'Submarine Mission' Storyline | Ten Titles For Further Study
Storyline: A submarine undertakes a long-distance special mission. Below are ten leading
examples of the storyline, in chronological order.
Leagues Under The Sea, 1870 novel by Jules Verne adapted for the screen by Earl Felton 1954
The 1870 French scientific romance Vingt
mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin / Twenty Thousand Leagues Under
the Seas: An Underwater Tour of the World by Jules Verne (1828-1905) launched the idea of
the submersible vessel that could travel undetected half-way around the world, explore the wonders
of the deep - and sink shipping undetected. It presaged the main uses of real-life submarines
over the next century, and Verne's novel would remain the submarine-mission storyline's most
enduring popular novel and source work.
Though cinema versions of Verne's novel appeared from 1907, it would not be until 1954, when
a new geopolitical context in the form of the nuclear age had arrived, that a major screen adaptation
would appear, a big-budget Disney Cinemascope Technicolor production scripted by Earl Felton
(1909-72). For a Disney 'family' picture, the film is lengthy (over 2 hours). This version makes
'Nemo' (Latin for Nobody) not an exile from British colonial rule as in the novels (an Indian
prince exiled after the 1857 Mutiny), but a scientist whose discovery was one of harnessing a
new energy source. Here this is not electricity (as in the novel) but implicitly atomic power.
(When Nemo shows Professor Aronnax the Nautilus's power source, he says it harnesses "the veritable
dynamic power of the universe.") Nemo had been imprisoned on a Devil's Island type of colony
(which he shows to Aronnax at one point) and his wife and son tortured to death to make him reveal
the secret. Nemo's anger is here broadened out from Verne's anti-British colonialism into a general
misanthropy protesting man's inhumanity to man. His targeting warships and shipping carrying
the products of colonial mining operations [pictured above] suggests Felton's Nemo may have been
the first onscreen protagonist to battle what President Eisenhower in the 50s would call the
military-industrial complex, which by then included the nuclear industry.
As part of this development, the film version also created a new climax, which would prove influential.
The mission here takes the Nautilus across the Pacific to 'Vulcania', an unmapped volcanic islet
where he has his hidden base. (This is completely different from the novel's ending, which has
the sub go down in a Nordic maelstrom, though Verne had both captain and now-crippled sub survive
on a subtropical isle, as part of the retroconned big-reveal setup in his The Mysterious Island.)
At the end, when Nemo returns to see his secret base is surrounded by warships of an unnamed
colonial power, he activates a self-destruct device, preserving the secret of his inventions
in what looks like an atomic-bomb blast.
The surprisingly mature thematic treatment may be due to the scriptwriter, who was not only an
old Hollywood hand [IMDB page here] (the director
says he also saved the climatic fight scene with the squid by suggesting it be reshot in a storm,
to conceal the animatronics) Felton also seems to have one of Hollywood's politically-aware writers
as well, though his allegiances were unclear (info on his FBI file and suicide here
.) Over the last shot of the atomic explosion and the Nautilus sinking, prow up, we hear the
voice-over, "There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better
life, all this will someday come to pass, in God's good time" - implying the world was not
ready for atomic power in the 1860s but is now, in the 1950s, when it was a well-known fait accompli.
There were atomic tests being conducted in the south Pacific near the script's fictional island
locale, but more likely the "God's good time" reference is to the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered
sub, launched in 1954.
Verne's original novel has reportedly never gone out of print though it went out of copyright
and is available online in English translation here
and - this is said to be a more accurate translation - here
. The 1954 Disney film is available in single-disc and 2-disc DVD (but not yet BluRay) editions.
We Dive At
Dawn, 1943 film from a script by Val Valentine, J. B. Williams and [uncredited] Frank Launder
by veteran British scriptwriter Val Valentine (1895–1971) and made with Admiralty co-operation,
this was the first, and major, British wartime drama about a submarine mission. In April 1942,
after returning from an unproductive cruise (we get below-decks domestic scenes about the crew's
private troubles), HMS Sea Tiger gets sent out again quickly to intercept and sink a new German
battleship, the Brandenburg. The mission takes them into the enemy-controlled Baltic in pursuit
of her when their first chance fails.
