Monday, July 31, 2017

#6 We Dive at Dawn vs. #11 Up Periscope


PLOT:  We Dive at Dawn” is a British submarine movie released in 1943.  The Sea Tiger, commanded by Lt. Taylor (John Mills), returns from an unstellar cruise so we can get some soap operaish plot developments involving the crew.  Once these human interest stories have been initiated, the boat gets a secret mission to sink a German battleship.  Once this is possibly accomplished the sub has to land a shore party to blow some stuff up.  The plot does a good job balancing character development, the home front, and the action.  It builds to a rousing conclusion.  GRADE  =  B+

Up Periscope” was released in 1959 which makes it the last of the post-WWII sub movies.  It concentrates on a secret mission which involves landing a frogman (James Garner) on a Japanese island to steal a code book.  Unfortunately, Commander Stevenson (Edmund O”Brien) is a by the book type who does not want to endanger his boat even if it means winning the war.  There is a romance to bookend the movie and a duel with a destroyer.  The mission is fairly suspenseful, if predictable.  There is little character development and it lacks crew perspective.   Basically, it’s nothing special.  GRADE  =  B-

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  We Dive at Dawn  =  8
                                             Up Periscope  =  7

ACTING:   “We Dive at Dawn” has a good cast of Brits who you probably don’t know except John Mills.  In a bit of a a twist, he plays the ladies’ man instead of a member of the crew.  This is a bit of a stretch but he of course is perfect as the imperturbable captain when at sea.  The acting honors go to Eric Portman as the sad sack Hobson who is dealing with a wayward wife, but still finds it in himself to become an action hero.  It actually is believable. 

Much of the entertainment value for “Up Periscope” comes from the acting.  Garner and O’Brien are appropriately feisty towards each other.  It was Garner’s second significant role after “Darby’s Rangers” and he was still appearing in “Maverick”.  He was coming into his own as a leading man.  O’Brien was at the top of his career.  The supporting cast is fine and dominated by Alan Hale, Jr.  as the boat’s resident wolf!  Believe it or not.  He also provides the little comic relief in an otherwise serious movie.  GRADE =  B

HALFTIME SCORE:  We Dive at Dawn  =  17
                                   Up Periscope  =  15

TACTICS:  “We Dive at Dawn” has the Sea Tiger traveling on the surface during the daytime because they are in a rush to intercept the battleship.  However, it does crash dive when a plane is spotted.  “Looked like one of ours, so we dived immediately.”  That line alone tells you the screenwriter knows the dangers of sub warfare.  The sub easily goes through a mine field and rams its way through a net.  They fire six torpedoes at the battleship and have to dive before knowing what the effects were.  It was a lucky fire situation, however.  They get out of a depth charging by broaching which was nuts.  GRADE  =  D

“Up Periscope” is a strange bird when it comes to tactics.  Commander Stevenson loses the faith of his crew by staying on the bottom while a fleet passes over even though he has a crewman who is grievously injured in an accident.  This makes little sense because the Japanese are not even pinging for him.  Later, he risks the boat by traveling on the surface to get to the target island sooner, but when he gets there he refuses to risk the sub by going into the lagoon.  He changes his mind because there is a ship outside, which makes little sense.  GRADE  =  C

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  We Dive at Dawn  =  22
                                               Up Periscope  =  21

CLICHES:  In “We Dive at Dawn” leave is cut short because of a special mission.  A depth charging results in leaks.  They fool the Germans by jettisoning oil, debris, and a conveniently dead German.  They send a shore party ashore to wreck s*** and steal some fuel.  They don’t follow a ship through a net, they bash their way through!  GRADE  =  B-

In “Up Periscope”, the skipper and the frogman butt heads.  The sub is sent on a special mission.  Garner conducts a one-man commando raid to get a code book.  A man is left on deck during a dive.  Diesel oil is released to fool a Japanese destroyer that is depth charging them.  The sub has a black mess mate.  GRADE  =  C

FINAL SCORE:  We Dive at Dawn  =  29
                           Up Periscope  =  27

ANALYSIS:  Because of the categories, this matchup ended up closer than it should have been.  “We Dive at Dawn” is the much better movie.   It has better acting and develops the characters well, including some of the crew.  The dialogue is more realistic (provided you can wade through the accents) and the behavior on board more genuine.  It has a superior set piece that is one of the better shore party scenes in a sub movie.  On the other hand, “Up Periscope” has too many holes in the plot.  It also has a lame romance thrown in.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

#7 Crash Dive vs. #10 Operation Pacific


PLOT:  Crash Dive” is a love triangle set around a submarine movie.  Hot shot PT-boat ace Lt. Stewart (Tyrone Powers) is transferred to the silent service.  He is exec to Lt. Commander Dewey (Dana Andrews).  In an awkward development, the wolfish Stewart stalks a comely school teacher named Jean (Anne Baxter) who coincidentally is engaged to Dewey.  The USS Corsair patrols the North Atlantic and encounters a Q-ship.  Later, they are sent on a special mission to destroy the Q-ship base.  The plot is heavily tilted to the 1940s style triangle which is very predictable.  The sea scenes are trite and not instructive of life on a submarine.  The big action scene at the base is blustery and unbelievable.  GRADE  =  D

Operation Pacific” is a John Wayne movie.  Wayne is exec on the USS Thunderfish.  The love triangle in this movie involves his ex-wife being wooed by his captain’s brother.  Wayne wants her back and so does everyone else (including the captain!).  The Thunderfish also has an encounter with a Q-ship which results in Wayne taking command.  In between patrols, the movie takes on the problems that plagued American torpedoes in the first half of the war.  On a later mission, his sub runs into an entire Japanese fleet, including an aircraft carrier.   The plot is weak with its lame romance and everything else is equally predictable.  There are several action sequences that are laughably unrealistic.  GRADE  =  C

