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)
Director 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)
A 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)
Official 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)
The 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)
Charlton 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)
Two 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)
Along 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)
The 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)
The 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)
Technically 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.