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.


GRADE  =  B

Thursday, July 13, 2017

SUB MOVIE: Crash Dive (1943)



                “Crash Dive” is a mid-WWII sub movie directed by Archie Mayo (his only war movie).  It starred Tyrone Power who had enlisted in the Marine Corps.  His trip to boot camp was delayed so he could finish the film.  He did not make another movie until 1946.  The sacrifices women had to make for the war effort!   Power would eventually retire as a Major in the Marine Corps Reserve.  The movie had the full cooperation of the Pentagon which hoped for a recruiting boost from it.  Mayo was allowed to film at New London Submarine Base, but no newer subs were allowed to appear on film.  The film was made in technicolor, which indicates its importance as far as the studio was concerned.

                The movie raises a red flag immediately when it plops a PT boat in the middle of the Atlantic.  Lt. Stuart (Power) picks up survivors of a u-boat sinking, spots the u-boat, and sinks it with depth charges.  None of those things happened in the Atlantic during the entire war.  Stuart is a huge fan of PT boats.  If he could, he would marry one.  However, his admiral uncle persuades him (for the good of recruitment) to join the silent service.  He is sent to New London, Connecticut and assigned exec to Lt. Commander Dewey Connors (Dana Andrews).  While on leave he puts the moves on a teacher named Jean (Anne Baxter) who is taking some girls on a field trip to Washington.  At first, Jean is turned off by the wolfish Stuart, but he persists in a predatory way.  He is so successful that the school marm goes out on the town with him, leaving the girls alone in a hotel room.  Then she guiltily rushes home, thus ending the girls’ trip early.  Did I mention she is engaged to Connors?  That’s right, she’s a slutty school teacher.  Stuart may be a sexual predator, but at least he does not know that Jean is engaged to his CO.

                The USS Corsair (with black mess mate on board) goes on patrol in the Atlantic.  Apparently it is the entire Atlantic sub fleet as every other boat should be in the Pacific.  They encounter a Swedish freighter, but it opens fire.  It’s a Q-ship!  Those dastardly Nazis.  Luckily, the Q-ship is a terrible shot and cannot hit a stationary sub before it crash dives.  Instead of putting a torpedo in the helpless ship, Connors hides on the bottom.  He uses the classic expelling debris trickery to escape.  He and Stuart bond through the depth charge experience.  They are best friends when they return to base for a binge of fruits, vegetables, and milk!  This all becomes awkward when they found out that they have something in common – Jean.  She’s in love with Stuart by now, for plot purposes.  The command dysfunction cliché kicks in just in time for their special mission to destroy the Q-ship base.  If you think the love triangle is ridiculous, wait for one of the most ludicrous commando raids in sub movie history.  Try to stick around for Stuart’s paean to every type of ship in the US Navy.  Young men, I may love PT-boats and submarines, but there are other options.  Buy war bonds!

                “Crash Dive” is a propaganda and patriotic soufflé.  It is very fluffy and looks good in its glorious technicolor, but it is not very filling.  In fact, the technicolor is the only thing that stands out.  Everything else is second-rate.  The script could hardly have been worse.  It attaches the dusty love triangle to unbelievable sub action.  It does reinvent the love triangle a bit by having the female be the weak leg and having all three legs intact at the end.  I do not think the screenwriters (and most of the audience) bothered to consider that Jean betrays Connors for a man that manipulated her and she falls in love with that guy.  But he’s Tyrone Power, so it’s okay.  Even Connors accepts that fact.  With the love triangle sucking the air out of the movie, there is no room for depiction of sailor life.  The film does develop an interesting relationship between the black steward and the crusty Chief.  And it gives the steward some action.  This for a 1943 movie.  Kudos!  The acting is not a detriment.  Power, Baxter, and Andrews are solid, although Power is forced to give that gag-inducing speech at the end. 