The British shore-leave scenes lack the sentimentality of their American counterparts, though
the crew's domestic woes seem to magically dissolve on their final return to a heroes' welcome.
John Mills is not top-billed though he plays the sub’s CO, a rather upper-class ladies-man
young Lieutenant, who snaps his fingers imperiously to order Up Periscope. (Mills was sent aboard
a sub in the Clyde to get some idea of how a real sub operates.) Eric Portman, as the hydrophones
operator, whose character is central to the plot as he understands German, gets top billing.
The now-familiar standard scenes are mostly there, though some were present for the first time.
There’s the lining up for the difficult maximum-range torpedo shot, and the inevitable
depth charges in retaliation. There’s no panicking crew member here – it’s
a German prisoner who panics as they scrape through a minefield. Later there is the scene where
they scrape through a hole in an anti-submarine net. There is (perhaps for the first time on
screen) the ruse of playing dead by jettisoning debris, causing the sub to be reported sunk by
enemy radio. The German airmen they rescue include rabid Nazis prepared to kill a panicky crewmate
for giving mission info away. The crew themselves prove fairly ruthless when they penetrate an
enemy base - they have to land commando-style at an enemy refuelling dock to get enough fuel
to return home. There’s a ‘fog of war’ aspect where they don’t know that
they succeeded in their mission till they return. We also get a deliberately offhand final line
by an onlooker, a device also used in the US-made Destination Tokyo, a film made later that year,
which it may have influenced.
One of the 2 submarines used in the filming was sunk in action a few months later, with the loss
of all hands. The title can be seen as a grim submariners’ pun on the old gladiatorial
motto, ‘At dawn we die.’ (Submarines had a high fatality rate. Overall, in WW2, the
Royal Navy lost 74 subs, the US Navy 51, the Kriegsmarine 821 U-boats, Italy 91, and Japan 128
out of 174. By war’s end , one in three British submariners had lost their lives.)
/ The Damned (1947), written by director René Clément, Jacques Rémy and Henri Jeanson (dialogue)
from a story by Victor Alexandrov and Jacques Companéez
the immediate postwar period came a sub drama which unlike so many others never found an afterlife
on tv, perhaps because of its multi-lingual setup and its grim subject matter, a “ship of fools”
or “voyage of the damned” study in selfishness and self-delusion. Les Maudits aka The Damned (1947),
written by director René Clément, Jacques Rémy and Henri Jeanson (dialogue) from a story by Victor
Alexandrov and Jacques Companéez, told the story of a new type of sub mission, by Nazis fleeing
justice at war’s end. (There were rumours at the time about this, the usual destination being Argentina,
which had German sympathies.)
Here, a U-Boat departs from a sub pen in Norway with a small group of Nazis and collaborators and
their partners to set up a colony in exile in South America. (“Our government has charged us
with a very important mission… You must create, will the help of our agents and partisans, networks
of influence, reception centers, offices of information, houses of refuge, where very soon can
meet again, all our leaders, in order to prepare for or confirm our victory.”) The hardcore
Nazis refuse to believe their cause is lost, even when they hear the news:
-They've announced the capture of Berlin and the death
-If the Fuhrer was dead, Goebbels or Himmler would never have made this misfortune public. And
the proof that he lives is we're told that he's dead.
It is narrated by the French doctor who is pressed into service en route to care for an injury
to one of them, and who soon realises he’s expendable (“I was a dead man under a stay of execution”).
