Last time, I discussed a brief episode I had inside an old Soviet submarine that was docked as a tourist trap in Hamburg, Germany. While my experience taught me the meaning of the term claustrophobic, it has not quelled my thirst for submarine movies. In fact, it has given me a new love and understanding of the entire genre. These films combine all the best elements of war movies, spy movies, and apocalypse movies. As a bonus, at least one side of the match is normally the Soviets or the Nazis.
Submarine movies are choc full of mutinies. Take Crimson Tide: this time a mutiny takes place aboard a nuclear submarine. Its star-studded cast includes Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, and even the film debut of Ryan Phillippe. The crew of the USS Alabama are put on high alert as a band of old Stalinist rebels have taken hold of a nuclear missile silo in Russia, as well as a few attack submarines, and then threaten a missile launch at the United States. Harvard grad and closet pacifist, First Officer (Washington) takes on old-timey captain of the boat (Hackman) in a duel that holds the fate of the world in its hands (when the order comes in authorizing the release of nuclear weapons).
We see another mutinous plot combined with the threat of apocalypse in K-19: The Widowmaker, which is inspired by the true story of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear powered submarine. In this film directed by Kathryn Bigalow (Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), fatal accidents and mechanical failures plague a hastily built boat and a worrying crew. The nuclear reactor has a malfunction, and unless the crew can fix the coolant leak, the crippled ship will become an atom bomb. This will destroy a NATO base and US destroyer nearby, which, as it’s set in 1961, would be the only light needed to send the very hot Cold War into a nuclear holocaust. The ship was never fitted with radiation suits, meaning those sent into the reactor room die horribly from radiation sickness. In fact, the entire ship is irradiated. Yet Captain Harrison Ford will not submit to First Officer Liam Neeson’s request of scuttling the ship or requesting help from the Americans. Mutiny and apocalypse! The true story of the submarine K-19, kept secret until Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union, records that all eight sailors sent in to fix the reactor room died of radiation poisoning within a few days. Within the next two years, fourteen more would follow. The other 117 onboard would be plagued with illness for the rest of their lives due to exposure to high levels of radiation. My only real complaint about the movie is that the actors all speak English with a Russian accent, which makes absolutely no sense.
Other great submarine movies include U-571, starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, and Harvey Keitel. This film follows the quest to turn the tide of the WWII in favor of the allies by capturing the famous Enigma typewriter, a codifying keyboard used by the Nazis to encrypt messages.
Speaking of Germans, how can we forget the 1981 classic, Das Boot. Directed by Wolfgang Peterson, Das Boot follows shows WWII from the perspective of a German periscope. The famous German U-boats, or Unterseeboot (literally “undersea boat”), dogged English and American ships in the Atlantic, and in this film (the theatrical cut is 149 minutes, but other cuts are close to five hours long) we follow one crew through the thunderous silence of avoiding detection and depth charges, the explosive barrels sent to the deep from the Allied ships above.
But, my favorite submarine movie is The Hunt For Red October, a story based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name about a new Soviet submarine that with a new, ultra quiet propulsion system could sneak into the Hudson River and destroy America with no warning or chance at retaliation—a “first strike weapon.” Sean Connery plays Captain Marko Ramius who attempts to turn the Red October, the new submarine, over to the Americans. Alec Baldwin plays Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who makes contact with the Russian captain against the efforts of his skeptical superiors. The script is a masterpiece and the acting is superb. By a wide margin, I can safely say that I have seen The Hunt for Red October more times than any other film of any genre.
Jeffrey Jones (you know him as Principal Edward Rooney) plays Skip Tyler, a retired sub captain turned shipbuilder who advises Jack Ryan on smuggled pictures of the Red October. Speaking on the nature of ballistic submarines he says, “When I was twelve, I helped my Daddy build a bomb shelter in our basement, because some damn fool parked a dozen warheads ninety miles off the coast of Florida. This thing [the Red October] could park a coupla’ hundred warheads off Washington or New York and no one would know anything about it until it was all over.” I think this is what I find so gosh darn alluring about submarines and their Hollywood imitations. Of course, a submarine movie need not be so grave (see Down Periscope), but generally their drama comes from the fact that their setting and content is so deadly serious.
I remember in seventh grade, my science teacher was telling the class about nuclear weapons and she mentioned the US submarine fleet having the capacity of destroying most of the world’s major cities. We have eighteen Ohio-class submarines and each carries twenty-four nuclear warheads (432 total, if my math and sources are correct). One of my classmates had a panic attack and her mother was called in to feed her some sedatives.
Of all the films I’ve mentioned, Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October should be on everyone’s Instant Queue, although only the latter is currently available on Netflix. I can’t really square my healthy obsession with these films with the fact that I couldn’t muster five minutes in even a museumed version of one of these boats. But, I recommend you try all of the above and see if you don’t sink to the hull crushing depths of my sub-mania.