                “Crash Dive” is in the “one Oscar club” of sub movies along with “The Enemy Below”, “Torpedo Run”, “U-571”, and “Hunt for Red October”.  In this case the award was for Best Visual Effects and maybe they were awesome in 1943, but they are underawesome today.  The Q-ship base set is particularly fake-looking.  And the raid on that base is so full of pyrotechnics and expenditure of ammo that you would swear you were watching a John Woo film.  A bad John Woo film.  The fire and explosions build to one of the most laughable scenes in sub movie history as Connors pilots the semi-submerged sub past a shore battery.  Try not to chortle.  And try not to believe that anything in the movie is historically accurate.  The movie insults my intelligence.  Why place PT-boats and subs in the Atlantic?  I can understand putting the smoochy stuff in New London, but all oceans look alike so why isn’t the Corsair in the Pacific with its brethren?  The Germans had Q-ships, but so did the Japanese and the idea of an island base in the Atlantic is crazy.  I can only assume the studio felt the public wanted roasted Nazis more than dead Japs in 1943.

GRADE  =  D

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

SUB MOVIE: Hellcats of the Navy

  


                “Hellcats of the Navy” claims to be based on the nonfiction book by ComSubPac Charles Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson.  The book is about Operation Barney which was the attempted infiltration of Japanese waters with the American equivalent of a wolfpack.  The movie is loosely based on the mission. It was directed by Nathan Juran and starred Ronald Reagan in his second to last movie role.  The movie is famous for the pairing of Reagan and his second wife Nancy (billed as Nancy Davis).  It was their only movie together.  The screenplay was by blacklisted Bernard Gordon, which is ironic considering Reagan’s pro-blacklist stance.  The production had the full cooperation of the Navy.  It was allowed to film at the San Diego naval base and on board a submarine.  To emphasize the cooperation, Chester Nimitz introduces the film with some vague reference to America taking the war to Japanese home waters. 

                The USS Starfish is off the coast of Japan on a mission to disarm a mine and bring it back.  A frogman named Barton (Harry Lauter) is abandoned when Commander Abbott (Reagan) has to crash dive because of a Japanese destroyer.  It’s the right decision, but it is complicated by the fact that Lauter was putting the moves on Abbott’s ex-girlfriend.  The exec, Lt. Commander Landon (Arthur Franz), feels Abbott was personally motivated by his decision to leave Lauter.   When they return to Guam, Abbott is reunited with nurse Helen (Nancy) who is not upset that her new beau is gone.  She prefers the mule to the wolf.  The Starfish’s next mission is to take out an island via commando raid.  Ridiculous explosions ensue.  Explosions for explosions sake. They have an ill-fated encounter with a Japanese sub, but Abbott manages to bring back charts of a mine field so it’s all good.  Back at base, Abbott turns in a scathing fitness report that wrecks Landon’s career due to the belief that he is a wimp who cannot make tough decisions.  This from the man who just lost his boat and sixteen men because he disobeyed orders.  In spite of the bad blood, Landon will continue as his exec so he can redeem himself. 
                The brass sends a trio of three-sub wolfpacks to Japan’s inner waters.  Abbott’s sub traverses a mine field with the obligatory cable scraping.  He sinks seven ships in five minutes in a harbor.  Elect this guy President!  But wait, there’s more.  On the way out, the boat gets a net wrapped around the propeller.  Guess who strips down to untangle the net?  And yet Nancy has to keep her starched white nurse’s uniform buttoned to the chin throughout the movie (and probably through the production).   While Ronnie may have thought of himself as being the equivalent of Burt Lancaster, he would be damned if Nancy was going to be Deborah Kerr.  In one of the silliest scenes in war movie history, Abbott gets caught in the net.  An approaching destroyer gives Landon the chance to redeem himself by diving with Abbott still entangled.  Just doing what you dared me to do, skipper.  Plus payback, sweet!  In a “screw you, cliché” development, Abbott survives to continue his zombielike romance with Helen.  Hurray?