But one by one the others realise all is lost: they are either outcasts or wanted war criminals
in a US-dominated postwar world. Their dawning realisation leads to suicides, a crew mutiny, and
a rats-leaving-a-sinking-ship denouement that ironically leaves the doctor they planned to kill
(“He'd denounce us”) behind. But like Ishmael in Moby Dick, he alone survives to tell the tale,
as the others basically self-destruct. Director René Clément (1913-96) was well-known for his realist
production approach, and a real submarine was used as much as possible. It’s considered by some
an influence on Das Boot. Long unseen, the film finally resurfaced via a DVD/Bluray restoration
in 2013, with the dialogue-less trailer
put on YouTube. The scene where the sub is depth charged is also here,
Below, 1957 film scripted by Wendell Mayes from the 1956 novel by DA Rayner
is the story of how a German submarine mission ends in a deadly duel with a US destroyer, told
from both ‘above’ and ‘below’ viewpoints. In the South Atlantic, a U-boat is about to rendezvous
with its supply vessel, Raider M, where it will hand over a captured British code book and turn
for home. However its track is picked up on sonar by a US destroyer, which it cannot elude. Most
of the screen time is taken up with the various manoeuvres and counter-moves by the two vessels
as they try to gain the advantage.
It’s a different take on the submarine mission story, as the story begins with the sub’s mission
largely accomplished. The sub only has to rendezvous with its supply ship and refuel so they
can head home; but the destroyer won’t let the U-boat alone, and they end up destroying one another.
For an hour and a half, we get an extended cat-and-mouse game, complete with pinging sonar and
those early ‘radar plots’ which show the target being ‘painted’ as the scanner ‘wiper’ goes around
clockwise, shot aboard a real US destroyer and a full-size replica U-boat, though the mutually
destructive finale of necessity involves models.
This was the first time since the war an enemy sub crew was treated sympathetically. Curd Jürgens,
who plays the war-weary U-boat commander, said it was ‘the first film after the war in which
a German officer was not interpreted as a freak’. The German crew (played by German actors) all
speak English to make them seem less foreign, right down to having a rallying song with English
lyrics written for the film. (The scene where they sing it defiantly is thought to be the inspiration
for the Tipperary singalong scene in Das Boot.) The German-POV scenes were a novelty for the
1950s, with the disillusioned kapitan who no longer believes in the way war is fought using mechanical
calculators, never mind Nazi Party slogans. (The Nazi lieutenant is the one who panics during
The film was made for US audiences, shot aboard a USN destroyer escort off Hawaii, and the American
captain and crew get more screen time, but even here the script was changed to make them less
adversarial. The film is based on a 1956 novel which producer-director Dick Powell clutches in
the trailer, describing it as a bestseller.
It was actually a British novel, written by an ex-RNVR destroyer captain, Lt-Cdr Denys Rayner
(1908-67), who originally wrote a downbeat ending after interviewing a former U-boat kapitan
for his research. Rayner had planned a conciliatory ending, but after meeting the ex U-boat commander
who still held hardline views, he changed it to one where the two captains and crews end up brawling
in the water. This might have come across as risible onscreen, and in the original script, evidently
both captains drown when the US captain tries to rescue the German one. This also sounds hard
to bring off dramatically, and producer-director Dick Powell shot an alternate ending, which
a preview audience voted they preferred. The ending used was a matter of dispute with the author’s
family trust, which held up a DVD release.
That the destroyer is a US one but the source novel was British is behind some of the plot’s
anomalies. The 1956 novel had a British destroyer whose chess-playing, pipe-smoking captain is
keen to pursue the idea of single combat. In the film version, this becomes a US destroyer whose
new captain is supposedly a ‘feather merchant’ freighter 3rd-officer recovering from spending
weeks at sea after being torpedoed and watching his English bride drown in the same incident,
then given command of a destroyer. This is improbable, as is the idea the officers and crew haven’t
even seen the new captain, as he’s been sleeping for days in his bunk (taking to one’s bunk for
days used to be shorthand for a nervous breakdown).
The film was scripted by Wendell Mayes (1919-92), at the start of his career as a top A-picture
writer (The Spirit of St. Louis, Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, In Harm’s Way, Von
Ryan’s Express, Poseidon Adventure etc). Twentieth Century Fox was evidently taking no chances
with the international box office, and the attitude towards the ‘enemy below’ is one fitting
the reconstructionist mood of the US-aid Marshall Plan which had rebuilt postwar Germany. The
script’s tone is less hardline towards Germans than the novel, where the Kapitan is an aristocratic
Junker; his ‘von’ prefix name (von Stolberg) is not used in the film; and in the obligatory Panicking-Crewman
scene, the captain talks him around, whereas in the novel he shoots him. The destroyer-captain
role is cast against type - played by a tanned and fit-looking he-man at the peak of his career:
Robert Mitchum. This helps gloss over how it is that the script’s war-weary ‘feather merchant’
conscripted-civilian (a 3rd mate on a freighter) has no problem matching tactics with a wily
veteran U-boat commander who had also served in WWI.