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Crash Dive  =  5
                                             Operation Pacific  =  6

ACTING:   “Crash Dive” is a three person affair.   The cast is a good one with Powers playing the wolf but laying it on a bit thick.  Baxter is lovely and manages to gloss over the fact that she is a sl**.  Andrews has to play morose cuckold and is a bit wooden.  The crew contains the usual crusty chief, but gives the obligatory black steward a bit more to do than serve food.  He is not a caricature.  The acting is formulaic to match the movie.  GRADE  =  C

Wayne is Wayne and I don’t have to tell you that romance was not his forte.  He and Patricia Neal had no chemistry (maybe because they did not get along on the set).  Ward Bond is good while he lasts.  Philip Carey acts like a man who is competing against John Wayne for the same woman.  In other words, hopeless.  The supporting cast is nondescript.  GRADE  =  C

HALFTIME SCORE:  Crash Dive  =  11
                                   Operation Pacific  =  12

TACTICS:  The encounter with the Q-ship is problematical as the Corsair comes up on the surface to inspect it and is totally taken by surprise.  One torpedo would have easily taken care of the problem.  The egress from the Q-ship base is done partially submerged with the captain guiding the sub past shore batteries that should have easily sunk it.  It’s an exciting image if you can see it through your tears of laughter.  GRADE  =  D

“Operation Pacific” is just as hazy on tactics.  They spot an aircraft carrier and fire only two torpedoes instead of the usual six.  In their encounter with their Q-ship, they fall for a white flag and surface.  They end up ramming the Japanese ship which is pretty ridiculous.  Once they solve the torpedo problem, they have no trouble sinking ships with little firing solution efforts.  GRADE  =  D

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Crash Dive  =  16
                                               Operation Pacific  =  17

CLICHES:  In “Crash Dive”, the sub is sent on a special mission to destroy an enemy base.  This involves landing a commando group.  They blow lots of things up.  There is dysfunction between the CO and the exec over a girl.  There is a black mess mate on board.  He goes on the raid.  When the periscope gets hit, the captain stays on deck to guide the boat.  During a depth charging they release debris to fool the pursuers.  The sub follows a ship through both an anti-submarine net and a mine field.  GRADE  =  D

In “Operation Pacific”, the captain gets left on deck when he is wounded by the Q-ship.  Wayne gets redemption for his decision to dive with his captain left on deck.  They fix the problem with the torpedoes, although this is done ashore.  They survive a depth charging that is incredibly accurate, but does not do much damage.  GRADE  =  B

FINAL SCORE:  Crash Dive  =  21
                           Operation Pacific  =  25

ANALYSIS:  I did not plan this matchup.  It’s just a coincidence both involve love triangles which is not shocking considering how common this trope is in war movies (although not that common in sub movies).  The scenes involving Q-ships are bizarre, however.  Truthfully, neither movie is in the upper level of submarine movies.  “Operation Pacific” is the winner mainly based on its surprising lack of clichés.  It is also a slightly more realistic look at submarine operations.  Both have lame romances, but at least “Operation Pacific” does not make it the main raison d’etre.  Plus, it has John Wayne, even it is not one of his stellar performances.

Friday, July 28, 2017

NOW SHOWING: Dunkirk (2017)

                WARNING:  The following review was written by a war movie lover for war movie lovers.  General public, proceed at your own risk.

                War movies come along rarely these days.  Good war movies are even rarer.  Ever since hearing about the upcoming “Dunkirk”, directed by none other than Christopher Nolan, I had circled the date on my calendar and eagerly awaited it.  I became more eager as the trailers came out and the buzz ginned up.  I had every reason to expect it to be an amazing movie.  I waited to see it in an IMAX, as it was meant to be seen.  I do not remember when I was more disappointed by a war movie.  Perhaps “Gods and Generals”.

                The historical event simply known as Dunkirk seems ripe for screen treatment.  The bad guys win, but the good guys survive daunting odds in a miraculous evacuation aided by plucky civilians. Sacrifices abound.   Throw in historical controversy.  And it had something for every military nut – air battles, ground combat, and naval activities.  In 1958, the movie “Dunkirk” tried to tell the story by concentrating on a squad and two civilian boaters and including the bigger picture.  Chris Nolan decided it was high time to revisit the event.  But he decided to throw out the big picture ("Operation Dynamo" is not mentioned in the movie) and add the air leg of the tripod.  His movie would be more personal and immerse you in the experience.  It should have been a great companion to the original.  Somehow he misfired, as far as I am concerned.

                Being a modern director, Nolan could not just use a traditional narrative approach.  The movie is like a triptych consisting of a land, sea, and air component.  The three story arcs are interweaved in a nonlinear structure.  The movie drops us straight outside the Dunkirk perimeter with a vague title card that reminds historically literate viewers what the situation was in 1940 – Germany was kicking British and French butt.  Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is in a group of “odds and sods” (a term for soldiers cut off from their units) that are making their way to the Dunkirk perimeter.  For those of you, like me, who think that Nolan has adopted the “lost patrol, who will survive?” structure from the 1958 movie, think again.   Tommy’s crew are not going to be whittled down slowly.  Tommy, who is one of the “heroes” of the movie, pals up with a supposed Brit named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and they try to cut the line to get on a ship leaving the mole.  The mole is a pier supervised by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) where ships pull up alongside and load up with soldiers.  Keep in mind, Tommy has just arrived and these other guys have been waiting hours (days?) in orderly fashion to be saved.  I have to admit my view of Tommy was colored by my view of every line cutter I have encountered.  From this point on, I did not really care if Tommy lived.  I did feel sorry to any shipmates of his, however.  Because every ship Tommy got on was doomed to be sunk.  This is not a “who will survive?” movie, it is a “what will survive?” movie.  Answer: one little boat.

