More Great Submarine Movies

While writing “Alaaarm!” “Dive! Dive! Dive!”, a recent post sharing some of my favorite submarine movies, the list continued to grow. Here are some more noteworthy submarine movies worth watching.

British film Morning Departure (1950) directed by Roy Ward Baker, is a post war submarine film. It was released in the U.S. as Operation Disaster (don’t ask me why and don’t get me started on some of the ridiculous retitling for the US audience). This film has a great cast in John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Nigel Patrick, Bernard Lee to name just a few, and it is Michael Caine’s film debut as Teaboy. It is based on Kenneth Woollard’s stage play. The movie begins with a morning introduction of many of the crew members in their private lives as they ready to leave for their submarine, HMS Trojan for a routine mission. It was to be a one day test checking out a new ASDIC (a type of underwater sound detection system) mast. Almost immediately the sound man picks something up, small, and at first it cannot be seen through the periscope. When the World War II magnetic mine does come into view it is too late, in spite of quick evasive action the mine is triggered and destroys much of the ship which sinks to the bottom. The blast left only twelve survivors in a confined space. Their communications are out. Luckily their test involved meeting another sub who will know something is wrong when they don’t arrive and cannot be reached. Lieutenant Commander Armstrong (Mills) releases oil to the surface to help in pinpointing her location. Among the crew is a new member who has been shipped from one sub to another, Stoker Snipe played by Richard Attenborough. It soon becomes clear why he has been moved around, he almost immediately breaks under pressure. He signed up for submarine duty only for the extra pay. 

There are two escape hatches which can only be used once each by four men at a time. It was believed there were twelve breathing sets, but four were destroyed leaving eight in tact. Lieutenant Commander Armstrong must decide which which three men stay behind with him to await a much slower rescue operation. The first four are family men. The Captain gathers the eight remaining crew members and deals out cards, there is tie between Snipe and Marks (from the engine room) between who is part of the next four and who stays. Snipe gets the low card on the re-deal. He goes into such violent panic he has to be restrained. The next four men which includes Marks are gearing up to escape when Armstrong asks Marks if he will switch with Snipe feeling Snipe remaining on board could be a risk to the remaining members of the crew. Marks agrees. This kindness or recognition of Snipe’s claustrophobia is the beginning of a change. Snipe feigns a broken wrist, choosing to remain behind and here he becomes part of the crew. Possibly for the first time he feels he belongs to something. The waiting begins for the Captain and the three crew members. Rescue operations begin to hoist HMS Trojan, but this will take hours, perhaps days. First Lieutenant Manson has a malaria relapse, there is a chlorine leak, and up top a major storm confronts the rescue crew who must abandon rescue efforts for their own safety until the storm passes.

This film was almost not released. Just as filming finished, the HMS Truculent went down after a freak collision with a Swedish oil tanker, 64 men died as a result. Producers considered holding this film then wisely, I think, made the decision to release it with this prologue:

This film was completed before the tragic loss of H.M.S. Truculent, and earnest consideration has been given as to the desirability of presenting it so soon after this grievous disaster. The producers have decided to offer the film in the spirit in which it was made, as a tribute to the officers and men of H.M. Submarines, and to the Royal Navy of which they form a part.

IMDB Trivia, Operation Disaster

One of the most popular movies in the UK in 1955 was Ralph Thomas’s Above Us the Waves. This movie, based on actual events, is not only a submarine movie, it is a diving movie complete with British Commando frogmen. German battleship Tirpitz was deployed to Norway where she could attack supply convoys, her presence there kept valuable British ships tied up to keep watch on her, hoping to prevent an invasion of Norway. The British planned to attack the Tirpitz using frogmen controlling Chariot manned torpedoes. The first attempt was unsuccessful due to loss of the Chariots en route. They were short range so had to be transported within range of their target. The ship transporting the Chariots attached to its hull encountered rough weather and the Chariots broke loose and sank. The next attempt on Tirpitz was with untested X-Craft midget submarines, which were towed within range by a larger submarine. Tension mounts as a mine gets caught up in one of the tow lines and a sailor using his foot keeps the mine at bay until it luckily breaks free. The midgets then need to cut through submarine nets. Two of the subs are able to drop their explosives under the target but the suspense doesn’t end there as the mini-subs end up in trouble. Eventually British survivors are captured and in a show of mutual respect between men sent to war by and for their country, the Captain of the Terpitz salutes them as being brave men and orders Schnapps for them. Some of the original equipment was used in the movie and

An original member of the mini-sub operations, Commander Donald Fraser, who had been a Lieutenant at the time of the mission, acted as a Consultant and Advisor for the production.