The ‘surviving’ ending, as we should call it, while more upbeat, still has a bite to it in its
ambivalent sardonic dialogue. Earlier, the script has the captain saying that there is no end
to 'misery and destruction.' He doesn’t even want to wonder whether this might be the same U-boat
that torpedoed his freighter and widowed him, as he simply has a job to do. Now, after the funeral
service on the aft-deck of the destroyer which has rescued the survivors, we get a thoughtful
final dialogue exchange between captains. It's an ambiguous conversation which can be read as
either symbolising the US largesse which funded the 1947 Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany, and/or
perpetual American naïveté in the face of hard-line fascist realpolitik and knowingness about
how power-seeking evil is hard to kill off. The latter seems to have been Rayner’s own view after
meeting that Nazi U-boat commander, adding a metaphoric layer of meaning to his title The Enemy
Below. The final lines:
German captain: I should have died many times, Captain,
but I continue to survive somehow. This time it was your fault.
US captain: I didn't know. Next time I won't throw you the rope.
German captain: I think you will.
The film is considered an influence on Das Boot.
The novel is still available in paperback and on Kindle ebook. The film was issued on DVD in
2004, its ending unchanged by the dispute with the author’s estate. Trailer on YouTube here.
On The Beach,
1959 film scripted by John Paxton from the 1957 novel by Neville Shute
is a post-nuclear apocalypse drama with a central ‘mission’ sequence between the
lengthy ‘shore leave’ sequences. This ‘shock and awe’ 1957 bestseller
by Neville Shute (1899–1960) about the aftermath of a nuclear war in 1963 is set in and
around Melbourne (Shute's home town) in southern Australia, about the last place where radioactive
fallout will reach.
The protagonists are coping with impending death (by radiation sickness of suicide pill) in various
ways. The newly-arrived US sub captain tries to keep the memory of his dead wife and children
alive to stay ‘true’ to them and declines an affair with a local socialite he is
paired up with by his local hosts. The sub is sent back to the radiation-poisoned northern hemisphere
to run atmospheric tests; a mysterious morse signal has also been received from the northwest
coast of the USA.
The central mission in fact leads only to disappointment and furthermore takes the sub away for
up several months, leaving the US captain and Australian lieutenant only about a week to live
after they return. With final hopes of any human survival gone, the sub returns for a final week
or so of shore leave, but sets sail again as the crew tell the captain they prefer to scuttle
the vessel and die at sea.
The novel was a sensational bestseller in its day, breaching a subject –nuclear war as
a ‘no-win’ scenario – that governments did not want to discuss. The 1959 US
film was conceived by producer-director Stanley Kramer as one of his ‘message’ pictures,
and scripted by John Paxton (1911-85) (who had many 50s “A” pictures to his credit).
Shot on location, it used an RN diesel sub since the USN declined to assist a production they
claimed was unrealistic scaremongering. (The novel was attacked in the US press as seditious.)
The central mission takes up about half an hour of an 134-minute running time.
Shute’s 1957 novel and the 1959 film were credited as the joint basis of a second screen
adaptation, a US/Australian co-production made for TV in 2000. The teleplay is co-written by
an Australian and a US writer, David Williamson and Bill Kerby, presumably to ensure authentic
dialogue from both Aussie and American characters. Again the story is set 5 years in the future
(meaning this time in 2006), so the technology is updated, with the sub becoming a nuclear one.
With its 195-minute running time, the central mission gets more screen time, lasting onscreen
for over an hour.