                The second panel of the triptych is Mr. Gibson (Mark Rylance) in his yacht coming across the Channel to help pick up soldiers.  On the way, he rescues a shipwrecked soldier (Gillian Murphy) who is less than thrilled with the prospect of returning to Dunkirk.  He is on board to provide dramatic tension.  Have you ever been on an hours long yacht ride?  Have you watched one?  The voyage will be intertwined with the third story line - that of an RAF pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy).  Farrier will provide the dogfight portion of the film.  The air combat is shown out of sequence so Nolan can earn his auteur merit badge.

                The effort put into “Dunkirk” is commendable.  Nolan, who made his fame in action films like “The Dark Knight”, decided to avoid directorial stereotyping.  He eschewed CGI in favor of “practical effects”.  Sixty authentic ships and boats were used, including twelve of the original “Little Ships”.  Three Spitfires were available and a Yak-25TW was rigged to look like a Spitfire.  The Yak is a two-seater that allowed for shots over Hardy’s shoulder and for an actual pilot to fly the plane.  The one Me-109 was portrayed by a Spanish HA-1112 Buchon.   The thousands of extras were supplemented by cardboard cut-outs of soldiers and vehicles.  Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to tell the real actors from the cardboards.  The cast is eclectic.  It has some heavyweights like Branagh, Hardy, and Rylance, but the rest are future star wannabes.  The biggest buzz brewed up around pop heartthrob Harry Styles as one of Tommy’s sink-baits.  Nolan was not familiar with his fame when he was cast, that makes two of us.  Hardy spends the whole movie with his face covered.  In other words, it’s a Tom Hardy movie.  He doesn’t get to say much, which is better than mouthing platitudes like Branagh.  “I’d rather fight waves than dive bombers.”  That’s pretty much a speech for this movie.  The dialogue is sparse.  Nolan lets the scenarios do the talking.  The interweaving of the stories is intriguing and you definitely are encouraged to pay attention.  (Someone should do a study on the average amount of time it takes a viewer to realize the movie is nonlinear.)  I can imagine there are some baby boomers who will be a little confused by the plot.  Which plane is Farrier shooting down now?  The movie can be mesmerizing in its cinematography.  Nolan shot it in 70 mm and on an IMAX screen the details are amazing.  The air action is especially noteworthy (although the dogfights are not the best ever), but the movie also has some visceral sinking scenes.  Those of you who want to see Harry Styles drown will enjoy this film.

                So, what’s not to like?  Not much, if you are a regular movie fan.  Lots, if you are a war movie buff.  I am aware that Nolan was making a fictional tale.  He purposely did not have any real characters in the film.  But he also stated that he would take a documentary approach to the story.  He interviewed numerous veterans of Dunkirk.  (Most complimented the film, but commented that it was too noisy.  And kids should stay off their lawns.)  Their personal stories are reflected in the experiences of the characters in the movie.  For instance, at one point a soldier wades into the surf to fatalistically swim back to England.  I have no problem with a movie about a famous historical event that downplays tutoring in favor of entertainment.  But I do take umbrage when the  movie confuses the facts and blows the opportunity to use an historical setting to tell a rousing tale.  The best way to describe “Dunkirk” is to say that Nolan has set his tale in Dunkirk and seasoned it with some references to the actual event, but he cared little about bringing the battle to life.  His decision to leave the bigger picture out forfeited a lot of the suspense inherent in the event.  You wonder what will happen to Tommy and the others, but you do not feel for the army and the nation.  The movie is only 107 minutes long so it’s not like Nolan decided to leave Churchill and the brass on the cutting room floor because of time constraints.  A historical epic that is less than two hours?  Hell, “Dunkirk” (1958) is 134 minutes!  Speaking of which, you may be shocked to learn that the old movie is better than the new.  It was able to show the micro and the macro.  Binn (John Mills) made a much more interesting central character than Tommy.  And it has a much more interesting take on the civilian rescuers.  It has no RAF, but it does cover the other two branches better. As far as a history lesson, there is no comparison.  If you want to learn what happened at Dunkirk and you don’t care who Harry Styles is, the 1958 movie is the better bet.

                “Dunkirk” is a classic example of how low a bar historical movies have these days.  It is being commended for its accuracy and it is above average.  However, there are still moments that should make history buffs cringe.  (Especially if you have read two books about the event recently.)  The decision to forego special effects deprives the movie of the chaos and destruction that it needs to reflect the desperate nature of the trap the British were in.  Shots of Dunkirk (where the location shooting occurred) do not show the results of the relentless Luftwaffe bombing.  The use of the mole is sanitized and simplified.  Events there are supposed to take place over a seven day period, but they appear to be close to the end of the evacuation.  This causes some problems.  Barton mentions the seemingly unattainable goal of rescuing 30,000 men when in reality they would have been well past that figure.  He also laments the withdrawal of destroyers from the effort when at this point that decision had been reversed.  The French soldiers are evacuated after all the British were gone, when in actuality they were being jointly evacuated midway through.  At this stage, the evacuation during the daytime would have been suspended in favor of night only.  As far as the beach scenes, there should have been more men waiting on the beach.  And a lot more debris.  And there should have been more action by the little boats to pick them up and deliver them to off shore ships.  Through the Gibson character, the movie implies the little boats brought the men back to England with them.  Some did - on their last trip of the day.  The movie makes it seem that the little boats were sent in only at the end to finish the job.  The cavalry riding to the rescue.  They were actually involved much earlier.  Gibson would not have made only one trip.  And he would not have snuck away to avoid having his boat commandeered by the Royal Navy.  If a boat owner wanted to sail the boat himself, he could.   But the biggest flaws are in the showy dog fights.  The three-plane formation that Farrier is in is tactically sound, but they would not have approached the port at a low altitude.  If they were bounced by a German fighter, he would have had to have brass balls to tangle with the three of them.  Normally, I would not lament the lack of CGI, but in this case it could have been used effectively.   As far as Farrier shooting down a Stuka while gliding…  By the way, that was his fourth kill of the sortie!

