessel with his passengers, he would never have thought such a situation would arise. And I can only repeat again that we do not know what really happened. The press, however, is quick to look for a villain.
Hollywood still relentlessly pours out garbage suggesting fearless super-heroes. Perhaps we need more movies like Spielberg's excellent Saving Private Ryan, that depict the terror of the soldier about to face a certain death, the squealing horror of a family as they face aerial bombardment.
I feel sorry for Captain Schettino. Real life, you see, is not like film and few of us, given split second decisions, can say with hand on heart that we really know what we would do.