This time it is to try to find a habitable spot in the Arctic where it may possible to set up
a regeneration colony. They also intercept a signal, this time a text message being sent from
an internet address in Alaska). Here, the message has a fragment of real content, which gives
Instead of just the radioman going ashore at San Diego to check out the Morse signal, the captain
joins in the “landing party” scene, to Anchorage. Then it’s down to San Francisco;
in the ‘59 version we see that genre icon under which so many subs have passed, the Golden
Gate Bridge, and the city’s hilly streets deserted; in the tv version as in the novel,
the Golden Gate is now a mass of twisted girders. One man escapes in a rubber dinghy to die in
his home port, and the same scene of him talking to the sub via the periscope speaker occurs.
Here, this prompts a near riot among the crew, and the decision whether to remain in SF or return
to Melbourne is only satisfied by a vote. Yet on arrival, they vote to go back to sea again to
die, except for the captain, who reappears on the beach to keep a final rendezvous with his Australian
‘date’. (A lot of the above touches are presumably attempts, in the manner of tv
producers, at ‘improving’ the story for a wider audience.)
The novel has never been out of print.
The 1959 feature film version [trailer here]
is available on DVD, though some editions are not the best quality.
The less widely seen US/Australian 2000 TV co-production is available on DVD [excerpts here].
Service, 1957-9 tv series co-scripted by producer / presenter Thomas M. Dykers
1957-59, the syndicated US TV docudrama anthology series The Silent Service surfaced [so to speak]
a lot of true stories left over from the war, which hadn’t been much talked about, since
the submariner’s reputation as the silent service extended to not talking about their missions
afterwards. The series ran 78 half-hours, which dwarfs other screen output combined in terms
of running time.
As a guarantee of the tv series’ authority and authenticity, each episode was intro’d
and narrated by retired sub commander Thomas M. Dykers (1905-75), who had worked as a technical
adviser, usually uncredited, on 50s sub dramas like Submarine Command, Torpedo Alley, The Frogmen,
and Hell And High Water.
He also co-wrote and co-produced some episodes. Often as an epilogue, he would bring on the actual
captain whose patrol we just saw portrayed in the dramatic reconstruction. (Though the first
episode “The Jack At Tokyo” dramatises an exploit by his own sub, the USS Jack.)
Most of the scenes are sub interiors, with stock footage for through-the-periscope shots. There
is no real location filming, but the US Navy did lend the production company the subs Sawfish
and Redfish to film various exterior scenes, on deck etc.
This is the only dramatisation of many incidents that happened during WWII, and the series’
auspices suggest it is more authentic in its depictions of sub operations. (There is still the
customary crew byplay familiar from sub dramas.) All but a few episodes cover US sub operations
in the Pacific theatre in WW2 or the Korean War; there is one on the RN in the Med, and a final
episode covers U47’s 1939 sinking the battleship Royal Oak in Scapa Flow harbour north
Each episode covers a dramatic incident, and some of these involve special missions rather than
just ‘routine’ combat patrols, though with 78 episodes it is difficult to make a
list of these. There is a webpage giving synopses (and in some cases, writer credits) by episode,
here. Not all the episodes
seem to be available for viewing today. (Note - when searching, the series is not to be confused
with the 1995 Japanese anime film of the same name.)
The series’ sheer length is probably the reason it has not been released on DVD. (A now
out-of-print DVD-R set covered 15 discs.) A 2-disc set with 200 minutes of material [probably
9 eps] was issued by A&E Home Video in the USA in R1 format in 2004, but this too seems to
have gone out of print. However, there is a selection of episodes available on YouTube, complete
with programme notes, here.
Most episode titles include the sub’s name, (e.g. Ep S01 E02: The Trout At Rainbow's End,
on how USS Trout brought back 20 tons of gold and silver out of the besieged Philippines), and
the YouTube pages also have info on the particular sub being depicted.
A suitable sample episode would be Ep #33,
"Hit 'Em Again, Harder", about a 1944 mission to pick up some British Commandos from
Borneo, which ended with the USS Harder sinking 5 destroyers that were part of the Japanese Task
Force en route to attack the US carrier fleet, disrupting the enemy plan for the impending battle.
