Group Development in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat

Group Development in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat

The development of groups is divided into five stages. These stages are used to describe the evolutionary process of a group from its formation to its dissolution. These stages represent milestones in this process, such as establishment of leadership or authority or determination of the group’s goals. The five stages, in order, are the group formation stage, the intra-group conflict stage, the group cohesion stage, the task orientation stage, and the termination stage. These stages are also identified by a series of easily remembered descriptive names that are indicative of the stage’s characteristics. The respective names of the stages are Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning.

Lifeboat was a movie produced by Alfred Hitchcock in 1944. It is an adaptation of a John Steinbeck novel. The movie opens with a view of a sinking ship, a lifeboat with a lone woman comes into view. Shortly, she rescues a crewman from the water. From their discussion we learn that they are survivors of a Nazi submarine attack. Their ship was sunk, but so was the submarine. They find other survivors (nine in total), both civilian and sailor; one of the survivors is even a German. They have little food and water, no compass, and no radio. Throughout the movie they face various trials in order to survive. In addition, they confront many human issues, such as the rights of prisoners at sea, the morals behind simple survival, the civilian casualties of war, and the desperation of being adrift at sea. The movie concludes with six of the nine original survivors being rescued by Allied forces.

This paper will examine the stages of group development and how they apply to the survivors stranded in the lifeboat. The various stages will be identified as they occur in the film. Character actions that support these conclusions will also be discussed in each stage.

In the group formation stage, the members of the group meet for the first time and learn about the task or tasks to be undertaken. The group defines its boundaries both socially and according to the group’s task(s). Those members of the group who do not know one another introduce themselves for the first time.

This stage is of course accomplished when the survivors have all been gathered aboard the lifeboat. The survivors come from a variety of backgrounds. Many are crewmembers of the sunken freighter. One is a nurse. Another is a wealthy businessman. Another is a famous and worldly, but slightly cynical, journalist. The last person to be rescued from the water is a German sailor, from the U-boat that sunk their freighter.

The task presented to the group is dictated by their circumstances. Their first priority is obvious: survival. They find early on that they do not have sufficient supplies to wait to be rescued. Instead, they must make their way to Bermuda. Thus, they have codified the goal as survival and the method of accomplishing that goal as making for Bermuda.

The presence of the German sailor causes the group to define some of its boundaries. One of the sailors advocates tossing the German back into the water to drown. The businessman contends that the man is a prisoner of war, and is due to certain rights by international law. A sailor responds by saying that they are on their own on the open sea, and the law is what they make it. The businessman responds back by calling for a majority vote on such a decision, saying, “That’s the American way.” In this exchange, we can see some very basic issues being addressed. Does the group have an authoritarian leader, or is decision-making democratic? In such dire circumstances, will the group adhere to conventions such as international law? Being in a state of war, does that mean a German prisoner can be condemned to death out of hand, just for being on the other side?

The second stage is the intra-group conflict stage, also known as storming. At this point in the group’s development, the discussions focus on the behavior; roles and social relationships appropriate for the group and its tasks. Informal leaders begin to emerge and contest the authority of the formal leaders, if any were appointed during the group’s formation. At this time, conflict centers on how to best accomplish the group’s task.

In the movie, the group reaches this stage after their first night at sea. The group of survivors has not established a formal leader. The businessman assumes a sort of administrative leadership by taking an inventory and delegating task to the other members. His assumed authority is contested again by the same sailor as the day before. After some discussion as to leadership merits, the sailor assumes control of the lifeboat as “skipper.” The main point of contention is about the task: who can provide the best chances of survival to the entire group? The sailor wins this argument by establishing himself as having the skills to keep a ship going under bad circumstances.

In the group cohesion stage, the group has defined its roles and relationships. The group has reached a consensus about appropriate behavior of its members. The members accept each other, and an identifiable group culture emerges. The conflict is less intense at this stage. Conflict now tends to focus more on methods of doing the task instead of on the social structure of the group.

One of the wounded men in the lifeboat has contracted gangrene in his leg. It is concluded that the leg must be amputated. It is also decided that the only one capable of performing the procedure is the German (who, incidentally, has also been properly identified as the captain of the submarine). In order to save the life of the wounded man, the group decides to place trust in the “enemy.”

The group has also defined itself. The roles of the group have been defined and each person has found a niche to fit into. Some play music with a flute. Some play cards to defeat boredom and monotony. One has faith, to bring hope to them. There is even a nurse to provide care.

The task orientation stage is the operating phase of the group. The members continue to become comfortable with each other and the group’s norms. Members have settled upon goals and divided the labor accordingly. The task of the group is clearly defined and the group’s energy is focused on doing the work.

After the amputation, the group focuses its energies upon reaching the destination of Bermuda. There has been a disagreement about which course to follow, one being the guess of a sailor, the other being a suggestion of the German’s. With no compass (or so they think), the group is left to guess the right direction to travel in. Do they trust a guess from one of their own, or trust the German who appears to be a superior seaman? The conflict is resolved when the group discovers that the German captain has been concealing a compass from them all along.

The termination stage is where the group disbands otherwise ceases to exist. Some groups redefine their membership and tasks. These are essentially new groups that will proceed through the same evolutionary process as the previous group.

Regarding the film, the true termination of he group is at the conclusion of the movie when friendly forces rescue them. The task of survival had been accomplished, at least for a six of the original nine who had been shipwrecked.

However, it is interesting to point out that there are other points in the movie that can be considered terminating stages. After a brutal storm, the German captain has taken charge from the exhausted and dehydrated crewman. He is rowing, singing German songs accompanied by the flute. He has openly declared his treachery: he actually speaks English and is taking the lifeboat to rendezvous with a Nazi supply ship. He has officially restructured the group; he is in control, they are his prisoners. The goal is redefined: to meet up with the German ship instead of traveling to friendly waters. In this way, the German captain has effectively terminated the old group and started a new one that begins the entire process over again.

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