A cleverly scripted submarine thriller which pits Denzel Washington’s erudite by-the-book executive officer against Gene Hackman’s old school authoritarian captain in the midst of a nuclear missile crisis. Tony Scott brings his usual big, bold, and brash style to the action whether it comes in the form of the two command officers verbally tearing into one another or in the form of their supporters amongst the crew physically doing likewise. The set design is pitch perfect and complemented wonderfully by Scott’s trademark moody lighting. Sure, some of the key moments are rammed down out throats in a manner that works contrary to his aims but, for the most part, this is Scott at his most restrained. And with a cast like this, he could afford to be. Hackman is at his snarling best while Washington provides the ideal counterweight: cool, considered, and unflappable. What sets Crimson Tide apart from the glut of similar action thrillers, however, is its perceptively drawn screenplay which works simultaneously and figuratively to reflect the moral ambiguity and outright confusion of a nuclear standoff. From the smirkingly camouflaged conversations regarding the origin of Lipizzan horses to the more overt discussions of the Hiroshima bombing, Michael Schiffer’s adaptation of Richard P. Henrick’s story is strewn with logical land-mines and moral quicksand (word has it Quentin Tarantino was even brought in by his ardent fan Tony Scott to zest it up in places). So much so that by the time the credits roll, you’ll be reprimanding yourself for not giving Scott enough credit to begin with.
Rating: The Good – 84.5 Genre: War Duration: 149mins Director: Wolfgang Peterson Stars: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer,
Wolfgang Peterson’s account of life aboard one of Germany’s infamous WWII U-boats provides the perfect metaphor for the confusion of war. Jürgen Prochnow plays the submarine’s captain charged with attacking the heavily protected Allied convoys in the Atlantic while contending with the often uninformed orders of his fleet command. Director Wolfgang Peterson wonderfully creates the sense of claustrophobia that came with being cooped up in such small quarters for extended periods of time. He is equally adept at using that claustrophobia to augment the boredom of the quieter scenes and the terror of the battle sequences as the boat dives ever deeper to avoid the depth charges of the Allied battle cruisers circling above. The release of that mental and physical pressure is also spectacularly captured on the occasions when the U-boat surfaces and Prochnow leads his boat through the waves from the top of his conning tower to Klaus Doldinger’s magnificent score. All this makes Das Boot a unique film going experience and one that stays with you long after seeing it.
Rating: The Good – 83.8 Genre: War Duration: 98 mins Director: Dick Powell Stars: Robert Mitchum, Curd Jürgens, David Hedison
Actor Dick Powell stepped behind the camera to serve up this timeless and expertly crafted WWII naval drama about two captains engaged in a battle of wits above and below the water respectively. Robert Mitchum plays the captain of the US destroyer who is supposed to be convalescing on an easy assignment after spending weeks adrift in the North Atlantic after his previous ship had been sunk. However, after unexpectedly encountering a German U-boat, he enters into a compelling game of cat and mouse with a German counterpart who shares every bit of his skill and acumen.
Mitchum gives a more reserved performance than his usual star vehicles offer but, ever the consummate movie star, his screen presence still works a treat. Mitchum belonged to that small group of stars who owned the camera when it was on him and The Enemy Below is no different. Curd Jürgens is equally good as the war-weary U-boat commander and the two do a fine job in playing off each other as mutually respecting opponents. Powell deserves a lot of credit too as he constructs one immense torpedo and depth-charge laden battle sequence after another. The photography is splendid whether above or below the water and Powell’s use of sound particularly in the underwater sequences is inspired. He also strikes a composed balance between the taut and quiet moments, efficiently using the latter segments to flesh out the personalities of the various support players.
However, it is Wendell Mayes’ adaptation of D.A. Rayner’s novel which provides the finishing touch to this epic because, without a doubt, the standout strength of this movie is the cleverness of the tactical and mental interchanges shared between the two captains. It’s in these moments that each of this film’s components come together so seamlessly to produce the type of spellbinding submarine action that has really only been since equalled by McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October, if at all.
Rating: The Good – 76.8 Genre: Action, Thriller Duration: 134 mins Director: John McTiernan Stars: Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn
John McTiernan was the undisputed daddy of action directors in the late 80′s to early 90′s and The Hunt for Red October shows exactly why. Set in 1984, the original adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” novels has Alec Baldwin playing the CIA field analyst who gets wind of a new type of Soviet submarine (the “Red October”) and heads off to Washington to report his suspicions. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain a distinguished Soviet submarine commander Ramius (Sean Connery) ignores the orders of his superiors and takes the new submarine straight for US waters. Ryan is charged with determining if Ramius is intending to attack or defect before the US navy is forced to blow him out of the water. McTiernan doesn’t hang around and before you know it Ryan is being helicoptered onto an aircraft carrier in the middle of the stormy Atlantic and so begins a nail-biting adventure that traverses every corner of that ocean and involves some of the very best naval battles you could wish to see (kudos to legendary action cinematographer Jan DeBont). The tension is handled perfectly by McTiernan and the 134 minutes never lag nor get confusing even though the action is relentlessly switching between three different submarines, an aircraft carrier, a battle cruiser, sonar planes, helicopters, Moscow, and Washington. The impressive cast is uniformly superb and in addition to the excellent turns from the two leads, Scott Glenn, Sam Neil, and James Earl Jones do particularly well in supporting roles. However, the real star is McTiernan, who strikes the perfect balance between writing and action and in sequence after sequence uses the claustrophobic atmosphere to create a permeating tension. Just check out that cat-and-mouse scene wherein Bart Mancuso’s (Scott Glenn) US Dallas silently stalks the Red October as Ramius explains to his first officer (Neil) his perspective on the modern world. Timeless.