(This was the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the largest carrier-to-carrier battle in history,
where much of the Japanese Fleet would be destroyed, including 2 carriers sunk by subs.) The
epilogue notes that the Harder was lost to enemy action on its next patrol.
Run Deep 1958 adapted by John Gay from the 1955 novel by Edward L. Beach
WW2 submariner Commander Edward L. Beach Jr (1918-2002) has said Hollywood just wanted to use
the title of his 1955 bestselling novel for its adaptation, and dumped his authentic portrayal
for a preconceived narrative about conflict below decks. Beach had turned writer with a 1952
nonfiction account, simply titled Submarine, of his own and others’ Pacific-war
experiences. This, his first novel, was said to be based on exploits by two famous subs, the
USS Wahoo and USS Tang. The adaptation by John Gay simplified the narrative to focus on two main
dramatic strands, command-conflict and revenge-pursuit. (The IMDB suggests British writer Nigel
Balchin of The Small Back Room fame may also have worked on the script uncredited.)
Here we have the new commander who has himself promoted over the head of the popular XO or ‘exec’
(executive or 2nd officer) The mission here is to sink a Japanese destroyer which has apparently
sunk 4 US subs. The captain seems to want to run the mission like the board game version he has
been playing on his desk, with each manoeuvre timed to the second. He is on a personally motivated
payback mission which makes him push his crew hard and disobey standing orders, leading to a
command crisis bordering on mutiny. The USS Nerka’s destination is Japan's Bongo Straits
(despite its comic-book sounding name, the Bongo or Bungo channel was a real place), where lurks
the captain’s nemesis, the destroyer Akikaze, nicknamed Bungo Pete, which sunk his last
sub (seen in the prologue). The captain drills the crew in a new tactic, to attack from the surface
using a difficult head-on bow shot. (Wikipedia says the film shows the first use of the “TDC”
or Torpedo Data Computer, a set of bridge-mounted binoculars with a built-in mechanical calculator
for torpedo-attack angles and distances.)
As directed by Robert Wise, the simmering conflict between the two officers is the mainstay of
the drama. It’s said Wise reused this setup for the first Star Trek film in 1979. (Star
Trek II’s final battle also has a few echoes of RSRD.) IMDB says co-star Clark
Gable forced a change to the script in mid-shoot to make it a less confrontational command handover,
so that the XO only takes over after the captain sustains a head injury, which proves fatal.
The website History On Film notes
: “Gable only relented after the screenwriter suggested that Gable’s character
would be injured, so he would be physically unable to command the submarine. New issues appeared
during the post-production phase. When Lancaster and producer James Hill decided to cut the film
themselves after continuous battles over the script with director Robert Wise, he quit.”
As the production company relied on USN cooperation to provide a real sub for filming, the mutinous
aspect never amounts to anything, with the beneficial result the film avoids the melodrama of
a film like Crimson Tide, and concentrates on authentic aspects of life aboard a WW2
sub. (Cultural commentator Prof. Sir Frayling says in the 2010 BBC4 documentary Dive Dive
Dive that the film is really a parable about the appropriate style of leadership for Eisenhower's
America confronting the Communist menace.)
Much of it is now familiar – the man left on deck as the sub dives, the captain-v-exec
conflict, the grumbling crew, the torpedo that goes wild and circles back, the depth charging
that is entirely near-misses, the torpedoes that are also near-misses; the ploy of pretending
to be already sunk by putting materiels and even bodies into a torpedo tube. Nevertheless, it
encapsulates many aspects of the submarine drama which became standard, and some commentators
regard it as the best of its class. (There are even conversations about this in other submarine
films, such as the 2000 tv-miniseries remake of On The Beach.) There’s also a more original
touch in a set of mysterious Morse messages which prove a final vital clue concluding a deadly
Station Zebra, 1968 film scripted by Douglas Heyes and Harry Julian Fink,
from the 1963 novel by Alastair Maclean
Maclean is thought to have got the inspiration for his 1963 novel from hearing about the weather
stations on the drift ice just below the North Pole being secret NATO listening posts. The 1968
film version, with a screenplay by Douglas Heyes from a screen story by Harry Julian Fink, changed
the plot setup considerably, but at least did not try to add a female role. (Director John Sturges
had established himself with all-male-group action dramas The Magnificent 7 and The Great Escape.)
