The 'Submarine Mission' Storyline - Introductory Page

 

Storyline: A submarine undertakes a long-distance special mission.

The submarine-mission storyline, despite its inherent limitations, holds an enduring fascination for many, yielding popular works for nearly a century and a half. It dates back to the 19C, when the first primitive subs were built for military purposes.

History: It was kickstarted imaginatively in 1870 with Jules Verne's French scientific romance 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which launched the idea of the deadly sub that could travel undetected half-way around the world and sink shipping undetected. Verne’s 1870 novel would remain the sub-genre’s most enduring literary work. Cinema versions appeared from 1907, though it would not be until the colour widescreen film era in the 1950s that a major screen adaptation would appear. By then, vessels like the Nautilus were no longer science fiction, but science fact, including the use of nuclear power, and this is reflected in the film's finale [pictured left] which is not in the novel.

Two world wars followed by a Cold War provided a set of geopolitical contexts for long-distance submarine missions, which could be utilised in contemporary-set fiction and dramatic works.

World War Two was the first conflict in which submarines were involved in long-distance missions, and this resulted in a series of dramas made with official cooperation. The first notable work here was We Dive At Dawn [GB 1943], the first major contemporary-set submarine-mission drama, made with official RN cooperation. It dramatises a [fictional] mission by HMS 'Sea Tiger' to track and sink the new German battleship 'Brandenburg' as it leaves the Kiel Canal to undergo its sea trials in the Baltic, before it can emerge to disrupt the Arctic convoys as other pocket battleships like Tirpitz had done. Many now-familiar moments were shown for the first time here, and were then emulated by subsequent films (like the use of a dismissive final throwaway-dialogue line, a motif reused in Destination Tokyo, below, made later that same year.)

The 135-minute Destination Tokyo [1943] was the first notable US work here. It concerned a [fictional] mission to infiltrate Tokyo Bay to obtain weather info for the [real] 1942 Doolittle Raid to bomb Tokyo. The geopolitical context was 'taking the fight to the enemy,' to shatter Japanese confidence that their homeland was safely out of reach. The sub sets off from San Francisco on Xmas Eve 1941 and sails up around the coast to Alaska, to pick up a Japanese-speaking meteorologist and arrives just in time to plant meteorological devices to collect and transmit weather data for the famous raid, which occurred in mid-April '42, indicating a realistic voyage duration of nearly 4 months, to go from San Francisco northwest to the Aleutian Isles off Alaska [pictured right], then down the Japanese coast to sneak into Tokyo Harbour.


The Cold War era saw the new nuclear-powered subs used dramatically not only for contemporary-set intrigues but for science fiction stories as well, as here, in Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea [1961], pilot for the 60s tv series.


We Dive At Dawn [GB 1943], above, and Destination Tokyo [US 1943] below.

Settings: The storyline obviously puts the main setting aboard the sub, in the enclosed environment aboard the sub itself.

However in the Cold War, the ability of the new nuclear subs to travel under polar ice made the Arctic a real-world front-line, and this was reflected in its use in screen drama as a mission destination from the 1950s onwards.
   
Standard Scenes: First we usually get the sub's Return-To-Base scene, then a Crew-Shore-Leave scene, a Fresh-Orders scene; this might cut short a romantic interlude; there is the Setting-Out scene (military band and captain's pep-talk optional), then a training drill or other Emergency Dive scene, where a crew member is left topsides, causing unrest among the crew. There is the opening and reading out of the Sealed Orders, the Cat-and-Mouse Game or battle-of-wits duel with an enemy vessel hunting them via sonar, a Depth-Charge Attack (wherein a crew member panics), followed by a silent-running spell Lying Doggo on the sea floor, with air running short. There is the Command-Conflict between the captain and the 2nd officer, the Crossing Of The Enemy Threshhold (such as entering an enemy harbour), the decisive Torpedo Attack, and probably a Surface Battle scene - possibly involving a ramming - before the sub finally heads for home and a triumphal welcome. With narrative opportunities inherently limited by the setting, the challenge of course is to make such familiar standard scenes work in context. For instance, in Das Boot [1981], the sub's triumphal final return in time for Xmas ends in grim irony. Similarly, there is more than meets the eye in the scene below.
Our feature page with a breakdown of standard scenes is now online: The 'Submarine Mission' Storyline | Standard Scenes

Left: The listening-for-the-enemy / sweating-it-out scene, in this case from Hell And High Water (1954). It might seem this is just another scene where the protagonists hide from a surface vessel, as in many a submarine drama; but it's a variant: the crew realise they are being hunted underwater by another sub, which leads to them ramming it, locating it by sound.

A-Z Listing: The storyline's Titles A-Z feature-page is now online, listing just under 100 examples, with writer credits, description and an illustration:
The Submarine Mission Storyline: Titles A-Z Page.

Ten Titles For Further Study: For a shortlist of 10 film-tv titles suitable for further study, take a look at our feature page here.

 

Left: A still from The Hunt For Red October [1990], based on the 1984 Tom Clancy novel.

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