                Some critics have gone as far as calling “Dunkirk” a great war movie.  One even called it the greatest.  Having seen a fair amount of war movies, I can tell you it is very overrated.  I do not even think it is in the top 100.  I’m not saying it is a bad movie, I’m saying it does not live up to the hype and is not even as good as the 1958 version.  It was a missed opportunity.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017


A few years ago, I posted on submarine movie clichés.  Having watched seventeen sub movies in the last few weeks in preparation for my Submarine Movies Tournament, I think it makes sense to reassess the cliché hypothesis.  Here is the list of possible clichés I considered:

1.       There is command dysfunction aboard the boat.  Usually this is a power struggle between the skipper and his exec.
2.       The sub has to go below crush depth.  Usually this is to escape depth charges.  It is accompanied by leaks, rivets blowing, and/or creaking noises.
3.       Someone is left on deck when the sub is forced to crash dive.  Most likely this is the captain.
4.       The sub is sent on a special mission.  This usually interrupts the crew’s leave.
5.       The sub lands a shore party.  Usually to blow stuff up.
6.       To stop an intense depth charging, the sub releases oil, debris, and/or corpses to fool the tormentors into giving up.
7.       The captain is an Ahab-type who is obsessed with a great white whale of an objective.  Usually it is revenge for losing a previous boat.
8.       if it’s an American sub, there is a black mess mate on board.
9.       The sub is depth charged at least once.  Usually the depth charges are very accurate.
10.    The sub goes through a submarine net and/or a minefield.  Usually it gets through the net by following an enemy ship.  Usually it gets through the mine field by blind-ass luck.  If it goes through a mine field, usually a mine cable scrapes against the side of the boat.
11.    An emergency repair, medical operation, or unexploded bomb causes a crisis.  Usually the emergency repair requires the sacrifice of someone.
12.    If it’s an American sub in the Pacific in WWII, they listen to Tokyo Rose.
13.    The sub sinks a destroyer with a bow shot.
14.    There is a love triangle between two of the crew and a woman on shore.

Here are the movies that I examined:
A.  Sub Command
B.  We Dive at Dawn
C.  Torpedo Run
D.  Operation Petticoat
E.  Destination Tokyo
F.  Run Silent, Run Deep
G.  Above Us the Waves
H.  Operation Pacific
I.  Up Periscope
J.  Hellcats of the Navy
K.  Crash Dive
L.  Hell and High Water
M.  Das Boot
N.  The Hunt for Red October
O.  Crimson Tide
P.  U-571
Q.  The Enemy Below

Here are the results for each cliche:
1.       C, F, I, J, K, O, P  =  7
2.       M, P, Q  =  3
3.       A, F, H, I, J, P  =  6
4.       A, B, E, I, J, K, L, N, P  =  9
5.       A, B, E, I, J, K, L  =  7
6.       B, D, F, I, K, P  =  6
7.       C, F  =  2
8.       A, F, I, K, P, Q  =  6
9.       A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, M, P, Q  =  14
10.    A, B, C, E, G, J  =  6
11.    E, I, J, M, P  =  5
12.    D, E, F  =  3
13.    E, F, I, J, P  =  5
14.    H, K  =  2

Here are the results for each movie:
                A.  3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10  = 6
                B.  4, 5, 6, 9, 10  =  5
                C.  1, 7, 9, 10  =  4
                D.  6, 9, 12  =  3
                E.  4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13  =  7
                F.  1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13  =  8
                G.  9, 10  =  2
                H.  3, 9  =  2
                I.  1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13  =  9
                J.  1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 13  =  8
                K.  1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 14  =  7
                L.  4, 5  =  2
                M.  2, 9, 11  =  3
                N.  4  =  1
                O.  1  =  1
                P.  1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13  =  9
                Q.  2, 8, 9  =  3

                1.  The most common cliché found in sub movies is the depth charging.  The second most common is the sub is sent on a special operation.
                2.  Possible clichés that can be removed from the list are going below hull crush depth, the captain being an Ahab, and the love triangle. 
                3.  The most cliché-ridden movies are “Up Periscope” and “U-571” with “U-571” being the worst offender because it came late in the subgenre. 

                4.  The most admirably cliché-resistant movie is “Das Boot”.  The other films that have a low number of clichés are not standard sub movies.