This was a big-budget roadshow presentation in Cinerama, running for up to 2 years in special
theatres. It was also the film reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes supposedly watched (in a 16mm
print) nightly towards the end of his life. (Hughes himself became involved with sub espionage
in the mid-70s when the CIA used his company as a civilian front in an operation to retrieve
a sunken Soviet sub via his vessel Glomar Explorer, a deep-sea recovery vehicle somewhat like
the one in the film The Abyss). ISZ is rather slow paced, largely due to its focus on submarine
After a satellite-landing prologue and short set-up sequence at the Scottish sub base of Holy
Loch, the 148 minutes of screen time is devoted to the mission, with the sub en route up to the
intermission occupying two-thirds of that, and the rest with the sub on the surface, having broken
through the ice. This is the classic under-the-Arctic-ice-cap submarine mission, which only the
new nuclear subs could achieve. Their ability to surface through the icecap had created a new
top-of-the-world Cold War arena of conflict. The film abandons the novel's unlikely setup of
a British doctor (and agent) bluffing his way aboard a US sub, USS Dolphin, to search for his
brother, stranded at the polar base after a fire. In the film, the USS Tigerfish sets sail from
Scotland with its two spies and a contingent of US Marines, bound for the high Arctic. The passengers
and crew have to cope with surfacing under thick ice, sabotage aboard, locating crew members
who have trekked to the base through a blizzard, a double agent in their midst, and a confrontation
with a Soviet paratroop unit that drops in on them. Unique to the genre is that the mission is
so top secret the viewer is not told why the sub is really being sent up there, only
that the announced rescue-mission story is just a cover. Even the captain (Rock Hudson) has the
details withheld from him, on a need-to-know basis, by his two civilian passengers, a hard-bitten
British agent and his Russian associate (Patrick McGoohan and Ernest Borgnine). It would thus
be unfair to divulge it here; suffice it to say that when the explanation comes, it's almost
breath-taking in its cynical take on the new era of the spy satellite.
1981 tv drama-serial and feature-cutdown scripted by director Wolfgang Petersen from the 1973
novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim
1980s saw the sub-genre’s acknowledged international classic. Germany had been a pioneer
of submarine warfare, and had made a few films about this. (For example, the 1958 U-47: Kapitänleutnant
Prien, which commemorated a U-boat captain's exploit of sinking a battleship in an enemy harbour
in the first days of WW2.) But it was not until the start of the 1980s that a U-boat drama achieved
international success, in a production which set a new standard for gritty realism. Das Boot
was a TV miniseries drama serial scripted by director Wolfgang Petersen from a largely autobiographical
1973 bestselling novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim (1918-2007), which was inspired by his
time as a naval press-liaison officer aboard U-96. Though the author criticised it as shallow,
the 6 x 1hr/ 210-minute drama was an international success, an award-winner, dubbed into an English
version as well as cut down to 2 hrs + for theatrical release (later re-mastered for the 1997
Director’s Cut edition).
The novel and screen adaptation cover, in disillusioned manner, the final cruise of U-96 in December
1941 from France out into the Atlantic then down into the Gibraltar Straits before returning
home. Its mission is to rendezvous in mid-Atlantic and wait for a convoy to appear. Not only
are the standard motifs inevitably here (dud torpedoes, the fog of war, the emergency crash drive,
the sudden air attack, the torpedo firing process, the retaliatory depth charging, the sub sinking
below its crush depth to settle crippled on the sea floor, the panicking crewman etc), but situations
never before seen spring up. For example, there’s a moment of dawning awareness that the
British can somehow locate them even in the dark and in fact have been on to them from the outset
of the voyage. The kapitan has heard a rumour the British have very short wave “centimetre
radar” which can track them on the surface - the first intimation their war is unwinnable.
