Storylines In Review

Storylines In Review | The 'Submarine Mission' Storyline | Standard Scenes
In this storyline long popular with film-makers, a submarine undertakes a vital, covert, long-distance undersea mission into unfriendly waters. The storyline's range of scenes is limited by the technical and operational aspects of the protagonists' immediate surroundings, the submarine itself. With this inherent limitation in dramatic options, the entire gamut of around a dozen standard scenes tends to appear in any given work, though the treatment of these naturally evolves.
The Shore-Leave Scene: At the outset, the sub returns to its base from a patrol, and the crew are granted shore leave. Bar brawls and other unruly behaviour often ensue when the crew 'let off steam', as below.

Meanwhile, the protagonist, who is always an officer, has his own romantic plans, perhaps aimed at a handy nurse or the admiral's receptionist. The new mission will cut his leave short, ruining any romantic plans he may have.

Das Boot, 1981: The longer tv series and restored-dvd versions have the more complete version of the party scene.

Several US wartime films have the protagonist and a service colleague competing for the affections of a nurse etc, before learning to work together professionally, this being played up on the ad posters, as below.

That the 'shore-leave-romance'' angle should dominate the ads for Hellcats Of The Navy, 1957, is typical for the WW2 and postwar eras, though boosted later for the video releases as the two co-stars had by then married and beome US President and First Lady.
Up Periscope, 1959 [hover mouse to see 2nd image] takes a more cynical approach, at least initially. The hero discovers the woman he has been romancing on the beach is performing a pre-mission psychological-fitness checkup on him. At the end, she is of course waiting for him on the dockside.

In some instances, this could be labelled The Leave-Cancelled Scene. In We Dive At Dawn [1943], the young captain arranges dates with several "popsies" before getting the bad news he is to head off again st once, on a "special job." Another crew-member uses the recall telegram to get out of his wedding. (Mouse over to see 2nd image.)

On The Beach, 1959. As the title implies, the story focuses on an extended shore leave, where the characters await the end in Australia. (Radiation from WW3 is drifting slowly down from the northern hemisphere.) In this scene, the captain lets it slip he is mentally confusing his companion with his wife, who was killed in the nuclear war just past.

The Special Mission Briefing: The captain is called in to receive new, special orders.

A map is often the focal point in this scene. (Screenshot from The Silent Service tv series 1957 episode "Hit 'Em Again, Harder"; USS Harder, sent to Borneo to pick up British commandos, returns via the nearby Japanese Fleet Anchorage, where it sinks 5 destroyers assembling for the Battle of the Phillppine Sea.)


Ice Station Zebra, 1968. The captain receives his written orders from the admiral in the private lounge of a Scottish pub on the shores of Holy Loch, where NATO has a nuclear-sub base. The captain is told his mission is so top-secret his orders can't come through normal channels and even he can't be told why he's going under the polar icecap. (His passenger, a British agent, will know, though he won't tell either.)

The Boat-Being-Readied Scene: The captain meets with his officers and they inspect the re-outfitting of the sub for its mission. The captain may address the crew, as in Das Boot, below. (Alles klar?)

Right: Refitting at Portland naval base on England's south coast, in Above Us The Waves [1955], which dramatises the successful mission by 3 minisubs to cripple the German pocket battleship Tirpitz.


The Mission Orders Announcement: Sometimes, the crew are told their mission when they are assembled on the dockside, as below (a scene from Das Letzte U-Boot, 1992, where the voyage is from Norway to Japan).

Sometimes for security, this is withheld until the sub is at sea, when the sealed orders are opened and read out over the PA system, perhaps settling rumours that have run rife among the crew.

The mission is not just a routine patrol (not for long anyway).
Above: The Hunt For Red October, 1990: The captain has substituted the ship's written orders as the beginning of a ploy to deceive the crew and cover his scheme to defect to the West with his advanced new sub.

