The challenge was to watch the 8 submarine movies made Post 1950 in one week. I failed in this challenge – watching 8 long movies in 7 days while trying to hold up a job, and look after dog and husband, cook and clean- was at best ambitious. It took longer than I thought but I’ve done it. As the DH is a submariner I have learned first hand about life on board these unique boats. I’ve been on board a few submarines, while in harbour of course. So I thought it important to know more about how life on board a submarine has been portrayed for the masses and I have reviewed these so that you may also take the challenge. There are two types of submarine movies – the American, Hollywood dramatizations like Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide which are more about the story rather than life on board a Sub – space being a major exaggeration in these movies, the submarine is like Doctor Who’s Tardis. That’s fine for entertainment and mass audiences. But the second class of movie is far more fascinating and accurate in depicting life on board a submarine – the compression, the confined spaces, the lack of privacy, the boredom, the heat, the lack of hygiene, the stealth and vulnerability. Here’s my thoughts on these 8 submarine movies.
U 571 (2000): The premise of the movie is that a German U Boat in World War II is damaged and drifting, awaiting for supplies from comrades. American submariners intercept their SOS and board the boat, masquerading as Germans in order to capture the enigmatic Engima cipher machine. Turns out, that was the easy part. This is just the beginning as the Americans find their boat sunk by the rescue German sub and the remaining crew sail the U boat to evade the Germans. They face countless hurdles, not least the lack understanding the equipment labeled in German and a rogue German submarine Captain as prisoner who sabotages many plans, as the U Boat is pursued by a German destroyer who is determined to blow them apart with depth charges after the Americans blast their radio antenna. Like in most submarine movies, taking the submarine to a depth of breaking point, hull compression and evading the enemy with stealth and cunning is put to play here too. As the boat creaks and leaks and the crew dwindles in numbers, the fantastic screenplay with brevity of dialogue keeps this movie hurtling through the murky deep.
Something that in the civilian world we just can’t get our heads round but which is upheld by the military or else it would not survive is insubordination. When Mathew McConaughey (his best role) punches an insubordinate sailor who, in fear, is egging on the gunner to fire his machine gun at the German airplane which would blow their cover as Germans, and says, “this is NOT a god damn democracy.”
There’s also a good deal of scaring off the newbies, the Marine Commandos, who’ve never been on a sub before. When one asks, “How deep will she go?” The Captain replies, “Oh she’ll go all the way, if we let her.”
Something else we don’t face in the civilian world is making life and death decisions. The Captain’s speech to his XO is a concise reflection of the role of a submarine captain to make quick, sometimes unpleasant decision, and that spirit is carried through the entire movie. The Captain says to the XO: “I’m not questioning your bravery. The question is: what about their lives? You and Mr. Emmett are good friends. You went to the Academy together. Would you be willing to sacrifice his life? Or what about some of the younger enlisted men? I know a lot of those guys look up to you like a big brother. You willing to lay their lives on the line?And as Mathew McConaughey hesitates, Bill Paxton says, “You see? you hesitate. But as a captain, you can’t. You have to act. If you don’t, you put the entire crew at risk. Now that’s the job. It’s not a science. You have to be able to make hard decisions based on imperfect information. Asking men to carry out orders that may result in their deaths. And if you’re wrong, you suffer the consequences. If you’re not prepared to make those decisions, without pause, without reflection, then you’ve got no business being a submarine captain. ”
K-19 The Widowmaker: If you are the wife of a submariner who is sailing do not watch this movie. If you are the wife of a submariner on a nuclear submarine definitely do not watch this movie. The clue is in the title. This movie, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (of Hurt Locker fame, first woman to win an Oscar for directing) is the story of the erstwhile Soviet Union’s first nuclear submarine, K 19, which in 1961 lost 28 men to radiation poisoning owing to a leak in its nuclear reactor while undergoing its first sea trials. Although thoroughly gripping, this is a very sad story of a group of men at the mercy of party politics, pride, war and the unquestionable chain of command. This movie is another shining example of the burden of leadership faced by a submarine Captain. Harisson Ford wonderfully portrays Captain Alexi Vostrikov the tough as nails, unflinching captain that puts the crew and the boat through her paces. Liam Neeson playing second fiddle, the XO, to the Captain is portrayed as an amiable, man of the men with his heart firmly with the survival of his crew than the mission. The film received criticism from the real veterans of K 19 when a leaked script portrayed the Russians as vodka swilling illiterates, reaching for manuals and floundering in the face of adversity. But no matter which side you are on, this is an action packed heart wrenching movie, with accurate portrayal of the space confinements and machinery that is on board submarines today. And they had the decency to put on Russian accents.