Monday, July 24, 2017


                It’s time for my annual subgenre tournament.  This year I have decided to do submarine movies.  I found it difficult to pick sixteen movies that fit my criteria and were available for viewing.  The main qualification was  the movie had to have some combat in it.  This eliminated movies like “Gray Lady Down”, for instance.  I came up with an interesting mix of mostly WWII movies with a wide range of quality.  For the seeding I went with the general critical consensus on the films, not the views of war movie experts or my own opinions.  As with all the other tournaments, the format is that of a basketball tournament with four quarters in each matchup and a total of twelve categories in reaching the finals.  Here are the matchups:

1 -  Das Boot
16 -  The Enemy Below

8 -  Destination Tokyo
9 -  Hell and High Water

4 -  Crimson Tide
13 -  Torpedo Run

5 -  U-571
12 -  Above Us the Waves

2 -  Run Silent, Run Deep
15 -  Hellcats of the Navy

7 -  Crash Dive
10 -  Operation Pacific

3 -  The Hunt for Red October
14 -  Submarine Command

6 -  We Dive at Dawn
11 -  Up Periscope

                Although I had seen and reviewed most of the sixteen before, I did watch them all for this tournament.  That was quite a chore in some cases.  However, the few that I had not seen were entertaining and worth the effort.  I hope this tournament may cause others to view some of the forgotten gems in this competition and avoid some pretty bad movies.  So here goes.  Good luck and good hunting!

#8  Destination Tokyo vs.  #9 Above Us the Waves


PLOT:  “Destination Tokyo” was released in 1943 so it has a heavy dose of patriotism and propaganda.  The USS Copperfin (commanded by Cary Grant) is sent on a special mission to penetrate Tokyo Bay and land a commando team that will facilitate the Doolittle Raid.  After that, their reward will be a shot at a Japanese aircraft carrier.  The plot was actually nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but that must have been a fit of patriotism because this is an average sub movie which lacks realism and suspense.  It was right for its time, but does not hold up well.  GRADE  =  C

“Above Us the Waves” is a British film that was released in 1955.  It is the story of the operation to sink the German battleship Tirpitz at its anchorage.  The original attempt is by way of human torpedoes and then by way of midget subs.  The movie covers the training and the two missions but concentrates on the final one.  We follow the three midgets as they sneak up to their target.  It does an admirable job chronicling the event and is suspenseful and realistic.  GRADE  =  B

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Destination Tokyo  =  6
                                             Above Us the Waves  =  8

ACTING:  “Destination Tokyo” has the inestimable Gary Grant as the Captain Cassidy.  He underplays a bit, but his character is iconic.  The rest of the cast is fine.  Alan Hale, Sr. is on board for comic relief.  John Garfield plays the stereotypical wolf with some 1940s verve.  He is one of the better ladies’ men that appear often in this subgenre.  Overall, the acting is appropriate for a movie of this era.  GRADE  =  B

“Above Us the Waves” has John Mills as its lead, of course.  (It is, after all, a British war movie.)  The rest of the cast is equally British.  It’s a good group and they are up to the very claustrophobic setting.  GRADE  =  A

HALFTIME SCORE:  Destination Tokyo  =  14
                                   Above Us the Waves  =  17

TACTICS:  For a movie that was supposedly used as a training film by the US Navy, there is surprisingly little that deals with submarine tactics in “Destination Tokyo”.  In the attack on the aircraft carrier, Capt. Cassidy fires four torpedoes from the bow tubes.  He then passes under the warship and fires the four stern tubes.  That would have been highly unlikely.  The sub survives a typically accurate cinematic depth charging and then sinks the offending Japanese destroyer with a bow shot.  GRADE  =  C

“Above Us the Waves” is not a typical submarine movie.  The midget subs do not fire torpedoes.  Their tactic was to sneak up on the target and drop explosive devices under the keel.  The movie accurately depicts the tactics.  GRADE  =  A

THIRD QUARTER:  Destination Tokyo  =  20
                                  Above Us the Waves  =  26

CLICHES:  “Destination Tokyo” is considered the “granddaddy of American submarine movies" and it established several of the clichés associated with the subgenre.  The Copperfin is sent on a special mission.  Cassidy has to disarm an unexploded bomb and assist in an appendectomy.  They follow a Japanese warship through a net.  The sub lands a commando group to report on the weather.  The crew listens to Tokyo Rose.  The sub undergoes a depth charging that results in leaks and rivets blowing.  They sink a Japanese destroyer using a head-on shot.   GRADE  =  A   (because it created the clichés)

“Above Us the Waves” is as atypical as “Destination Tokyo” is standard.  It does cover a special mission.  They do go through a submarine net and also under a torpedo net.  It is one of the least clicheish submarine movies.  GRADE  =  B  (it would be unfair to give it an A because it the plot is not set up like a normal sub movie)

FINAL SCORE:  Destination Tokyo  =  29
                           Above Us the Waves  =  34

ANALYSIS:  “Destination Tokyo” is one of the iconic submarine movies.  It was a big hit and is still remembered fondly.  This is in large part due to Cary Grant.  Its flaws are partly due to the time it was made.  Being produced in the middle of the war meant that it was required to wave the flag and demonize the foe.  Some of the dialogue is hard to sit through.  It is not only full of speeches, but also sermons.  It can be forgiven for being loaded with clichés because it was early in the game so they were fresh back then.  That does not excuse the ridiculous script developments that would have pleased a 1943 audience and still please modern viewers, but cause war movie lovers to cringe and pull their hair.

                “Above Us the Waves” is a gem that is not well known in America.  While “Destination Tokyo” is almost total bull crap wrapped around the Doolittle Raid, “Waves” is an almost documentary on Operation Source.  The event is recreated in a no frills way, but this does not negate suspense.  It is certainly the best movie about midget submarines.   

Friday, July 21, 2017

DUELING MOVIES: Operation Petticoat (1959) vs. Down Periscope


                I am closing out my summer of sub movies by comparing two sub comedies.  By the end of the 50s the sub subgenre had been played out and was ripe for parody.  “Operation Petticoat” closed the decade with a humorous take on the silent service.  Thirty seven years later, 20th Century Fox decided it was time for another sub comedy.  Too soon?  Let’s see.

