Top 10 Films where Submarines get a Starring Role

The submarine has provided the perfect location for many great movies from K19: The Widowmaker & Crimson Tide to Das Boot. Mark Fraser takes a look at his favourites…

Torpedoes, periscopes, sweaty claustrophobia, rigid command procedures, heated confrontations that may lead to nuclear catastrophe and radars that emit sonar blips – a submarine movie has them all. In this top 10 list, Mark Fraser takes a look at his favourite films where submarines play a central role.

10. 1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)

1941_john-belushi_steven-spielbergDirector Spielberg starts the film with a jokey homage to his 1975 blockbuster Jaws when a naked blond woman swimming off the Californian coast finds herself being lifted from the water by the periscope of a marauding Japanese submarine. Although she ends up getting away after the vessel submerges, Slim Pickens is not so lucky later on in the movie when he is kidnapped by the crew – a situation which results in some not-so-hilarious onboard hijinx involving himself, sub commander Toshiro Mifune and uptight German observer Christopher Lee. According to information gleaned from the web, the swimmer is Denise Chesire, who played Susan Backlinie’s double in Jaws.

9. The Abyss (James Cameron, 1989)

the-abyss_james-cameron_filmA fatal accident involving a US nuclear submarine and a previously-unseen underwater alien life form almost triggers Armageddon. This bang of an opening – arguably the best in all of Cameron’s oeuvre – sets in motion one of the great adventure movies of the late 1980s.

8. Hellcats of the Navy (Nathan Juran, 1957)

hellcats-of-the-navy_filmOfficial Ronald Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, via a fictional alter ego, described this as “a turkey so many feathered it practically squawked off the screen”. Reagan himself called it a “might have been” in his first autobiography, complaining that the studio behind the movie (Columbia) “was more in love with the budget than the script”. Sorry to say it, but no amount of word care or nurturing could have saved this one from disappearing into the B-grade wilderness. Nevertheless, it was the only film Dutch and his second wife Nancy made together; plus the future US president delivers a watchable performance as the middle-aged, stoic, but partly renegade World War II naval captain who puts his money where his mouth is when, in an act of inexplicable bravery, he takes it upon himself to untangle the propeller of his submarine in Japanese-infested waters.

7. Murphy’s War (Peter Yates, 1971)

murphys-war_peter-otoole_filmThe survivor of a cowardly and cold blooded U-boat merchant ship massacre in the dying hours of World War II (Peter O’Toole) doggedly seeks revenge on the submarine’s captain (Horst Janson) and his crew, who are hanging around somewhere along the coast of Venezuela. As with Das Boot (see below) there are plenty of tense and sweaty moments for the submerged Nazis as they try to outwit their obsessed assailant who, in this instance, continues with his quest despite the fact the war has just ended. Yates’ handling of the film’s off-beat ending is simple, but nevertheless effective.

6. Gray Lady Down (David Greene, 1978)

gray-lady-down_1978_filmCharlton Heston’s nuclear sub runs into trouble on the bottom of the ocean; David Carradine and Ned Beatty try to rescue it. Truly typical of the late 1970s Hollywood disaster blockbuster movie – a big idea, a superhero leading man, an interesting cast, but ultimately just a bit too talky and melodramatic; plus a wee bit dull to boot. The film’s saving grace is its finale, at which point you became thankful that Carradine is around.

5. K-19: The Widowmaker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2002)

k19-widowmaker_filmTwo big problems with this one – at the end of the day it’s pretty much character driven and, secondly, we all know what the outcome will be (nuclear disaster is avoided). Plus Harrison Ford isn’t convincing enough as a leading Russian military man. Luckily Liam Neeson is more fun to watch. Additionally, it’s probably about 10 minutes longer than it probably should be.

4. Ice Station Zebra (John Sturges, 1968)

ice-station-zebra_filmAlong with Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan and Jim Brown, the submarine is one of the leading stars of this Cold War nonsense adapted from a novel by Alistair McLean about the race to retrieve a hidden roll of spy film at a burnt out Arctic military base. Apparently Howard Hughes used to watch this all the time when he was holed up in a Las Vegas hotel room growing his fingernails and fighting off germs. Fortunately most filmgoers don’t share these proclivities – a DVD viewing once every 8-10 years is fine.

