Arguably the best of many films actor Robert Logan made in the late ’70s about brave men protecting children from the dangers of life in the great outdoors, The Sea Gypsies benefits from a fairly lavish budget, which allows for not only impressive scenes depicting a storm at sea but also extensive location photography in coastal Alaskan wilderness. Like the Wilderness Family movies that Logan made with independent producer Arthur C. Dubs, this film borrows many qualities from live-action Disney fare while avoiding excessive sentimentality. While it would be exaggerating to call The Sea Gypsies gritty, it’s a great-looking adventure film expressing worthy themes, not least of which is respect for the natural world. Logan’s easygoing persona helps put the thing over, because he works a quintessentially ’70s sensitive-guy mode without seeming preachy or wimpy.
The story begins in Seattle, where widower Travis Maclaine (Logan) and his two young daughters load their yacht for a six-week voyage into the Pacific. Since a magazine is helping bankroll the trip, Travis reluctantly accepts reporter Kelly (Mikki Jameson) as a passenger. Unbeknownst to the crew, young African-American orphan Jesse (Cjon Damitri Patterson) slips onboard just before castoff, only to be discovered once the boat is out to sea. A horrific storm causes the boat to sink off the coast of Alaska, so the group makes camp and hunts for food during several harrowing weeks before discovering, by way of a broadcast they hear on their precious radio, that the search for their yacht has been suspended. This prompts the dramatic question of how Travis and his people can possibly escape their temporary refuge before winter arrives.
As should be evident by now, nothing in this story is fresh or surprising, but that’s not the point of a movie like The Sea Gypsies (later re-released as Shipwreck). Per the template established by a zillion similar Disney flicks, The Sea Gypsies is all about the idea that danger strengthens family bonds. It’s a quaint homily, no question, but it goes down smoothly when it’s presented well, as happens here. None of the actors are standouts, though Logan seems so comfortable in the wild that he creates the persuasive illusion of a born naturalist. Some of the inevitable animal scenes veer toward cuteness, thanks to a pelican whom the kids name “Pinnochio,” a friendly seal, and so on, but vignettes featuring near-fatal encounters with bears, orcas, and wolves have real tension. Moreover, the means the castaways use to survive seem thoroughly believable. Logan and director Stewart Raffill were into a solid groove, having previously collaborated on the Dubs productions The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1975) and Across the Great Divide (1976). They ended their run on a high note.
The Sea Gypsies: GROOVY