                “Operation Petticoat” was initiated by Tony Curtis as a vehicle for Cary Grant and himself.  A young Curtis had enlisted in the Navy because he had enjoyed “Destination Tokyo” so much.  Grant was a bit reluctant to make the film due to his age (something that did not bother Gene Hackman when “Crimson Tide” came along), but made a very good business decision in accepting the role.  The movie was a huge hit (it was #3 at the box office that year) and he made $3 million from the deal.  The film was directed by Blake Edwards (“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”) and was his first big budget effort.  The movie had the full cooperation of the Navy, which allowed filming at Naval Station Key West and Naval Station San Diego.  It also provided three WWII era subs, including the USS Balao, which it allowed to be painted pink!

                “Operation Petticoat” takes place early in WWII.  The USS Sea Tiger is caught at its berth during an air raid on Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines.  The sub is sunk by fighters not carrying bombs (like in every other war movie).  Lt. Commander Sherman (Grant) puts the crew to work refloating and refitting the boat.  He is aided by the arrival of a country club warrior, Lt. Holden (Curtis).  Holden is your typical cinematic scrounger and wolf rolled into one character.  When they set sail, they pick up five nurses that are evacuating an island.  Double entendres and sight gags ensue.  Each of the leads gets a romantic arc.  Holden is putting the moves on Barbara (Dina Merrill) and Sherman gets the buxom, but clumsy Dolores (Joan O’Brien).  There is also something going on between the Chief (Arthur O’Connell) and the head nurse Edna (Virginia Gregg).  They don’t get along until she solves his engine problem with her girdle.  I mentioned sight gags, right?
                The Sea Tiger goes through a series of misadventures.  It sinks a truck because the boob with boobs Dolores accidentally hits the fire button (surprisingly not with a breast – there was still a Production Code in 1959). This “sinking” leads to the funniest joke, although it was unintentional – the sub comes under shore fire and has to retreat even though it is submerged!   Mixing red and white paint results in the “pink sub” that Tokyo Rose taunts.  They have an encounter with an American destroyer (“Take it down. Express!”  Huh?)  They avoid being sunk by depth charges by using the old expelling-debris trick.  The key to identifying that they are Americans is adding one of Dolores’ bras to the debris.  Hilarious sight gag and racist comment on Japanese women.

                Incredibly, some of these misadventures are loosely based on actual incidents!  A group of nurses were evacuated from the Philippines by the Spearfish.  The Sealion was sunk at Cavite.  The flames peeled the paint off the nearby Seadragon, uncovering the reddish undercoat.  Tokyo Rose made reference to “red pirate submarines”.  The USS Bowfin fired torpedoes at ships docked in a harbor.  One of them went astray and hit a pier with a bus on it.  This makes the movie more accurate than most sub movies.

                “Operation Petticoat” is a movie very much of its time.  The fact that it was a huge hit tells you something about the state of humor in the late fifties.  In other words, what was funny back then is not necessarily funny today.  I like old comedies, but this one does not hold up well.  I find it incredible that it was nominated for an Academy Award for Original Screenplay.  The sexual innuendo is broad (an appropriate word for the time frame) and never beyond blush-worthy.  The idea of putting females on board a sub was inevitable and the results are predictable.  The cast does play it with some enthusiasm.  Grant does not satirize his character from “Destination Tokyo”, but instead plays the CO as bemused by the gals.  Curtis is young Cary Grantish as the stock lothario/scrounger.  The nurses are not particularly sexy by modern standards. Hell, one of them is Marion Ross of “Happy Days” fame.

                “Down Periscope” has a title that implies it is a satire of “Up Periscope” and other WWII sub movies.  Unfortunately, that satirical movie is yet to be made.  “Down Periscope” is more of a “McHale’s Navy” for submarines.  It was directed by David S. Ward (who wrote “Flyboys”, another comedy).  It stars Kelsey Grammer as Lt. Commander Dodge.  Dodge’s career is going nowhere because he is a screw-up and his immediate superior Rear Admiral Graham (Bruce Dern) is offended by the fact that Dodge has “Welcome aboard” tattooed on his penis.  This joke alone tells us how far humor had “evolved” since “Operation Petticoat”.  (Of course, were the movie to be remade today, we would get to see the tattoo.)  To achieve promotion, Dodge must perform some “tasks” that will entertain the audience.  He is given the impossible mission of evading the fleet (including his previous, critical captain) in an old WWII diesel boat and sink a dummy ship in a harbor.  He is given a rusty old pig boat and a motley crew to accomplish his objective.  The crew includes a gambler, a malcontent, a black baller, a fat slob cook, and one hot dive officer (Lauren Holly). Her presence on board will “make things hard on all of us”, quips the captain.   The crew has an insane electrician who reprises the role of the daffy air traffic controller in “Airplane!”, except without the laughs.  Dodge is also saddled with a very uptight exec (Rob Schneider).  Command dysfunction is played for laughs, supposedly.

                After a brief clean-up montage, the Stingray sets sail.  Dodge tests the crush depth, just as the movie will test the audience’s ability to withstand crushing jokes.  These jokes will include the electrician mimicking whale noises to deceive a tracking sub’s sonar.  At this moment, I would have preferred being on a crippled sub at the bottom of the ocean.  The movie jumps the USS Shark when Dodge and the crew dress as pirates to make the obnoxious exec walk the plank.  If you survive this scene, you will be treated to a sub chase and the sight of the Stingray sneaking into the harbor underneath a tanker.  Right underneath a tanker.