Das Boot (1981): After watching K-19 The Widowmaker I thought there couldn’t be a more tragic story but Das Boot ticks all the boxes for story, action and the accuracy with which life aboard a U-boat was like, and from my husband’s account very much like life aboard the old Russian Foxtrots. The one toilet for 80 men, no preference for officers. I refer to them in the past tense as they have all been decommissioned, the last one, INS Vagli, by the Indian Navy in 2010. Das Boot (The Boat) is a legendary movie and while it may be 3 hours long and dubbed in to English, this is a cult classic, a must watch for all Submariners, in fact all war movie buffs. This movie is up there with Patton, maybe even better. It shows how being a submariner in the Second World War was all wrapped up in patriotism, with the best of the best signing up. But the reality unfolds for the men on board – the confined spaces, the heat, the claustrophobia, the boredom, the vulnerability and the despicable harshness and purposelessness of war. Lead by a determined Captain, not infallable but a keen strategist, the crew sail from La Rochelle in France to war. They wait and wait and wait or orders from HQ, through Atlantic storms and ever decreasing food rations, boredom and hatred for Hitler and his minions setting in. There is no time for propaganda – the reality on board a U Boat kills that. They finally see some action, hunt and get hunted by British destroyers, get rattled around and pulverised by depth chargers. They evade the Destroyers and find themselves with the unfathomable task of passing through the narrow and heavily guarded Straits of Gibraltar. Only the worst happens, they are spotted by the British, air bombed, fired on and then, every submarines worst nightmare, they sink to the bottom of the ocean floor and take on water. I won’t ruin the ending for you because it is truly unbelievably sad and unexpected but if you want a true picture of what the life on board a submarine was like and with only minor improvements. Don’t believe the Hollywoodized versions of the nuclear submarines in Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide.
Hunt for Red October: I love the music, the Russian male choir singing of patriotic songs about war, duty and victory to the Motherland sounds truly epic. Based on the book of the same name by Tom Clancy in the Jack Ryan series, a new type of Typhoon Class submarine built by the Russians with a revolutionary type of silent propulsion system is the perfect vehicle for the Russian Officers to defect to the U.S undetected by either the Russians or the Americans. The only thing that I really hate about this movie why oh why couldn’t Sean Connery and Sam Neil and the rest of the cast put on Russian accents. When you’re reading the book, you can hear the guttural throaty knashing of English and Russian words but in the movie, it just sounds like everyone’s American with one Scottish bloke at the helm. And after you watch movies like Das Boot, this movie portrays life on a submarine like it’s a palace or a space ship. This movie like Crimson Tide is all about the politics, the plot, not about the submarine. The submarine is just the stage or a prop rather than the main character in the movie. OK, nuclear submarines are large but the control rooms are not as palatial as depicted in these movies
Down Periscope: Since Frasier and Cheers, Kelsey Grammer was never better than in this movie as the rogue Captain of the rust bucket, USS Stingray. Along with his ramshackle crew of Navy rejects that he commandeers. This is a hilarious comedy and according to some another reflection of the grand old Foxtrots of leaky pipes and faulty electrics but she’ll sail no matter what. After all the depressing, moving Submarine tales this is fantastically refreshingly buoyant. Couldn’t stop laughing from start to finish. A must see.
Run Silent, Run Deep (1957): This slow paced, high tension drama is set on board the USS Nerka with Commander “Rich” Richardson at the helm played by Clark Gable. He assumes command of the boat after his sub was suspiciously sunk by the Japanese submariner turned destroyer Captain, nicknamed Bungo Pete . Burt Lancaster plays his Executive Officer and the two clash on almost every aspect. Clark Gable manages to incur the wrath of his crew and pushing them and the boat to its limits doesn’t ease the tension. He becomes obsessed with hunting down the Japanese destroyer that sank his sub, even disobeying direct orders to exact his revenge. But after successfully blasting the Japanese ship to smoldering smithereens, the submarine finds itself in hostile enemy waters being hunted by a mystery boat. A great display of submarine tactics.
The Enemy Below (1957): It’s a cat and mouse game between a German U boat and an American Destroyer. The two Captains, of the USS Haynes played by Robert Mitchum and of the German sub played by Curt Jurgens pit strategy against counter strategy as they try to out wit each other and a reluctant mutual respect grows between these invincible foes. “You cut off the head of a snake and it grow another one…You can’t kill it because it’s something within ourselves. You can call it ‘The Enemy’, if you want to but it’s part of us. We’re all men!” This post World War II film gave a personal face to the enemy and the film quite rightly does not take sides. It’s all about the submarine, the strategy and just how much she can take. Unlike films like Crimson Tide it does not concern itself with internal crew politics. It also dispenses with patriotic agendas and Hollywood dramatisations and romanticised notions of life on board a submarine. Unfortunately, the crescendo ending is a bit contrived.
It will be a moving experience for anyone to watch these submarine movies but more so if you know someone who is a submariner. I highly recommend the experience. It gives you an insight in to a different world of human hardship. The troubles in ones life pale in comparison to some of the physical and mental battles these submariners face(d). When it’s not about family, country or love but all about survival, then life takes on new meanings.