3. On The Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959)

on_the_beach_stanley-kramer-filmThe crew of the US submarine Sawfish venture out from Melbourne, Australia, after an atomic World War III to see if there is any uncontaminated air left in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately, there isn’t. A somewhat somber account of the end of the world wherein the highlights are the Sawfish’s visit to the deserted San Francisco harbour and a moment which doesn’t involve a submarine – that being the last ever grand prix, when many of the drivers defiantly throw caution to the approaching poisonous wind.

2. Crimson Tide (Tony Scott, 1995)

crimson_tide_gene-hackman-denzel-washingtonThe Cold War is the worst it’s been since the Cuban Missile Crisis when the two leading officers of the Alabama seriously fallout over an ambiguous order from HQ that could result in shooting off a few big ones. As the captain, Gene Hackman is no Reagan – he may be full of integrity, but he’s as tough as nails with a vicious megalomaniac streak to boot (although, having said that, there’s no way he would have donned a deep sea diving suit like Dutch to untangle the propeller). A handsome looking and well-acted film that is not as choppy as some of Scott’s later stuff. Plus, in some ways, it resembles another movie which arguably should have been on this list – James B Harris’ 1965 The Bedford Incident starring Richard Widmark and Sydney Poitier.

1. Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981)

das-boot_submarine_movieTechnically this possibly shouldn’t count as it was originally made as a miniseries for German television. However, an exception could be made on this occasion given it received a theatrical run in the early 1980s and was then re-released for the cinema over a decade later in the form of a longer director’s cut. A tense and well acted war movie, Das Boot ends up being both a powerful anti-war statement and a film where the Nazis get treated with quite a bit of sympathy.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser.

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Seth Imis Reply

    1941 & K-19 beat the likes of The Enemy Below and Hunt For Red October?

  2. Dan Reply

    I have a soft spot for David Twohy’s 2002 horror film Below which mixes the paranormal with a World War II setting. It isn’t often ghosts and WWII have worked together but these elements within the claustrophobic interior of a submarine work really well. Nice performances from the dependable Bruce Greenwood and the under-appreciated Olivia Williams help too.

    I also love U-571. Of course it has the jingoistic trappings of typical gun-ho Hollywood action-adventures but I enjoy it for what it is – a really well orchestrated thriller that uses the submarine setting almost perfectly. There are aspects of U-571 (especially when viewed with good surround sound or in a cinema) that rival Das Boot for claustrophobic, white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat thrills.

  3. Dan Heaton Reply

    I’m pretty surprised that U-571 wasn’t on this list, especially since a terrible movie like 1941 made it. Hunt for Red October also should be right near the top. Good call with On the Beach.

    • ruth Reply

      I’m with Dan on Hunt for Red October and On the Beach, the latter is quite a heartbreaking doomsday film with barely any explosion in sight. It’s like the opposite of Emmerich’s bombastic doomsday movies. I do love The Abyss though.

  4. Mark Reply

    Fair calls. However …

    U-571 is a undeniably a handsome looking film but, as Dan said, it is jingoistic. Now that might seem a bit steep coming from someone who has included a Dutch and Nancy WWII film in his list. Nevertheless, at least in Hellcats …. the Americans were fighting the Japanese, not stealing the Brit’s glory in the European theatre. Also, the director’s dismissive treatment of the death of the guy in the bilge WHO SAVES EVERYONE was pretty disgraceful. It was like in 2012 when the demise of the second hubby was sort of forgotten by Cusack, his ex and the kids despite the fact he was the only one who could FLY A PLANE.

    Red October … as much as I was niggled by Ford’s portrayal of a Ruskie, Connery’s Scottish brogue was kinda akin to Micheal Caine’s cockney accent in The Eagle Has Landed. Plus I prefer Liam Neeson to beefy Baldwin. Still, you’re not wrong …. Red October is a much more taunt and tighter film.

    As for 1941, the submarine pretty much outacted most of the cast, thus giving it a starring role. Surely that deserves some kudos.

    Hate to admit it, but I haven’t seen The Enemy Below.

    I enjoyed the feedback …

  5. Evan Crean Reply

    Das Boot is my favorite submarine flick too. It’s one of those three hour films that just flies by because it’s so tense. I agree that Ford is pretty awful as a Russian in K-19. Very surprised that Hunt for Red October didn’t make the list, although I agree with whoever mentioned that Connery’s accent in that is as bad as Ford’s in K-19. U-571 is also great. Perhaps the biggest surprise? No Down Periscope! That’s a classic haha.

  6. Dan Grant Reply

    Crimson Tide is one of my favourite films so it’s good to see it ranked so high here. I unfortunately haven’t seen many films on this list so I can’t really comment. Das Boot is sensational, however.

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