                “Down Periscope” is a piffle.  It is mildly amusing.  The amount you laugh is directly dependent on your tolerance for mugging and fart jokes.  When it comes to sex jokes, it is about as chaste as “Operation Petticoat”.  It manages to get Holly into a tight-fitting uniform, but her character is not a dumb blonde like Dolores.  The plot eschews satire.  That would be too difficult apparently, although the subgenre is an easy target.  The cast would not have been up to satire anyhow.  We are not exactly talking “Tropic Thunder” here.  I mean, Rob Schneider, for Christ’s sake.  At least we got Kelsey Grammer, instead of Tom Arnold
                There are few good submarine dramas, and no good submarine comedies.  Of the two, “Operation Petticoat” is much the better.  It may not be particularly funny now, but it was cutting edge at the time.  It benefits from Grant’s charismatic presence and it has some foundation in reality.  As a classic, it can be seen as a museum piece depicting what passed for a war comedy in the 1950s.  Watch “Tropic Thunder” to see where we are now.  “Down Periscope” serves as a similar curio, but in its case we have a brush with 1990s TV sitcom humor.  Not the “Frasier” variety, more like “Coach”.

GRADES:  Operation  Petticoat  =  C+

                  Down Periscope  =  D      

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

SUB MOVIE: Above Us the Waves (1955)

                “Above Us the Waves” is a British film about Operations Title and Source.  These were the attempts to sink the German battleship Tirpitz at its berth in Norway.   The movie was directed by Ralph Thomas and he had the full cooperation of the Admiralty.  It was based on a nonfiction book by C.E.T. Warren and James Benson.  Commander Donald Cameron acted as technical adviser.  He had commanded one of the midget subs and was awarded the Victoria Cross.  The movie was a big hit.

                It’s 1942 and the threat of the Tirpitz putting to sea like the Bismarck is chaffing Churchill’s arse.  Half the British fleet is dedicated to keeping an eye on her.  Since the RAF has been unsuccessful in bombing the behemoth, perhaps the Royal Navy can do the job.  A Commander Fraser (John Mills) argues that the solution is to use human torpedoes.  The “Chariots” are two-manned craft that can approach a target submerged and attach limpet mines.  It’s only semi-suicidal.  After some training scenes, the Chariots are tested against a British ship in the harbor.  They submerge, send out a diver to cut the submarine net, go under the anti-torpedo net, and set the mines.  The mission is on.  Two of the Chariots will be delivered to Norway via a fishing boat.  Complications ensue and a new mission involving midget submarines is initiated.  The subs carry four-man crews and are designed to drop explosives called “side cargoes” under the keel of the target.  The movie follows the three midgets, one of which is commanded by Fraser.   Each has serious problems, but they persevere. 

                “Above Us the Waves” has a documentary feel to it.  It nobly brings to the public the tale of one of the greatest raids of WWII.  It includes actual footage in the opening to establish the situation in the Battle of the Atlantic.  The movie takes us from motivation through training to completion.  It is educational and yet entertaining in a British kind of way.  This means it eschews the American-style theatrics.  It is not an Alistair MacLean movie. It is significant that the plot includes Operation Title (the chariot attempt) when that mission was a failure.

                While dedicated to honoring the six men who gave their lives in Operation Source, the movie did not forgo entertaining its British audience.  The humor is the dry British variety.  The upper lips are properly stiff. At one point, Fraser and his crew have tea and crumpets while approaching the Tirpitz.  Literally.  The acting is also comfortably British.  The cast is good and anchored by Mills, who was entering his prime.  Given the nature of the film, the second half is basically a tale of three ensembles as the movie follows each of the subs.  You care about these men, not just the officers.  The quartets of actors are shown in deep focus in the very cramped interiors.  This might be the most claustrophobic sub movie of all time.  (I haven’t gotten a chance to rewatch “The Hunley”.)  The interiors deserve special mention as they are accurate to the MK.1 human torpedoes.  Check out the cute little periscopes.  This is a movie where you admire the lighting.   The movie is suspenseful and you can cut the tension with a knife.  The score is good at ginning up the suspense.  The effects are above average with nice underwater shots.  A highlight is the explosions that wreck the Tirpitz and the ensuing chaos on board the ship.

                How accurate is it?  Not at all according to the film.  The credits incredibly have the typical disclaimer that “all characters and events in this film are fictitious.  Any similarity to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”.  What the hell?  Although it does take some liberties with the story, it clearly and undeniably is about Operations Title and Source.   The section on Operation Title adds a couple of cinematic flourishes.  The mission was essentially as depicted, but I found no evidence that the fishing boat was stopped by a German patrol boat.  That scene was an obligatory war movie trope.  The coverage of Operation Source has a lot more dramatic license.  There were actually ten X-craft sent on the mission.  Three (X-5, X-6, and X-7) were assigned the Tirpitz.  The midgets were towed to Norway by regular subs with passage crews on board.  (There was an incident where a mine got caught in the tow rope and had to be pushed away by a seaman with his feet.)  One X-craft was lost on the way.  X-6 (Lt. Cameron – John Mills as Lt. Fraser;  X-1 in the movie) went through a gap in the submarine net similar to in the movie.  It ran aground and broached, but was assumed to be a porpoise by the battleship.  However, when it came up again the Germans were alerted.  It submerged and got caught in the anti-torpedo net.  (The subs had a lot more trouble with the nets than the movie shows.)  When it got loose, it surfaced alongside of the ship and was taking small arms fire and grenades when it dropped its explosives.  Mission accomplished, Cameron and his crew scuttled the boat and were picked up by a German picket boat and brought on the deck of the battleship.  X-7 (Lt. Place – X-3 with Donald Sinden as Lt. Corbett) got caught in the sub net and it took an hour to break free.  It went under the anti-torpedo net, but got entangled.  When it eventually freed itself, it blindly bumped into the side of the target and dropped one side cargo.  Moving, it dropped the other explosive.  (The movie version which has it being trapped under the Tirpitz was silly.)  Escaping, it got entangled again, went to the bottom to access damages and determining that it was hopeless, surfaced.  Place came out and waved his shirt to surrender.  (The movie has the whole crew being taken captive after escaping the sunken boat.)  He was taken by a boat, but the sub went back down with the other three men.  Three hours later, Sub.-Lt. Aiken emerged and was picked up.  The other two went down with the ship.  There is some mystery as to the fate of the X-5 (Lt. Henty-Creer – John Gregson as Lt. Duffy).  It seems clear that it was not as depicted in the film.  About a half hour after the first explosions, a sub was sighted 650 yards off the starboard bow of the Tirpitz.  The battleship opened fire with anti-aircraft guns and scored some hits.  A German destroyer then dropped some depth charges that most likely finished off the sub.  So six men were captured and six men died.  The explosions did substantial damage to the Tirpitz and it was put out of action for six months.

