Alex Miller (Michael Lyndon) is a sixteen-year-old juvenile delinquent who has been escorted to Norfolk docks to see his father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), captain of a lightship. He is left in his father's care, but despises him because of what to Alex looks like inaction and cowardice in the face of life's challenges. Nevertheless, he agrees to be taken aboard the ship for a while so the captain, who he has rarely seen throughout his life, can keep an eye on him. However, when they wake up the next day, they notice a motorboat in trouble off the side of the ship, and try to help - which turns out to be a big mistake...
Set ten years after World War II, and based on an allegorical novel by Siegrfried Lenz about beating the Nazis, The Lightship is one of films that appears to be aching with meaning, but on closer examination rings a little hollow. It is also blessed with a thoroughly bizarre performance by star Robert Duvall who plays the villain, brought aboard with his psychopathic henchmen Eddie (Arliss Howard) and Gene (William Forsythe) who are your ordinary, run of the mill heavies in comparison. Duvall, on the other hand, plays it richly eccentric, affecting a camp demeanour and twittery voice that leads you to contemplate whether he is taking his role entirely seriously.
If Captain Miller represents the personification of the steadfast and immovable lightship, then Duvall is disorder, the approaching storm that is the unstoppable force threatening to shake the ship from its moorings. Once it is established that his Dr Caspary is the bad guy - the crew find weapons hidden on their boat - it is a battle of wills between the men that ensues, with the solid and verging on the stolid Brandauer refusing to budge, not even offering one of the smaller boats the lightship has as a means of escape. After Caspary's men destroy the radio, a lot of hanging around is all that is left for the men.
Yes, there are no women in this film at all, as this is man's business judging by the amount of heads butting together as the personalities clash. Gene is obviously doomed from the second he kills the talking crow belonging to the cook, Nate (Badja Djola), and then to top it all begins hurling racial insults at him, but he doesn't get his comeuppance right away. Like everyone in the story, they are all playing the waiting game, biding their time until they can get even. This includes Alex, who grows to hate his father all the more for his pigheadedness and refusal to fight back.
But Captain Miller is fighting back on his own terms. He's not about to pick up a gun, but he stubbornly refuses to allow Caspary any leeway as the man threatens to raise the anchor and steal the ship for his own purposes. Meanwhile, he and his duo of thugs have to do yet more waiting, in this instance to get picked up by their allies. In fact, there's so much hanging about laced with menacing conversation that in spite of the approaching bad weather, the film remains pretty inert for much of the plot. It all ends with death, but even that speaks of futility, and not the example to Alex that was presumably the intent. If Duvall provides entertainment, it's largely of the novelty kind, and the film winds up being as glowering and worthy of as much meaning as you care to read into it as the storm around the characters. Music by Hans Zimmer.