A crisis may also occur while the sub is at sea, calling for an officers' conference, as in the fact-based Das Letzte U-Boot [above left], when they hear over the radio that Hitler is dead. Then they hear Germany has surrendered, and must decide whether to continue on to Japan, with their Japanese officer passengers and cargo of uranium to build an A-bomb.

Left: Crimson Tide, 1995 - As they set out to sea during a nuclear crisis, the captain addresses the crew at dockside. The real crisis will occur at sea, when their communications are disrupted mid-message..


The Setting-Out Scene: The sub sets out on its mission, with or without any send-off fanfare. (Below: a quiet sendoff scene from the 1951 Submarine Command, with only the captain's wife to wave goodbye from dockside.) This often bookends the main story via a more triumphal Homecoming Scene, as in the example at right.

Destination Tokyo, 1943. One sub sets off as another returns.This is perhaps the first use of this iconic image - a sub coming and going under San Francisco's famous landmark, the Golden Gate. (Ironically, the Navy had opposed it being built in 1933 as one well-placed bomb could block the harbour.)
The Crash-Dive Casualty: Once at sea, the captain often orders emergency drills to test and speed up crew response times. A variant is that an enemy plane is sighted, prompting a crash dive. A sailor may be left topsides, leading to resentment among the crew. As in the 1951 Operation Pacific, Having To Leave A Man Topsides when the boat comes under fire means the new CO has to Live With The Guilt. The scene made a late appearance in U-571 (US, 2000), where the captain himself orders the boat to dive when he is wounded topsides.

Submarine Command, 1951: The captain's leaving his own wounded commander on deck during an emergency dive leads to enmity from his crew chief, and what we now call PTSD, which he must exorcise in a followup mission on the same sub.

Run Silent Run Deep, 1958: The new captain's insistence on practicing a crash dive together with preparations for a dangerous head-on bow shot leads the crew to suspect, corrrectly, he is on a mission of his own.
The Torpedo Attack Scene: The sub fires torpedoes at an enemy target. Sometimes it misses and once in a while the torpedo goes wild and circles back on the sub. (This was a real-life problem with early magnetic torpedoes.) Even if it hits its target, the torpedo gives away the sub's presence. 

The sub has to come up to periscope depth for the attack, and sometimes the captain doesn't like what he sees - it's not what he expected.

A simulated through-the-periscope viewpoint shot is mandatory here.

The Cat & Mouse Scene: The sub is hunted by the enemy, pinging them with its Asdic/sonar. Listening on hydrophones to an enemy they cannot see, the crew must play a cat-and-mouse game of detection, plotting changes of course, depth and speed.

Left: a familiar prop, the course and speed tracking 'plot', seen here in The Enemy Below [1957] and [mouse over image] the glowing green CRT screens of a more modern USN electronics setup in Crimson Tide [1995].

This should perhaps be designated the listening-for-the-enemy / sweating-it-out scene, with the inherent claustrophobia of the situation becoming palpable, the incessant sonar pinging a reminder they are being hunted. A variant is that the protagonists are also being hunted by an enemy sub, which is close by. This can lead to both vessels in silent-runnng mode, as in the examples below.

Left: Run Silent, Run Deep, 1958, the 'Listening' scene. (Here, the captain saves the day when he realises the source of the mysterious morse signals must be an enemy sub working in tandem with the Japanese detroyers. )
Below: In Hell And High Water [1954], the protagonists are hunted by a Red Chinese sub, probably the film’s most dramatic sequence. When lying doggo doesn't work, the crew resort to ramming the enemy sub underwater, locating it by sound.

The Depth-Charging Scene: Pattern after pattern of depth charges explode right next to the sub, knocking fittings loose and springing leaks, until a claustrophobic crew member panics and tries to open the hatch. The panic is sometimes partly due to the sub's evasive tactic of diving below the hull’s official ‘crush’ depth.

Left: A special-effects shot from Operation Pacific [1951] shows how the depth charge sends out a damaging shock wave. 