                In my recent binging of sub movies, I have come to the conclusion that the percentage of sub movies that are below average war movies is very high.  This is surprising because you would think the cramped confines of a sub would lend themselves to dramatic tension, character development, and ensemble acting.  Interiors should be relatively easy to recreate, although filming in cramped quarters can be hell.  The special effects are a problem and it is difficult to avoid the look of fakery, but the audience is usually understanding of that.  The subgenre lends itself well to the action followed by exposition format of many war movies.  It has the advantage of combining the visceral thrill of sneaking up on an enemy and stabbing them by way of a torpedo and land combat in the form of commando raids. In other words, you can see ships blow up and stuff blow up.  And depth chargings work much better for drama than artillery bombardments.  And yet, so many sub movies blow it.  Since there are so many well-established clichés, it is difficult for a sub movie to be original and high quality.  Most sub movies do not achieve either of these. “Hellcats of the Pacific” is especially bad because it does not even try to be creative or top-notch.

                There is nothing quality about the film.  If not for the pairing of the Reagans, it would be totally forgettable.  The acting is terrible.  Reagan is stiff and Nancy matches him.  You can see why Helen was attracted to Barton, but not what he saw in her.  This love triangle is reminiscent of the equally lame one in “Operation Pacific”. The Reagans’ scenes together are hard to bear.  The dialogue is atrocious.  The plot makes little sense.  In this case, the movie cribs from “Torpedo Run”.  Don’t ask why you would want to steal from two bad sub movies.  The effects fit the film well.  They are terrible, too.  The models are particularly fake looking.   As usual, the depth charges are incredibly accurate.  They result in “Star Trek” type jostling of the crew.

                There would be some compensation if the movie was historically accurate.  You would think the involvement of Lockwood as technical adviser would have insured an acceptable degree of accuracy.  Not to  mention the rare appearance of Chester Nimitz himself.  So how accurate is it?  There was an Operation Barney.  In July, 1943, Lockwood sent three subs in to the La Perouse Strait and then into the Sea of Japan.  They charted the mine fields, but did not find much to hunt.  Later the acclaimed Wahoo under the command of the famous “Mush” Morton was sunk in the area.  It was assumed the loss was due to a mine.  Lockwood vowed revenge and put Operation Barney into motion.  Hydeman’s Hellcats (a trio of three-sub wolfpacks) would take advantage of the new FM sonar tech that allowed them to detect mines.  The operation took place in June, 1945 and resulted in a disappointingly low total of 28 Japanese ships sunk.  One sub, the Bonefish, was lost.   As you can deduce, the movie is not exactly a documentary. 
  
                If you have not seen “Hellcats of the Navy”, only watch it if you are insane enough to try to watch every sub movie.  Who would do something like that?  You might also watch it if you want to get drunk.  Take a drink every time you groan.


GRADE  =  F

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

SUB MOVIE: Up Periscope (1959)



                “Up Periscope” came at the end of the boom in sub films in the 1950s.  It was directed by the prolific Gordon Douglas (“Bombers B-52”).  It was based on the novel by Robb White.  The technical adviser was Adm. Charles Lockwood who commanded our sub force in the Pacific in WWII.  All of the underwater scenes were from “Destination Tokyo”.  The movie was James Garner’s second big dip into movies after “Darby’s Rangers”.  He was still appearing in the TV series “Maverick”.

                The movie is set in the South Pacific in 1942.  Lt. Braden (Garner), a frogman, is wooing a gal named Sally.  Before he is rousted for a secret mission, he finds out Sally is actually an intelligence agent who was checking him out for security purposes.  Ouch!  That marriage proposal sure seems awkward now.  Meanwhile, the sub Barracuda is returning from a failed patrol with an unhappy crew.  it seems Commander Stevenson (Edmund O’Brien) followed orders and stayed on the bottom as a juicy Jap fleet passed by.  Adding to the crew’s frustration is the belief that an injured mate died because the sub stayed on the bottom.  Stevenson gets a chance at redemption when Braden’s secret mission comes along.  He is ordered to deliver Braden to a Japanese held island so he can steal a code book and thus win the war.  When they arrive, the by-the-book Stevenson is averse to going in close so Braden is not on a suicide mission.  He and Braden butt heads over Stevenson’s cautious approach.  On the way to the island the sub has encounters with a plane and a destroyer.  Braden gets to swim ashore and steal the code book and blow stuff up.  Spoiler alert: We win the war!