                “Above Us the Waves” is one of the better sub movies.  It is also the rare one that is based on an actual historical event.  And that event deserved a good movie.  You have here the story of twelve men who risked their lives for the good of their nation.  They weren’t superheroes.  They had no special powers.   They just were willing to submerge themselves in giant garbage cans with propellers, infiltrate an enemy harbor, literally tangle with nets, and then drop explosives under a battleship with very little prospect of escaping.  And Wonder Woman won the war on the Western Front with a shield, a magic lasso, and a sword.  I don’t remember seeing “all characters and events in this film are fictitious…” before that film.

GRADE  =  B+

Monday, July 17, 2017

Picture, Movie, Quote #19

"This is the paradox of being a good soldier: To be a good soldier you must love the army, but you must be willing to kill the thing you love."

What movie is this?  This movie is based on the best seller by Edward L. Beach, Jr.  It was produced by Burt Lancaster. The two stars reportedly did not get along well during the shoot with the elder upping the cost of production with his 9 to 5 work rate. This dysfunction may have added to the realism of the movie which is based on a personality conflict between the two leads. The technical advisor was a retired Rear Admiral and had the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy  It was released in 1958 to critical acclaim, but less than boffo box office. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

SUB MOVIE: Hell and High Water (1954)

                “Hell and High Water” is a Samuel Fuller (“The Steel Helmet”) film.  He did not really want to make the film, but he owed Darryl Zanuck because he had stood up to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover when he wanted to squash the release of Fuller’s film noir “Pickup on South Street”.  Hoover did not like Fuller’s movies and felt the movie was not patriotic enough.  Zanuck told him tough luck.  Fuller insisted on rewriting the script and agreed to use cinemascope to prove that it could work in a submarine setting.  The movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects.  The movie was a big hit and is one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite films.

                The movie begins with a narrator telling us that there has been a mysterious nuclear explosion in the North Pacific.  The year is 1953 and the world is stuck in the Cold War.  This ominous development has brought a team of international scientists together and they hire an ex-sub skipper named Jones (Richard Widmark) to go on a special mission to save the world from nuclear destruction.  Jones is provided with an old WWII Japanese sub that he accurately describes as a “sewer pipe”.  But he at least gets to pick his motley crew.  However, he will also have to bring aboard the lead scientist Professor Montel (Victor Francen) and his comely assistant scientist Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi).  Once they get their wolfish comments out of the way, the crew realizes that they are supposed to be upset about having a woman on board.  Jones quells the mutiny by pointing out that it is impossible to have a romance without a female.  As with all submarine special missions, the sub has to sail prematurely.  It follows a Chinese freighter that is delivering supplies to a mysterious island.  And it is being followed by a Chinese sub.  Queue the sub duel.  When they reach their destination they have to make two shore party landings.  Double the fun! 

                I have to admit that I was not familiar with “Hell and High Water” until I did my Submarine Movie Tournament.  This is surprising because it is a Sam Fuller film and it was a box office success.  The movie has possibly been forgotten because it is something of a curio from the Cold War era.  It is the only sub movie that I can recall that features a Red Chinese sub.  The plot is unique (although not immune from sub movie clichés), but not outlandish.  The idea of the Communist Chinese possessing a nuclear bomb would have been a scary specter in 1954, but the how the movie posits they might use it is James Bondsian.  Jones is no secret agent, but he does have Bond’s snarky nature and gets to bed the sexy scientist.  Widmark is perfect for the role and could play it in his sleep.  The rest of the cast is fine.  Even Darvi, who did not have to win the role by out-auditioning others.  She was Zanuck’s mistress.  The rogue invented her stage name from a hybrid of Darryl and his wife’s name, Virginia.  (War movie fans might recall that Zanuck also put his current mistress, Irina Demick, into “The Longest Day” eight years later.)  She does not embarrass her mentor/lover. She is the rare strong female character in a war movie.  She is a hot egg head who can fight.  Her character gets to kill a commie – surely the only female kill in a sub movie.  The big three get some character development (Jones lost his boat in WWII to a mine), but other than drooling and bitching about the dame, the crew is just along for the ride.

                “Hell and High Water” is one of the better sub movies.  This is mainly because it is a Sam Fuller film.  It has his gritty, no nonsense style.  This is crucial because there are plot developments that are nonsensical.  He avoids most sub clichés.  The most common cliché, the sub is depth charged, does not occur.  It can’t avoid the special mission and commando raid tropes.  The first landing has a lot of “Crash Dive” in it.  The effects are fine and deserved an Oscar nod.  The underwater effects are fine, but hardly revolutionary.  It is certainly a must-see for war movie lovers and Sam Fuller fans.