IMDB Trivia, Above Us the Waves

If you’ve not seen it and enjoy submarine movies, or British war films, I recommend this one.,

Gray Lady Down (1978) David Greene, director, is less a war movie than a straight submarine suspense. It takes place during the Cold War. This is about how the men behave when disaster strikes, those directly effected and those trying to save their lives. While it has its flaws, this movie held me in suspense from beginning to end. The sub is returning from a successful shake-down cruise, the second in command is given a gold whistle as he will soon take command of the sub. The sub surfaces to a gray and foggy half light. Heading their way is a Norwegian freighter whose sonar has just failed to work. The sub sounds an alarm and maneuvers away as quickly as possible, the freighter also takes evasive action once the skipper realizes what is happening, but to no avail. The freighter runs over the sub, tearing open part of her hull. I found that the second in command loses his grip far too soon after the ramming and wonder how he reached the rank he did in the submarine service. This flaw is mitigated later in the film. Roughly half the crew were lost in the initial ramming and one  air purifier is out. The sub sank well below her specified depth and held her own for a time, but the clock is ticking. She is on a shelf prone to gravity slides, one slide covers her escape hatch completely so the planned rescue cannot happen without the intervention of an experimental little mini-sub named Snark. The inventor and captain of Snark and Snark herself prove indispensable in the rescue operation. Throughout this time, casualties are being looked after even as slide after slide rotates the ship, there is a leak at one of the sealed doors protecting the survivors from the sea. The leak is barely noticeable at first but is not lost on the crew. The leak gets worse, and worse. There were some delays in actions that I found unbelievable of highly trained seamen and rescue crews alike, yet all in all, I was kept in suspense and entertained.

U-455, le sous-marin disparu (2013) directed by Stéphane Bégoin, is a documentary that covers the discovery of a U-Boat found sunken at about 400 feet near Genoa in the Mediterranean. I include it here because it pairs well will Das Boot (my all time favorite). First it talks about the U-Boats in the Mediterranean, and the dangers of running through the Straights of Gibraltar, the only way in or out. This was the very setting for Das Boot’s U-96 and her crew. Seeing the still photos and film from U-455 it is striking how well cast, costumed, and set Das Boot is.

U-455 was discovered in 2008. Initially the identity of the German U-boat was unknown. This documentary covers the efforts to study and eventually identify her. She was sunk on 5 April 1944. The stern was blown apart, very likely by a mine. Ironically, it was probably a German mine.

From Sept 1941 to May of 1944 Germany managed to send 62 U-boats into the Mediterranean. All these boats had to navigate the dreaded British-controlled Straits of Gibraltar where 9 U-boats where sunk while attempting passage and 10 more had to break of their run due to damages. No U-boats ever made it back into the Atlantic and all were either sunk in battle or scuttled by their own crews.

U-boat War in the Mediterranean

This is an interesting documentary with amazing film footage from the time period. Two men who were on the crew of the U-455 were still alive and willing to be interviewed. These men survived as they were both sent to officer training just before her last mission. Looking in their eyes as they spoke and remembered affirms that at heart most submariners are the same—some of the photographs and stories could just as easily been about the crew of a US sub. One of the men was taken down in a Comex submersible to view the wreck. “My best friend is in there.” This was the most moving scene of the documentary. 

Almost a Submarine Movie

There are two movies that didn’t really “fit” with the others, however, I feel compelled to include them. I loosely consider them “submarine” movies and want to share them. One is a comedy, one is a classic adventure I’m betting you’ve all seen, but don’t think of when you think “submarine movie.”

There are several submarine movies, both swell and swill, that are comedies. I’m only highlighting one because it is such a delightful movie and an easy and fun one to re-watch. It is Norman Jewison’s 1966 poke at the Cold War, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966).  Rather than taking place largely underwater, inside a submarine, this movie takes place largely on land. The movie does begin with an interior shot of the sub, crew and captain. The captain, played by Theodore Bikel, wants a closer look at the US Unfortunately, he runs the sub aground near a quaint little vacation island in New England. They send a crew ashore to “borrow” a power boat to help haul the sub off the sandbar. The villagers they encounter one by one assume they have been invaded. Let the fun begin! One of my favorite lines delivered by Russian crew is simply, “Emehrgancy! Everybody to get from street!” The cast here is amazing and adept at wit, I mean, Jonathan Winters? Carl Reiner? The cast also includes Eva Marie Saint and in his introduction to film audiences, Alan Arkin, a stage actor in a wonderfully fun debut role.

The large ensemble cast and zany plotting are clearly inspired by the success of Stanley Kramer’s frenzied satire of greed and corruption, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). But critics at the time noted that this movie had much more fully developed and sympathetic characters and so was able to achieve its comic aims with more narrative integrity without losing any of the hilarity. As a result, it has much of the feel of the classic 1940s satires created by Preston Sturges. The New York Times called it “a rousingly funny – and perceptive – motion picture about a desperately unfunny world situation…The cold war has owed us all a good laugh for a long, long time.

TCM Film Article, “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”
Rob Nixon

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Steven Spielberg, is a favorite adventure movie of mine. This movie just gets better and better with the appearance of a German U-Boat and the German U-boat pens (which were real). The sub is the vehicle for Indy to follow and ultimately retrieve the ark. The care and attention to detail and accuracy for the brief submarine scenes in Raiders, come from director Steven Spielberg. Incidentally he used the same U-Boat model created for Das Boot.

The models used for the German U-boat were rented from the production company that was making Das Boot (1981) in the same area at the time.

The submarine pen on the island where the Ark is taken and finally opened is not a set, but in fact an actual German U-Boat pen left over from World War II in La Rochelle, France. Producer Robert Watts was so amazed at how preserved the submarine pen was (even down to the graffiti on the walls) that he described it as “an actual set in existence.

IMDB Trivia, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

The story goes that one day when the submarine model had been rented to the Raiders crew, no one had told the Das Boot who arrived to work, but found no set to work with. What a surprise, but it obviously all worked out in the end resulting in two of my favorite movies. I love the idea they shared this set.

Here are some pretty comprehensive lists of submarine movies of all types:

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