Saturday, September 28, 2013


                If you want to see every WWII submarine movie wrapped into one, you should watch “U-571” and you will be an expert on the subgenre.  Released in 2000, the screenwriters must have thought the time was right for a summary of all the clichés that had accumulated in this type of war film since the first WWII sub movie came out during the war.  It was directed by Jonathan Mostow who wrote the story and was one of the screenwriters.  The film was shot in the Mediterranean near Malta and Rome.  It did pretty well at the box office and with the American critics (we’ll talk about the British critics later).  It won the Academy Award for Sound Editing.

Cliché ahead!
                The movie begins with a crawl informing us that it is 1942 and u-boats are threatening to cut the Atlantic supply lines.  It essential that the German naval code be broken and that means stealing an Enigma machine.  One becomes available when U-571 sinks a cargo ship, but gets damaged by the subsequent depth charging and signals for a supply/repair sub.  The SOS is intercepted and a special mission is planned to take the u-boat and thus acquire an Enigma machine.  Meanwhile the sub resurfaces and the captain orders the machine-gunning of survivors from the cargo ship.  He is an evil Nazi.

                The obsolescent S-33 is given the task.  4  It is disguised to pass for the supply u-boat and a special operative named Maj. Coonan (David Keith) is added to lead the boarding party.  The captain of the sub is Lt. Commander Dahlgren (Bill Paxton).  There is a command conflict because he squelched his exec Lt. Tyler’s (Matthew McConaughey) promotion because he believes Tyler cares too much about the crew and would not be willing to sacrifice lives.  1

                The S-33 arrives at the site of U-571 on a dark, rainy night.  Coonan and his boarders are disguised as German sailors.  He takes the sonar man, the executive officer, the chief of the boat, and the radio man with him.  (You know, all the essential personnel that Dahlgren can’t afford to lose.)  The capture of the u-boat goes smoothly.  Just kidding.  The taking of the u-boat is action-packed and well-staged.  The Enigma machine (an actual one) is acquired.  Ensign Larson is killed because he wrote a letter to his new wife and had a portrait of her.  (Not just a sub cliché.)  The boarding team is headed back to the S-33 when the real supply u-boat arrives and without bothering to identify either sub, puts a torpedo into the S-33.  It blows up real good.  Tyler and the surviving boarders return to U-571 and he dives the boat as Dahlgren urges him to be a man and sacrifice his floating comrades.  3 Tough way to gain a job referral.

What's that black dude doing outside the galley?
                Tyler and his intrepid band are able to operate the u-boat and win an underwater duel with the German boat that includes a torpedo that scrapes the side of U-571.  You don’t get any closer than that.  Tyler resurfaces to look for survivors and they pick up two – the black mess mate  7  and the German captain masquerading as an ordinary seaman.  Tyler has a little trouble adjusting to Dahlgren’s admonition that a good captain has to be a horse’s ass.  Seaman Mazzola (Erik Palladino) questions Tyler’s authority and encourages firing on an ME-109 that is scoping them out.  Don’t ask what a short range fighter is doing in the middle of the Atlantic because then you will have to ask what that German destroyer is doing out there.

What's that ME-109 doing
in the middle of the Atlantic?
                They take out the German destroyers radio antenna with an incredibly accurate deck gun shot and then dive under the ship missing the keel by inches (at least they didn’t scrape by).  Here comes the depth charging.  This is one of the best of this trope.  Intense with good effects.  We get to know all their facial features.  It’s quality plus quantity as the Germans drop about eighty explosives and at one point about twenty explode in a ten second span.  Many of them right alongside the hull.  They are forced down below “hull crush depth”, but that German engineering belies that depth gauge.  2  That doesn’t mean we don’t get leaks and rivets popping to make us wonder.  To throw off the Germans, Tyler has the corpse of Mazzola (conveniently killed by the German captain) and debris fired out of a torpedo tube.  5

                Tyler orders “Trigger” (Tom Guiry) to sacrifice himself for the good of the boat.  Now he really is a skipper and a damned good one.  When the sub resurfaces, the destroyer is chasing and straddling the sub with each salvo.  Apparently trying to sink the sub by swamping it.  There’s only one chance and it’s a one in a million bow shot with their last torpedo.  If they don’t hit their target, the Enigma machine will be lost and so will the war.  We’re here today so guess what happens.

What's a rock star doing in a
WWII submarine movie?
                “U-571” is historically inaccurate in an offensive way.  The movie assigns credit for getting the Enigma machine to the U.S. Navy because an American audience would never see a movie where the heroes are not American, right?  Like “Braveheart”, “Breaker Morant”, “Cross of Iron”, “The Train”, “Schindler’s List”, etc.  At least William Wallace was Scottish.  Here are the facts.  The first naval Enigma machine was captured by the HMS Bulldog from U-110 in May, 1941.  In 1942, additional Enigma code books were taken from U-559 by HMS Petard.  Neither incident involved Americans.  If the producers thought noone would notice, they did not take into account people like me and the entire Royal Navy.  Even Prime Minister Tony Blair called it an affront to British sailors, which was an accurate statement.  The outcry caused the studio to add a postscript crediting the Bulldog and the Petard.  U-571 did exist and was sunk by a depth charge dropped by a plane.  S-33 was stationed in the Pacific.