Rating: The Good – 67.6 Genre: War Duration: 104 mins Director: Michael Powell Stars: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Richard George
Ahh, WWII propaganda films! There’s nothing like them. The partly humorous/partly earnest manner in which the Germans and their “confused” ideologies are dismissed with a moral lesson or two and then a swift kick up the arse by a self-proclaimed champion (or champions) of the free world. Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel counts as one of the more romping and expansive given it follows the trials and tribulations of six U-boat sailors who are left stranded on the north east Canadian coast and have to work their way across the country in an attempt to secure passage to the then neutral USA.
Eric Portman is the Hitler cheering model A nazi who follows the teaching of Mein Kampf to the letter and has nothing but contempt for what he sees as decadent western customs and attitudes. His rabble consists of a couple more true believers and some working men soldiers who find much to admire in the ways of the various settlements they encounter. Each encounter provides the pretext to consider the moral, political, geographical, and economic implications of the war from the Canadian’s perspective and for this reason alone, it’s quite original amongst these types of films. Some of the encounters are dealt with a deft hand like the way in which the Nazi ideals conflict with the community of Hutterites who work for each other and renounce the hatred which has torn Europe apart. Others are a little more ham fisted but eminently enjoyable in a rousing way – like Leslie Howard’s foppish but adventuresome author who hands out a damn good thrashing with the words “that’s for Matisse, that’s for Picasso, and that’s for democracy!”.
The sprawling manhunt (initiated by the Canadian authorities) interleaved with these unique encounters gives this film a high energy which makes it very easy to get lost in. Furthermore, Powell manages to give each of them just the right time to play in and out so that the audience isn’t left feeling short-changed or drained. The actors playing the flowery characters who the Germans bump into (and quite often bump off) are also of top quality with the aforementioned Howard and a very young Lawrence Olivier (as a jaunty French-Canadian trapper) shining in their slightly overcooked roles. Portman plays a relatively difficult role with enough deprecation of his character to allow the audience feel comfortable following a bunch of flag waving Nazis run roughshod through Canadian communities for two hours.
49th Parallel deserves some credit for this last factor too for there are few films from any era (especially that one) daring enough to at least consider how the Nazis rationalised their way to an all out quest for domination. So watch it for the breezy boisterousness of the most outlandish propaganda films, a boisterousness that (like in the best of those films) is tempered by the underlying seriousness of the premise.
Cold war drama starring Sidney Poitier as a journalist commissioned to do a story on the US Bedford, a destroyer which under the stern leadership of its task master captain has made a name for itself as a crack soviet sub-hunter. The film begins with Poitier being helicoptered on board in the middle of a dangerous pursuit along with the ship’s new doctor played by Martin Balsam. They soon learn that the only law on this ship is the captain’s and that his fanaticism has bred an elite but tightly wound crew. As Poitier gets to know his man and as Balsam attempts to fit in with the ship’s ultra-modern methods, the Bedford gets embroiled in a dangerous game with its latest quarry, a soviet sub which has illegally entered Greenland’s waters.
Poitier and Balsam are their usual tremendous selves but The Bedford Incident is all about Richard Widmark’s emphatic turn as the insatiable but paranoid Captain Finlander. Through James Poe’s taut screenplay and Widmark’s presence, his character sets the tone so completely that nearly every scene, even when he’s not present, is coloured by him. Echoes of Herman Melville’s Ahab ring louder and louder as Finlander provokes and threatens the soviet sub up and down the coast of Greenland to the increasing dismay and fear of the ship’s recent arrivals and eventually the crew itself.
The Bedford Incident is a cracking high tension representative of an always intriguing genre. The action is much more contained than the traditional WWII naval drama. This is partly due to the fact that the production had less help from the US military in terms of equipment and vehicle provision but mostly because the terseness of the story called for it. This is a film about obsession and the futile attempts of those observing to make sense of it or even stop it. It doesn’t crawl inside the head of the compelled captain but like Moby Dick, it examines it from the point of view of the incredulous onlookers. In this manner, The Bedford Incident becomes a streamlined reflection of the wider anxieties of the times as the governments of two superpowers went head to head in a dangerously deadlocked cold combat to the exasperation of the watching world.
The hermetic tension created to serve these ends works perfectly on a cinematic level too as it hones the already chilling subject matter to a fine point. It’s not the most technically accomplished war film as most of the action is shot in a studio but it makes clever use of what it does offer. However, even if it didn’t, the quality of the drama and the pay-off of its remarkable ending would easily negate such concerns.