Right: The paperback edition of The Enemy Below uses this as its keynote image. The story is told from 'above' as well as ''below' viewpoints. and uniquely explains the tactics of depth charging.

The depth charging attacks in these scenes somehow consist entirely of near-misses.

Below left: The effects of being depth charged are psychological as much as physical, The still is from The Enemy Below, but really could be from any sub drama. Sooner or later, a crew member will panic, but here the captain heads this off by defiantly playing a singalong record, a move emulated in Das Boot.

The Lying Doggo Scene: To shake off pursuit by making the enemy think they are sunk, the sub plays dead - rigs for silent-routine and slides down to the sea floor to sit on the seabed for a few hours. A corpse may be jettisoned out the torpedo tube along with an oil slick to complete the ploy. The sub must lie quietly on the bottom until their air is almost exhausted.
Rising air bubbles from a leak are a giveaway. (The sub pictured at right has sprung a fatal leak and is not simply playing dead - the crew are about to evacuate using escape gear breathing-apparatus - a scene from Torpedo Run, 1957.)

The Command-Conflict: The captain's interpretation of orders is questioned, putting him on a collision course with his 2nd in command, a prelude to a possible crew mutiny. 

Run Silent, Run Deep, 1958 - The captain's turning the mission into a personal vendetta (against a Japanese destroyer which bested him before) leads to the 2nd in command taking over. (Star Clark Gable refused to film the scene as originally written, and the script had to be altered so the captain is replaced only after he is incapicated by a head injury.)

Crimson Tide, 1995 - The argument over interpetation of orders when radio comms are disrupted leads to an actual mutiny over whether to authorise a nuclear-missile launch after an engagement with a [rogue] Russian sub. The crew split into two factions, one led by the captain, one by the 2nd in command. (The 'USS Alabama' is a real vessel, and the film was refused official cooperation because of its depiction of a fictional and unlikely mutiny, a fight over control of the nuclear-weapons key.)

A particular dilemma involves the presence of civilians. Submarines are not designed to carry extra passengers but there were historical cases of sub captains going against orders to help civilian survivors of a torpedoed ship; several of these incidents have been dramatised, as in the British-German co-production The Sinking Of The Laconia (2011).

Right: In Les Maudits aka The Damned (1947), authority breaks down aboard a U-boat carrying Nazi VIPs fleeing Germany's impending surrender in April 1945. They are on a mission to establish a secret postwar base in South America. En route, Nazi party officials argue with the captain, crew members mutiny, and the civilians brought along find themselves expendable. The mission ends in all-around betrayal and wholesale slaughter.

The Enemy Threshhold: The sub enters enemy-controlled waters, such as a harbour, protected by a minefield, anti-submarine nets etc. The sub may wait for a surface vessel and tailgate it through the submarine boom.

Left and above: The most famous U-boat mission of WW2 was U-47 sneaking into Scapa Flow (the British Home Fleet anchorage north of Scotland) in 1939 and sinking the battleship Royal Oak. (Screenshots from U-47 – Kapitänleutnant Prien, 1958).
The Landing Party: An embarkation party is landed for a covert mission on a hostile shore.

Below: 49th Parallel aka The Invaders, 1941. In this officially-backed WW2 propaganda film, a German naval landing party finds itself on its own when the U-boat disembarking them is sunk in Hudson's Bay, and the rest of the film is taken up with the group's psychological disintegration as they trek west across Canada, finding their Nazi mentality an illusion.

