The submarine has always been a great place to set a film. And of course some are better than others. During our overview of these films we will ignore a few which don’t really fit into the category with the rest- namely Down Periscope, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Gray Lady Down and Operation Petticoat.
All submarine films have technical issues which are incorrect- having radar too early, sending radio messages underwater, the order “Rig for silent running- all ahead FULL!”. We’ll overlook those for the most part as they won’t detract from the pictures – we are looking for realism but understandably the directors were not making documentaries here. And unless you are either an avid history or submarine buff you won’t notice these errors anyway.
Hell and High Water (1954). A true disappointment but this film is hard to place with the rest as it never pretends to be anything more than Saturday afternoon comic book stuff. Richard Widmark leads a refitted Japanese submarine (funded by a consortium of scientists) to investigate a potential secret Chinese base. It has all the expected bells and whistles for a submarine movie except for a depth charge attack. For the unusual it features a female passenger and an intentional underwater ramming scene. They should have omitted the female (played by Bella Darvi) althother as this is just an added distraction and contributes nothing to the plot. Widmark does pretty well but he just isn’t given much to work with.
Operation Pacific (1951). – a rather typical John Wayne vehicle, with the Duke as usual torn between family (a love triangle here) and duty. Unsurprisingly he manages to succeed at both. In fact he seems a bit lost here without his horse. Very short on realism with its spacious (and oh so well lit) submarine, contantly prim and proper (and always clean) crew and passengers. That’s right passengers- they pick up a bunch of orphans with their chapperonning nuns. But hey, they had the room.
Torpedo Run (1958) is a conflicted movie which at least to look at isn’t bad. The cast is good and sets look about right. Glenn Ford captains his sub in pursuit of a Japanese carrier. Comingled with this is his concern for his family, who were taken prisoner on Manila, which is a nice twist. However, then things get silly- which is a tremendous understatement.
The Japanese put his family on a transport ship which is used as a shield for the carrier. Then of course the Japapese release the information that they are on the transport, creating a moral dilema for the captain – torpedo the carrier and risk hitting the transport (and presumably killing his family)? It’s implied that the Japanese are for some reason targeting this one captain and although it makes for a different plot than usual, the underlying assumptions needed make the entire exercise ludicrous. (For example, the Japanese would have to know individual submarine captains by name, know their family history, know they had his wife and know where there sub was assigned to patrol.) Torpedo Run isn’t available on DVD, but you can pick it up on VHS or rare showings on television.
Crash Dive (1943) is almost a submarine picture without actually being a submarine picture. Tyrone Power is the lead here and we get sort of a mish mash of other pictures. Power is the officer on an Atlantic based American sub which is tasked with investigating and destroying a secret German base by the insertion of a comando team (!). Oh and by the way Power is unknowingly involved with his Captain’s wife which detracts from the picture. I am never a fan of including the commando raid in these pictures – it simply detracts from the action. Not bad but surely nothing special. Crash Dive is rare in that it is a wartime film produced in color.
Up Periscope! (1959). Here is where we turn the corner from merely passable films to ones which should perhaps be sought out. Somewhat similar to Crash Dive, Up Periscope! also features a commando insertion as the crux of the sub’s mission and does have a slight hint of a romantic storyline in places, but the picture for the most part does an adequate job all around. The lead is played by James Garner, who unfortunately can’t really pull this off- he always seems a moment away from his classic smirk which became so well known on his later television series The Rockford Files. Edmond O’Brien is the true treat of this picture as the tautly wound worried captain tasked with getting Garner in and out of trouble. Nice that you at least in this one do get some realistic allusions to some of the challenges of the submerged submarine – namely oxygen and carbon dioxide content of the ship’s air supply.
U-571 (2000) is the most recent entry here, and is really no better than the other mediocre films mentioned here. Modern special effects move this one up a notch in spite of a historically incorrect plot. Matthew McConaughey is the exec of an American boat tasked with secretly capturing the German’s naval enigma cipher machine. To make a long story short, McConaughey (poor acting and all) ends up captaining a captured German u-boat back to the Allies. The plot is not only totally unbelievable it is historically incorrect as the British were the first to capture the device. It is the only sub picture to date to be released on blu-ray though, which is something. Overall it’s a relatively awful movie saved only by the special effects.
We Dive at Dawn (1943). This one is very close to the line. Nothing too flashy about this one but it does have a fair dose of realism. Set in England (and shot there as well), it does take a bit to get going, as the first half is really more interested in the crew’s shore leave and their family relations. The second half documents their hunting of the fictitious German battleship Brandenburg, which ultimately they sink. There are a few dubious items such as running short of rations only a few days out of port- hard to believe but needed for resolution in the picture. Dry and English but not bad.
Run Silent Run Deep (1958). This time Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster play the captain and exec of a Pacific based American submarine. There is very little romantic or “off-boat” plot so this works in the picture’s favor. Gable (who at the time was visibly well beyond the age limits for active command at sea) captains his sub on a somewhat maniacal objective of sinking the Japanese destroyer who sank his last boat in the dreaded Bungo Straits. There is some good pyschological interplay between Gable and Lancaster (who reportedly hated each other) and the film boasts strong realism, especially for the time.
Destination Tokyo (1943). A borderline classic. The only drawback here is buying Cary Grant as being from Oklahoma City, but that can be overlooked. Here Grant captains his boat in (and out of) Tokyo harbor in order to gather key information for Doolittle’s upcoming raid on the city. This one has all the key situations – the sub is attacked by air, with a dud bomb becoming lodged in the boat’s hull. We have an emergency on-board apendectomy. And quite a bit of time is spent along the way developing the characterization of the crew. This is well done as well. And given the period in which the film was made the propaganda angle is pretty bearable.
The Enemy Below. (1957) An extremely close second to Das Boot. The unique twist here is we are privy to the cat and mouse actions of both a cagey destroyer commander (Robert Mitchum) and a grizzled u-boat captain (Curt Jurgens). Cast perfectly and directed by Dick Powell, both sides are portrayed as committed, intelligent, and fiercly loyal to their crews. There is no family involvement or commando raids to muddle the plot. This is pure and simple one ship against the other. Period.
The final events could have been done a bit better in terms of special effects- one would think that when a destroyer rammed and overran (here the stricken destroyer comes to rest on top of the sub) a submarine the submarine would settle a bit in the water merely from supporting the additional weight of the destroyer. Perhaps being a bit too picky. The film was actually shot with two endings- in the unreleased one both captains are killed which of course would remove the best line from the picture – “Well maybe next time I won’t throw you the rope!”
Das Boot (1981). Undeniably the greatest submarine picture of all time, depicting the masters of underwater warfare, the Germans. The production is so realistic that they commissioned the contruction of the first U-Boat since the war- and from the original blueprints from the original manufacturer.
Here you feel the filth, the cramped quarters (there are sausages and bananas hanging everywhere), the pasty white skin of men who don’t see the sun for days on end, and unique mindset of a war-weary crew. The effect is pretty immersive. Watch the original five hour miniseries for an even better experience. For the only time here, we will skimp on plot details because the movie is simply beyond words.
Ok, now where was I…oh, right. Flood tubes one and three!