                I have seen a lot of sub movies in the last month.  It never ceases to amaze me how often common sense sub tactics are tossed out the window either for entertainment purposes or just out of plain apathy.  “Up Periscope” is a good example of this.  There was no reason for the Barracuda to stay on the bottom as the Japanese fleet passed by (other than to get the injured sailor killed for dramatic purposes).  There was no indication the Japanese were aware of the sub’s presence, so why could it not simply leave the area?  Later, when a destroyer attacks, the Captain releases oil to fool it, but he does this while still viewing through the periscope!  He also releases a “false target shell” which is described as “an explosion of bubbles” to fool sonar.  This was a new one on me.  Stevenson decides to enter the lagoon because there is a ship outside.  Shouldn’t that have had the opposite effect?
                Aside from the bull crap, the movie is weak in most aspects.  The special effects are disappointing.  Are you telling me that sixteen years after “Destination Tokyo”, director Douglas had to rely on footage from that film?  Talk about lazy.  The interiors are too modern looking and far from claustrophobic.  There is little sailor behavior or banter.  Only two characters are developed.  Luckily, these characters are in capable hands.  Garner shows the wit and charisma of the leading man that he would evolve into.  O’Brien is good as the unlikeable captain.  His blockheaded insistence on following orders does not fit the most celebrated sub captains, but maybe he is going to be one of the numerous ones who were canned early in the war.  His redemption arc is typical Hollywood, but having him report himself for violating orders is a silly post script.

                “Up Periscope” is a fairly entertaining movie if you are not familiar with the submarine subgenre.  If you have seen a lot of sub movies, it comes off as almost a parody of the subgenre due to its overload of clichés.  It ties “U-571” for most clichés in a sub movie.  At least it does not take them to ridiculous extremes like “U-571”.  It does not pile them into a bonfire of ludicrousness.  Although I give it credit for restraint in its unoriginality, it is still an average film that should have been much better.  The 1950s were a fertile period for sub movies and yet the last of the run did not advance the subgenre at all.  Hell, it had to borrow from a 1943 movie.


GRADE  =  C


Sunday, July 9, 2017

SUB MOVIE: Torpedo Run (1958)


                “Torpedo Run” was directed by Joseph Pevney who had been in the Signal Corps in WWII.  His other war movie was “Away All Boats”.  The Navy cooperated with the movie and the technical adviser was Adm. Charles Lockwood (commander of Submarine Force Pacific).  He should have been ashamed of the product he advised on.  The movie was unbelievably nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

                The movie opens in the South Pacific in 1942. Lt. Commander Doyle (Glenn Ford) of the Grayfish is morose over the fact that his family was in the Philippines when it fell.  He later finds out they are alive.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is they are on a transport that is screening an aircraft carrier named the Shinaru.  The Shinaru led the attack on Pearl Harbor and is the number one target for any submarine.  Even though he knows his family is on the transport (don’t ask), Doyle decides to take the shot despite the reasonable admonitions of his exec and best friend Sloan (Ernest Borgnine).  It will take an amazing shot to hit the aircraft carrier instead of the innocent civilian-laden transport.  He does not pull it off.  Sloan consoles Doyle by telling him “Jane would have wanted you to try”.  Yeah, right.  Of course, this fits the cinematic Navy where skippers always put their job ahead of family.  He can’t bring his family back, but Doyle can get revenge against the carrier.  The rest of the movie covers his quest against his great white whale.  Sloan is along for the ride even though he questions Doyle’s obsession.  In fact, he turns down his own boat to stay with Doyle.  This is the same Doyle who considers him to be a back-stabber.  Awkward!

