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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Undersea Warriors (originally published 7/02)

Military dramas naturally lend themselves to effective action and suspense scenes. By their very nature, they tend to tell stories in which the protagonists spend much of their time in harm's way on a grand scale. If you take those characters and enclose them in a claustrophobic environment under the ocean, isolated and utterly dependent on their own resources to deal with whatever misfortune comes their way, the tension can sometimes become unbearable.

Small wonder, then, that filmmakers through the years have made a number of military pictures set on submarines. "K-19: The Widowmaker," currently in release, is the most recent such film, but its forebears are numerous and distinguished. To see how earlier filmmakers have used submarines as the setting for martial drama, look for these titles on home video.

"Run Silent, Run Deep" (1958). This World War II submarine classic mirrors the central conflict of "K-19" in that it revolves around a clash between a sub captain and his executive officer. Clark Gable plays Commander Richardson, whose last command ended in humiliation when his sub was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. This sets up a plot device that is used in lots of submarine movies, borrowing the theme of obsessive revenge from "Moby Dick." Richardson's one desire is to get command of another sub so that he can sink the destroyer that sank his own ship. When he does get another command, he is confronted with a resentful executive officer (played by Burt Lancaster) who had thought that the command would go to him. Much of the dramatic action of the film flows from the conflict between the two officers. Gradually, the crew seems to side with the executive officer, especially when their captain ducks a confrontation with an enemy vessel in order to save himself for the object of his personal vengeance. Gable was, at the time, a second generation movie star nearing the end of his career, while Lancaster was a third generation star in his prime. It's fascinating to watch them play off each other.

"The Enemy Below" (1957). Robert Mitchum stars as Captain Murrell, commander of a U.S. Navy destroyer. Virtually the entire film is devoted to a protracted duel between Murrell and Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens), the captain of a German U-Boat. Murrell's ship detects and stalks the U-Boat, attempting to destroy it with depth charges. There is no quick and decisive outcome, however, because both Murrell and Von Stolberg turn out to be experienced and crafty sailors. What might have been a brief and violent encounter, therefore, turns into something more like a chess game, with subtle moves and countermoves. And with each exchange of tactical moves, the two captains' respect for each other grows. Interestingly, Von Stolberg is portrayed quite sympathetically. It's clearly established that he is a career navy man who doesn't particularly approve of the Nazi party. This would have been unthinkable in a film released during the war.

"Destination Tokyo" (1943). In this film, which did come out during the war, the portrayal of the enemy is very different. The Japanese are presented as subhuman vermin whose total extermination really wouldn't have any significant downside. Cary Grant plays Captain Cassidy, commander of the USS Copperfin. Having been ordered into the heavily mined Tokyo Bay on a special mission, the Copperfin encounters more than its share of heart-stopping crises. As if dodging mines and depth charges weren't enough, one of the crewmen develops appendicitis, necessitating an undersea appendectomy under conditions not entirely conducive to successful surgery. Especially inconvenient is the lack of a qualified surgeon on board. They don't make them much more suspenseful than this one.

"We Dive at Dawn" (1943). The British perspective on sub warfare is ably represented here by director Anthony Asquith. Borrowing from the documentary techniques pioneered by fellow Englishman John Grierson, Asquith chronicles the exploits of the submarine Sea Tiger and her crew. Asquith's understated approach makes for an interesting contrast with "Destination Tokyo."

Speaking of contrasts, just to show that not all submarine war movies are white-knuckled suspense dramas, you might also want to take a look at Cary Grant's second role as a sub commander, in the Blake Edwards comedy, "Operation Petticoat" (1959). There aren't any undersea appendectomies in that one, but there are a couple of births.

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