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Review: AMERICAN CHALLENGE

The Boston Globe
by Ian Menzies, Globe columnist

A movie you probably
won't see but should

It is an absolutely fantastic film, yet regretfully a film that next to no one has seen. Because it was different, it couldn't be neatly slotted. It wasn't reviewed. The TV networks, timid and unwilling to gamble, rejected it.

Its audiences have been small but invariably enthusiastic. People cry on seeing it; they also cheer. Some even salute. It is a film about us, about people, about the individual strengths that lie within us, about our will to survive, to overcome, but to know also fear. It is not acted. It is real.

And while the story unfolds as a competition, the competition is not alone between individuals, but between man and the terrifying power of the wind-whipped sea. It is about a race across the North Atlantic between small boats. some not 30 feet in length, a single-handed race won by a man from Massachusetts, but the race recedes into the greater battle between man and sea. And we see and hear it as it actually happened through cameras and recorders placed aboard eight of the 89 boats that took part in the Plymouth (England) to Newport race.

We see the mid-Atlantic drama of Judith Lawson's battle against a force 10 gale with 50 knot winds and 20 foot seas. The camera catches her hunched in the cockpit, dejected, scared, her torn mainsail in her hands. Her mast has gone; her boat, one of the smallest in the race, lies dead in the water. She is alone, helpless, her radio disabled. One feels almost embarrassed to look because this is a raw elemental moment, stripped of all pretenses. "God give me the strength to get through this," she tells the inanimate mike, and one knows she feels she may not survive. "Please," she adds quietly, "I don't want to he a heroine, I just want to survive." This has to be one of the great moments of documentary film, a scene of enormous power as well as meaning and for this we owe a debt to Judy Lawson and to the man -- Chris Knight -- who put the film together, installed the cameras and tapes, and instructed the lone skippers on how to use them.

Another scene shows Bill Homewood still shaken and panting from being thrown into the sea (saved by his lifeline) saying to the camera, "I swear to God the sea anchor saved the boat...I lost 70 miles [in that storm]...almost capsized." It takes guts to switch on a camera only seconds after looking at death.

Even Phil Weld of Gloucester who won the race and who put up the money to have it filmed - a most chancy investment - and behaves as though totally imperturbable, exclaimed at one point in the gale, "It's pretty hairy out here."

There are also moments of laughter, provided principally by the zestful Weld who, finally believing he's winning the race, although he's never quite sure, sings out to the camera, "Newport, here we come, hot-diggity damn!"

To explain some of Weld's expressions, which go back a-ways, including the naming of his boat - Moxie - one has to remember that when he won the race he was already 65. But although the race itself is over, Knight, who put it altogether, is still struggling to convince the major TV networks and public television to run the 57-minute film.

And why not, as it presents not only a terrific drama but records the first winning of this single-handed race by an American, and by the oldest man to do so, to boot, and in the record time of 17 days, 23 hours. It is also the story of the rise of the big, fast-hulled tri-marans, of which Weld's is one: boats that travel in excess of 20 knots and by doing so have given a fillip to sail.

Yacht club people have seen this film and it has also appeared once on cable TV, but audiences have been small. It is an inspirational film that many more should see. Whether or not it makes the big-time, it is perfect for Rotary clubs, boy and girl scout troops, CYOs, and schools and it's easily obtainable in cassettes, to buy or rent, from The New Film Company, 7 Scott Street, Cambridge, MA.

"AMERICAN CHALLENGE", as the film is called, is truly an extraordinary documentary. It makes everyone stand just a little bit taller.



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