Below Right: In Ice Station Zebra [1968], the sub disembarks its landing party right after the intermission, the rest of the film being set on the icecap. (Ironically, after the landing party trek two miles through a blizzard, as soon as they locate the drift-ice weather station which gives the work its title, the sub is able to surface next to it, as shown here.)
The sub may be landing its party at a secret supply base. The 1954 film version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea added a secret sub-pen base to the story for a grand finale. Nemo’s base here is an unmapped volcanic island in the South Seas with a lagoon in the centre, named Vulcania as it is concealed inside the sea-filled cone of an extinct volcano rising out the sea. (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.) The villain's secret volcanic base would become a staple of exotic spy films.
Above: Vulcania, Captain Nemo's secret base - what looks like a giant radar dish is labelled in production sketches as a solar-power reflector. There is also an implication Nemo has discovered the secret of nuclear power, the film ending with the now familiar mushroom-shaped cloud when the base self-destructs as colonial forces land marines from the encircling warships. This 1954 production of Verne’s 1870 novel acquired a contemporary resonance as it could now be reasonably implied this was an early invention of the nuclear submarine, with the base an atomic power station.
The Ramming Scene: The sub surfaces to shoot it out with, then ram, the enemy vessel to finish it off - though sometimes it is the sub that gets rammed.

Right: Operation Pacific, 1951. Ramming was obviously a last resort as it could damage the sub. In this case, the captain being played by John Wayne is not going to let something like that stop him when he meets up with a Japanese Q-ship designed to trap US subs. (He has to beach his damaged sub afterwards.)

Below: In Murphy's War [1970] the submarine is the enemy, the main character a survivor of a vessel the U-boat sank, a flight engineer not about to let war's end stop him striking back. After bombing the U-boat's secret berth up the Orinoco doesn't work, he uses a hijacked barge as a ram, leading to their mutual destruction.


Left: A still from the 1954 film version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the 1870 novel which was the main prototype for the submarine-mission storyline. Jules Verne's rebel scientific inventor Captain Nemo has designed the Nautilus to ram ships involved in colonial-militarist activities, including warships - then wooden-hulled, which is how the 3 survivors who are the protagonists wind up as Nemo's captives.
The ramming scene is thus part of the story setup rather than the dramatic climax, as elsewhere. Usually the ramming scene occurs only at the finale, due to the danger of hull damage, and even here a 2nd ramming attack proves the Nautilus's undoing.

In The Enemy Below, 1957, as the title implies, the destroyer crew are the protagonists, and when they are torpedoed, they ram the sub when it surfaces to finish them off. (The destroyer ramming the sub is authentic enough, with several incidents where this was done, by both British and US destroyers. USS Buckley had famously rammed U-66 in May 1944, which may be why in the script the USS Haynes is made a Buckley class destroyer. Even the destroyer’s keel riding up on the sub’s hull as seen here happened, cf HMS Starling when it rammed U574, described in Walker RN, the memoir of a sub-hunting veteran.)

Similarly, in other films where the sub is 'the enemy', they are the ones rammed, as in Hell And High Water [1954], The Key [1958], Assault On A Queen [1966], and Murphy's War [1971].

The Homecoming Scene: The sub makes it back to base, where a triumphal homecoming awaits the surviving crew. 

Screenshots from U47 – Kapitänleutnant Prien, 1958. (Mouse over photo to see 2nd image.) In 1939, the crew of U-47 get a heroes's welcome after sinking the battleship Royal Oak in the British Home Fleet's own anchorage. Later on, the U-boat crews would look back on the early days of WW2 as "the happy time" before British anti-submarine measures improved.

Alternatively, in the event the sub cannot make it back to base due to damage, the captain may prefer to go down with the vessel, as in the WWI-set US drama Seas Beneath [1931], where the U-boat officers all join the captain en route to a watery grave, flag still flying.

In the wartime flagwaver Crash Dive, 1943 - the sub-genre’s first Technicolor production - the crew return flying a broomstick from their mast signalling their success (in destroying a Nazi supply base), and receive a heroes' welcome, complete with bands and speeches.



In Das Boot [1981], the crew make it back to base for Xmas 1941 but find there is no happy ending as they arrive just in time for a devasting air raid on their home base, the sub pens at L'orient [actually La Rochelle] on the Atlantic coast.

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