                There are a few “based on an actual incident” fudges in the film.  There was one example of a sub torpedoing another submerged sub, but that was one incident in the entire war.  There was also one incident where a German u-boat attacked survivors from a Greek ship, but that sort of atrocity was extremely rare.

                The movie assumes the viewers do not care about historical accuracy and that they have not seen very many submarine movies.  The ridiculous pile of clichés might seem fresh to non-war movie buffs, but if you’ve seen more than a few WWII submarine movies, you’ve seen this movie.  There are also a lot of implausibilities that are grating, starting with that supply u-boat arriving in the middle of the Atlantic at just the right moment and then firing a torpedo (that it did not have because those type of subs were not armed with them) under one sub to sink another.  However, if you are of a generation that did not grow up with the Old School WWII movies, “U-571” is a nice throwback.  The acting is good.  McConaughey is solid and the supporting cast led by Harvey Keitel as the chief is fine.  Not counting Jon Bon Jovi.  The action is consistent and suspenseful.  It has a kitchen sink aspect to it.  It is technically proficient with great sound and good special effects.  The interiors are authentic looking.  The plot tries to class up the action with the theme of Tyler growing into command and the sacrifices a commander must make.

Band of Brothers - they ain't
                “U-571” is the “Memphis Belle” of submarine movies.  In both cases, you can see an entire subgenre of clichés in one viewing.  It has a record 7 out of my nine (see below).  This is okay if you don’t watch many war movies and you like your entertainment brainless with hunks (Jon Bon Jovi / Harry Connick, Jr.)  Here’s another movie of that ilk – “Fly Boys”.  If you liked two out of those three – see the other one!

grade =  C+


1.  There are two strong personalities on board that butt heads.  Usually it’s the captain and his exec.

2.  The sub has to go below the “hull crush depth” causing leaks and rivets to pop.

3.  Someone gets left on deck when the sub has to make an emergency dive.  Usually it’s the captain who is wounded and. orders the boat to dive.

4.  The sub is sent on an emergency operation.

5.  The boat releases oil, debris, and/or a corpse to make the enemy think it has been sunk.

6.  The captain is an Ahab who is obsessed with a certain target.

7.  There is one black on board – he is a mess mate.

8.  The sub undergoes a depth charging.  Often the depth charges explode right alongside the sub, but never crush the walls of the sub.

9.  The sub lands commandoes.   Usually this results in things being blown up.

10.  The sub captain attains redemption for a previous action that haunts him.


UP PERISCOPE  (1959)   The mission is to land a frogman on a Japanese island to steal a code book.  4  The captain is not thrilled to have the commando on board  and is a by the book type.  He does not want to risk the boat by taking dangerous risks.  1  On the way there, the sub is strafed and the exec is caught on deck, wounded, and orders the boat to dive.  3  When a destroyer chases them, the captain releases diesel oil and bubbles to fool their sonar.  5  The frogman swims ashore and steals the codes.  9  There  is a black mess mate on                                    board.  7   # of clichés =  6   grade =  C

TORPEDO RUN  (1958)  A captain whose family was left in the Philippines is sent to sink a Japanese aircraft carrier.  When the carrier is spotted, a ship carrying his family is screening it.  He takes the shot anyway.  6  He and his exec disagree about how far he should go to carry out a mission.  1  The captain gets a second crack at the carrier in Tokyo Bay, but fails again.  There is a black mess mate.  7  When the carrier is spotted in the Aleutians, the sub is sent on an emergency mission to get it.  4  Number of depth chargings = 3.  # of clichés = 5  grade =  C-

WE DIVE AT DAWN  (1958)  A British sub crew is recalled early to track down a German battleship.  4  During a depth charging, they release a dead German corpse, oil, and debris.  3  They sink the battleship, but have to go ashore to get fuel and food and to blow things up.  9   One depth charging.  # of clichés =  4  grade =  B-

CRASH DIVE  (1943)   The mission is to land a commando team to destroy a Japanese Q-Ship base.  9  The confict between the captain and the exec is due to the exec putting the moves on the captain’s fiancé.  1  There is a black mess mate on board.  7  During a depth charging, the captain releases debris.  5  When the periscope gets hit, the captain stays on deck to act as the eyes of the sub.  3  Number of depth chargings = 1   # of clichés =  6    grade =  D+

HELLCATS OF THE NAVY  (1959)  The captain has to dive while a frogman is still missing.  The frogman was dating the captain’s girl, so the exec and the crew suspect ulterior motives.  The mission is to launch a commando raid on a Japanese island.  9  When they return to base, the captain gives his exec a bad evaluation because he feels he is not willing to make tough decisions.  1  The next mission is to join a wolf pack going into the Sea of Japan.  When the sub’s propellers get caught in a net, the captain goes to release them and orders the sub to dive when it is threatened.  3  Number of depth chargings = 2.  # of clichés =  4   grade =  F

RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP  (1955)  A desk captain is placed over an exec who was expecting to be promoted to command of the sub.  1  The captain is obsessed with getting a Japanese destroyer called Bungo Pete which had earlier sunk his sub.  6  A crew member is left on deck during an emergency dive.  3  There is a black mess mate.  7  During a depth charging, they release debris and bodies.  5  They sink Bungo Pete and then duel a Japanese sub.  Number of depth chargings =  2  # of clichés =  6   grade =  C

OPERATION PACIFIC  (1951)  The captain is wounded by a Q-Ship and orders a dive while sacrificing his life so John Wayne (his exec) can take command of the sub and the movie.  3  The sub has to deal with the problem of faulty torpedoes.  They work to fix this problem.  They participate in the Battle of Leyte Gulf where they are tasked to rescue downed pilots, but also get to sing some ships.  Number of depth chargings =  2.  # of clichés =  2  grade =  C

DESTINATION TOKYO  (1943)  The emergency mission is to drop off a commando team to report on weather conditions for the Doolittle Raid.  4 / 9  They sink an aircraft carrier that is launching planes to attack the Raiders.  They survive a depth charging.  8  A bow shot sinks a chasing destroyer.  # of clichés =  3  grade =  C 

SUBMARINE COMMAND (1951)  A sub skipper is torn by the loss of his previous commander at teh end of WWII in the Pacific, but gets a chance for redemption on a commando raid in the Korean War.   3  The captain is left on deck by the exec in an emergency dive.  The sub is part of an operation to liberate a POW camp.  There is a black messmate, but he has a small role.  The sub lands two commando teams to take out phone and radar stations.  10  The commander gets a chance to sacrifice his sub instead of a crew member.  Number of depth chargings = 1  # of cliches =  5 
grade =  C     
I know I have not included "Das Boot".  It's upcoming as one of the top ten.


  1. 10. If the sub transports and lands a commando (UDT, Marine, SEAL) unit, there is conflict between the C.O. of the ship and the commando team leader ("The Frogmen," "Operation Bikini"), since their respective missions have different priorities. Admittedly, though, that is basically a variation on "two strong personalities butt heads."

    1. the war movie buffOctober 1, 2013 at 9:09 PM

      Thanks for the input. I'll consider it.

  2. Actually, the first submarine war feature film is Morgenrot by Gustav Ucicky (Germany, 1933 - also released in the U.S. as Dawn). Haven't seen it yet, but I'm ready to bet it'll give you cliché n°10: 'either we all die or we're all saved'.

    Prior to that, both the UK and US had only released movies about hunting for German submarines...

    1. the war movie buffOctober 1, 2013 at 9:12 PM

      I limited this to movies made about WWII which eliminated any made before the 1940s. I also did not include movies about sub chasing like "The Enemy Below".

    2. Indeed, but film history has its own sense of chronology. "Morgenrot exhibits the continuities in style, narrative and characterisation which come to define the submarine film in later decades." - Jonathan Rayner, The Naval War Film (2007)

      The film had been shown in US theaters and gathered very favorable reviews, like most of its director's works. Gustav Ucicky was also well-known by refugees from German cinema in Hollywood for his skills at making popular movies - in spite of them obviously resenting the same martial and nationalist stance that had made the Austrian director a darling of the nazi establishment.

      PS: You'll also find that it displays cliché #6.

  3. When the captain seems obsessed with a certain target, the crew worry about his sanity, and there is talk of mutiny, or of the exec taking command. When the new C.O. or exec is inexperienced, there is some grumbling about whether or not he is competent.

    1. the war movie buffOctober 1, 2013 at 9:16 PM

      The first part is basically #6, but I like the second suggestion. Thanks. This scenario occurs in "U-571".

  4. Not sure if this occurred in other submarine movies, but an inexperienced medic had to operate on an injured crewman in Destination Tokyo.
    Great review, and I like your point that it would seem excellent for anyone who had seen a submarine movie before, and was not bothered by the many cliches.

    1. In the play "The Pharmacist's Mate," an inexperienced corpsman had to perform an emergency appendectomy on a crewman. It was performed on the TV anthology series "Pulitzer Prize Playhouse" in 1950, and may also have been done on the radio show "Cavalcade of America."

    2. the war movie buffOctober 2, 2013 at 10:07 PM

      This type of surgery actually happened several times.

  5. It's not a great movie that's for sure. I think I haven't really seen all that many submarine movies although I like the subgerne. They are always a bit clichéd though.
    Bon Jovi is a bad actor, seeing he stars does tell you something but the again harvey Keitel is often stellar.
    I agree, the historical side is appalling. Bending the truth like that is not acceptable.

  6. All good movies, Das Boot has to be my favourite. I'm a big sub movie fan. I really wish a greater number were being made right now, though saying that, one called Phantom was recently released and is a really good watch.

    1. Sorry it took so long to respond - my bad. Wow, you must be a huge fan of the subgenre to have liked all of these. Nothing wrong with that. You might want to check out my review of "Phantom" (March, 2013).

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