                 Dear Admiral Lockwood, what the hell were you doing during the production of this movie?  Did you feel it was a good idea to approve a script where an obviously mentally unstable skipper is allowed to take a sub out again?  Hey Admiral, would a captain risk killing a transport full of civilians?  Sure.  Would a sub sink a net tender, thus alerting every destroyer in a harbor?  Sure.  Could a sub fire a torpedo into an anti-sub net and then negotiate the hole?  Sure.  Would a sub negotiate a mine field by sheer luck?  Sure.  Could a Japanese destroyer block all six torpedoes heading for a carrier?  Sure.

                “Torpedo Run’ is a two man show.  Glenn Ford plays an a**hole.  I’m not sure if that was the intention, but let’s face it.  And this guy has a loyal best friend, an unquestioning crew, clueless superiors, and a dead family.  I’m a big Ford fan, but he is terrible in this film.  He pouts and smirks his way through the film.  Ernest Borgnine is better, but he has to play the saintly Sloan.  No one else in the cast makes an impression.  Nor do they get a chance.  The movie could not care less about the crew.  It could also not care less about reality.  This is one aggravating and anti-intellectual war movie.  The plot is chock full of implausibilities.  The tactics are laughable, as I tried to point out to Adm. Lockwood.  As far as the special effects, it must have been a pretty uncompetitive year at the Academy Awards.  Fake miniatures in a swimming pool are not very impressive.  Even in glorious technicolor.

                How does this movie get made in 1958?  In my recent Submarine Movies Tournament, it was the ninth sub movie to be released.  Not only does it not improve on the previous movies, it is possibly the worst.  It does manage to avoid most of the established clichés, but it substitutes incidents that are inane and poorly executed. 

GRADE  =  D       

Saturday, July 8, 2017

SUB MOVIE: We Dive at Dawn (1943)



                “We Dive at Dawn” is possibly the best British sub movie.  It was directed by Anthony Asquith and released mid-war.  The Admiralty gave full cooperation and the exterior views are of two S-class boats.  The interiors are reconstructions of those boats.  Star John Mills went on a training run on a sub, much to the discomfort of his innards when the sub crash dived.  The movie has been overshadowed by films like “49th Parallel”, “In Which We Serve”, and “The Cruel Sea”, but belongs in their company.

                The HMS Sea Tiger returns from an uneventful patrol and the crew is looking forward to leave.  As with “In Which We Serve”, the movie concentrates on three of the men.  Lt. Taylor (Mills) is the skipper and he has a little black book that he plans on utilizing for recreation over rest.  That’s right – John Mills as a ladies’ man.  Corrigan (Niall MacGinnis) provides comic relief as the sailor who is scheming to avoid his impending nuptials to the Coxswain’s sister.  Hobson (Eric Portman) is attempting to repair his broken marriage.  All this will have to wait when the sub gets an emergency mission to sink a German battleship.  “Leave?  I nearly ran into myself coming back”.  On their way to intercept the warship, they have to crash dive to avoid a plane.  Taylor records the following in the log:  “Spotted plane approaching.  Looked like one of ours.  So dived immediately.”  Sly smile.  They rescue three German airmen from a rescue buoy.  Surely the only time this device has appeared in a movie.  I discovered that these buoys were placed by the Germans for succor for downed crews.  They were like a floating dorm room with supplies and a radio.  Interesting.  The sub has to pass through a mine field with the obligatory mine cable scraping along the side.  They ram their way through a submarine net.  Another unique moment.  They find their target, fire at it, get depth charged and escape with the usual cinematic trickery.  Unfortunately, running low on fuel, it looks like they will have to scuttle the boat and accept internment.  Unless some jilted seaman with no will to live, a captured German’s uniform, and an ability to speak German comes up with a bold plan.