The experience of the voyage becomes unforgettably claustrophobic, with much of it filmed using
a steadicam so the viewpoint moves quickly with the crew up and down the boat as they go to action
stations. The crew’s sullen anger at circumstances and their refuge in vulgar humour are
a far cry from the dialogue of the old propaganda films. There’s a final bitter irony as
the sub finally makes it back home in time for Xmas, only to discover the war does not stop for
The Hunt For
Red October, 1990 film scripted by Larry Ferguson, Donald Stewart and John Milius from
the 1984 novel by Tom Clancy
1980s saw publication of a bestselling novel whose disclosure of submarine technical details
would alarm some in the US defence establishment, even though it was originally published by
the U.S. Naval Institute Press with insider details from specialist academic papers of the sort
USNIP usually published. In his first novel, the 1984 The Hunt For Red October, Tom Clancy (1947
– 2013) told the story of a massive hunt across the North Atlantic for a new Typhoon-class
Soviet sub whose officers were trying to defect to the West.
In 1998, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew’s Blind Man's Bluff, The Untold Story Of American
Submarine Espionage would add a note that USNIP was allowed to publish Clancy’s book for
propaganda reasons. The USN’s former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Watkins, explained
that "about two-thirds of the technical information in Clancy's novel is on target and
the rest is wrong, and that it typically overstates the US abilities....[the book] did us a service....The
Soviets kind of believed it, and we won the battle...."
The novel became a bestseller and launched Clancy as America’s top writer of a then relatively
new genre, the ‘techno thriller.’
A film version was at first rejected by the major studios on the grounds “the story was
too complicated to understand.”) A big-budget 135-minute film version, directed by John
McTiernan from a screenplay by Larry Ferguson, Donald Stewart and John Milius, was finally released
in 1990, with Sean Connery as the Lithuanian defector. (‘We shall shail this shubmarine
to frreedom’ was an impersonator’s plot-summary parody line.) Set in 1984 (as the
Cold War had officially ended by 1990), it provides a whole new look at Soviet-v-US cold-war
sub “brinkmanship” manoeuvres and its associated jargon (such as 'boomer' for a ballistic
missile sub and ‘Crazy Ivan’ for the Soviet Fleet’s practice of making unpredictable
turns when followed by a NATO sub). The film carries an opening (mock) disclaimer that
According to repeated statements by both Soviet and
American governments, nothing of what you are about to see ever happened.
A real such 1975 ship-takeover-attempt in the Baltic had prompted a massive sea search
by the Soviet navy and air force, though without the dramatic consequences of a major east-west
war alert which provide the drama in the novel. The vessel was not a sub but a missile frigate
sailing from Riga, the ringleader was not the captain but the political officer, and the plan
was not to defect to the west but to sail to Leningrad to broadcast on radio a call for the ageing
politburo types to be replaced with younger true believers in the communist cause. The Soviets
organised a massive search with their Baltic fleet and strafed and bombed the frigate, boarding
the ship in international waters. But the nearest western power, Sweden, decided not to report
the incident to NATO lest it reveal Sweden had the latest US radar system. The ringleader was
executed, and the other officers were dishonourably discharged. One surviving sailor later wrote
a book account. In the meantime, Tom Clancy, then an insurance salesman, read a 1982 research
study in the naval institute library about the hushed-up incident, and began working on his novel,
published two years later.
When the novel was filmed, the USN insisted on some script changes in return for cooperation,
providing a sub, aircraft carrier and other vessels. ‘Techno-thriller’ details include
a computerised monitoring systems including ocean-spanning sonar and an electronic chart table,
a silent propulsion system that is a plot point, a helicopter rendezvous at sea which shows the
static-electricity dangers of winching a man down, deep-sea navigation in an underwater canyon,
smart torpedoes (which can still be outsmarted), all against a double-bluff undersea chase which
CIA analyst Jack Ryan must resolve by boarding the Soviet sub Red Oktober via a minisub, for
a final shootout.
Further Info: The storyline's introductory feature page is here.
Storylines In Review 2016