Up periscope: a celebration of submarine cinema

I love a good submarine film. The claustrophobia of the confined setting, the tensions arising from a group of people having to co-exist and operate in a completely unnatural, extremely dangerous environment, is all pretty much guaranteed to hook me in every time.

I was reminded of this while I was watched the 2014 thriller Black Sea on the weekend. A hard as nails, embittered Scottish deep sea salvage expert, Robinson, (Jude Law), takes a job with a shadowy backer, to salvage hundreds of millions of dollars of gold rumoured to be in a sunken Nazi U-boat sitting on the bottom of the Black Sea. He has at his disposal a surplus communist era Russian submarine and recruits a fractious crew of washed up seafarers, half of whom are Russian because they are the only ones who know how to properly operate the vessel.

I don’t know why this film passed me by when it first came out but it ticked virtually every box on the my list of requirements for a good submarine film. The crew have to contend with a never ending series of life threatening technical and nautical challenges. Within the narrow confines of the aged submarine, the tensions between crew members ratchet up along ethnic grounds and how they will split up the gold. If they can find it. Meanwhile, above them is the Russian navy, which wants the gold for itself.

I have not paid a lot of attention to Law’s on-screen career, but at some point he obviously transitioned from the good looking, smooth taking lad with a slightly mischievous air about him, who seemed to be in every British film in the 1990s, into someone capable of playing much harder, darker roles. Dark Sea also boasts great turns from Scoot McNairy, as the sleazy on board emissary of the missions shadowy backer, and Ben Mendelsohn, who channels his character of Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody from 2010’s Animal Kingdom.

Here’s eight other great submarine films.

The Damned (1947)

French director, Rene Clement’s movie seems to have been fairly much forgotten, which is a pity because not only does it offer a completely different spin on the submarine film, it also breaks with their for the most part exclusively male cast make up. Set at the end of World War II, the story focuses on a group of wealthy and influential Nazi’s and their assortment of loathsome, opportunistic sympathisers and collaborators, who are fleeing Germany aboard a submarine for what they hope will be the safety of South America. There is plenty of political, psychological and sexual tension and skullduggery as the tenuous ties that bind the group together start to unravel.

Hell and High Water (1954)

The words ‘Sam Fuller directed submarine thriller’ should be enough to get you on board with this one. If you want slightly more detail, a former US submarine commander, Adam Jones (Richard Widmark), is offered a large amount of money by a secretive scientific organisation to command a World War II era Japanese submarine and use it to shadow a communist Chinese freighter which is believed to be connected with an attempt by Peking to develop its own nuclear capability (China didn’t get the bomb until the early 1960s). Worth it alone for the submarine on submarine ramming scene. This was one of two anti-nuclear themed films involving submarines that Widmark starred in. The other, The Bedford Incident (1965), with Sidney Poitier, is also worth tracking down.

Run Silent, Run Deep (1957)

Run Silent, Run Deep, directed by Robert Wise, is my pick of the many submarine films set during World war II that appeared in the 1950s and the 1960s. The story takes place on an American sub in the Pacific and focuses on the clash of wills between the craft’s hard charging commander, ‘Rich’ Richardson (Clark Gable), and his second in command, lieutenant Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster). Richardson has been given a second chance to command a submarine after losing last vessel in combat and he intends to make the most of it, even if it means threatening the lives of all those under his command.

On the Beach (1959)

Stanley Kramer’s film is best known as a story about the end of the world, told from the perspective of a collection of people in Melbourne (my home town) who are waiting for the deadly fallout from an unspecified global nuclear conflict in the northern hemisphere to reach them. But it also boasts some great scenes about the American submarine, USS Sawfish, commended by Captain Dwight Towers, Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner’s romantic interest in the film. Particularly memorable is the plot line in which the sub is dispatched to find the source of a morse code signal emanating somewhere from the west coast of the United States.

Assault on a Queen (1966)

Another little know submarine flick that deserves much more love than it gets. Based on a novel by Jack Finney and with a screenplay by Twilight Zone’s Rod Sirling, the story concerns a group of opportunistic treasure hunters, led by Mark Brittain (Frank Sinatra), who hatch a plan to use a recovered Nazi U-boat to rob the cruise-liner, RMS Queen Mary. There is a lot to like about this movie, particularly the cast. In addition to Sinatra, who imbues the role with the carefree lounge lizard vibe that was the default mode in nearly every film he made in the second half of the 1960s, it includes Errol John, Anthony Franciosa, Alf Kjellin and Italian actress, Virna Lisi, as the film’s love interest.

Ice Stations Zebra (1968)

Based on a novel by Alistair Maclean, an American nuclear submarine, USS Tigerfish, is dispatched to the North Pole, ostensibly with the mission of rescuing the inhabitants of a remote British ice station, but actually to recover an experimental satellite camera that has filmed the locations of American and Russian missile bases. As the sub races against time to beat the Soviets to the base, it becomes clear there is a traitor on board who is intent on thwarting the Tigerfish’s mission. A great Cold War espionage thriller, despite its longer than necessary running time. It also has a cast to die for, including Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan, Jim Brown and Rock Hudson, as the sub’s commander. Hudson is in particular fine form in what was one of decided several more hard boiled films he made the second half of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Das Boot (1981)

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, this film, set about a German U-boat, must surely rate as the most nail biting, realistic cinematic depiction of submarine warfare in World War II. The incredible boredom of life aboard the cramped confines of the submarine is brilliantly contrasted with brief, terrifying and potentially lethal flashes of action (don’t go with the incredibly long director’s cut of this film, which totally dissipates the excitment and tension). The scene in which the U-boat crew are shadowed by British warships after attacking a convoy and face the potential of being trapped at the bottom of the ocean after their U-boar is damaged are completely terrifying. The 2018 television reboot of this films is also well worth your time.

U-571 (2000)

An American submarine crew is ordered to attack and capture a German U-boat in order to secure its Enigma cipher machine. Getting on board the German U-boat is one thing. What happens when they are trapped in the German sub and have to pilot it back home in order to deliver the code breaking machine? Don’t expect any deep themes in U-571, it’s just a satisfying thriller with a great cast, including Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi.


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