                “We Dive at Dawn” is one of the better sub movies.  And it was made in 1943.  Frankly, the only weakness of the film is the sub warfare.  The special effects are rudimentary.  You don’t see the depth charges, but the jostling about is nicely done.  The traversing of the minefield lacks suspense and the ramming of the net is on the silly side.  The movie’s big set piece in the enemy harbor is equally silly, but rousing.  It is probably the best commando scene in any sub movie.  The post script of the sub returning to the acclaim of the fleet is the cherry on top.  The strengths of the movie are in its characters.  The movie has an excellent cast.  Everyone knows Mills’ work in war movies, but it is easy to forget what a player Portman was back then.  He was coming off of “49th Parallel” and “One of Our Aircraft is Missing” and would later appear in “The Colditz Story” and “The Bedford Incident”.  Hobson is a great character who goes from being a jerk to a hero realistically.  The decision to introduce the main characters by way of the shore leave was a good one and it is a shame the leave was cut short because those scenes are among the best in the movie.  The dialogue is excellent, although unless (and even if) you watch a lot of British films, you might wish for subtitles.  The sailor banter is fun, provided you can decipher the accents.  Speaking of which, you can tell a lot about the intelligence level of a movie by whether it subtitles the Germans.  This movie does not.

                Although the movie has a documentary look to it, it is not based on a true story.  There was no German battleship named Brandenburg.  No German battleships were lost to subs in WWII.  The commando raid is clearly fictional.  This means the movie is pure entertainment and achieves its goal of being a crowd-pleaser.  Especially if it’s a British crowd during the war.


GRADE  =  B+    

Friday, July 7, 2017

SUB MOVIE: Submarine Command (1951)



                “Submarine Command” is a movie that bridges WWII and the Korean War.  It uses the cramped confines of a sub to advance a plot that deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.  It was one of the first movies to take on this topic.  The movie was directed and produced by John Farrow who had won Best Director for “Wake Island”.  Star William Holden put $20,000 of his own money into the film.  It was not money well spent. The production had the cooperation of the U.S. Navy. 

                The movie tells us right off the bat that it is the "story of Kenneth White”, so it is going to be dominated by Holden’s character.  Commander White rescues a downed pilot named Morris (Don Taylor).  Kudos for showing a common role of subs in the Pacific.  The war is almost over and the Tiger Shark has an impressive record of 18 sinkings (including five warships).  There’s time for one more convoy.  It’s night, but White reverses established tactics and dives to make his attack.  The firing sequence is well-done.  They sink two merchantmen and surface to pick up survivors.  None of them will avail themselves of rescue.  For their act of humanity, they get caught on the surface by plane and the crash dive leaves a wounded sailor on deck.  White obviously did the right thing, but CPO Boyer (William Bendix) blames him for the deaths.  With the war over, White seemingly has no opportunity to redeem himself.  Not that he needs redemption since only Boyer is critical of his decision.  Oh, and also himself.  A series of desk jobs gives White time to stew in his PTSD.  Any reminder of the death turns White into a whiny little bitch.  This is putting pressure on his marriage to his cinematically perfect spouse Carol (Nancy Olson).  Hanging around and roiling the soap opera is the wolfish Morris.  What this relationship needs is another war.  Luckily for White, here comes Korea.  For unexplained reasons the Tiger Shark is recommissioned.  Guess who is returning as her captain.  Guess who will be on board to learn respect for him.  The sub is given a special mission to land commandos to take out shore installations.  Guess what flyboy is suddenly a commando leader. 

                It is commendable that “Submarine Command” tackles the issue of PTSD.  But being one of the first movies to deal with this subject means it is in uncharted territory.  Holden’s depiction of White’s turmoil is not believable.  He made the right decision and yet one blowhard sends him off the deep end?  That is not the only unbelievable aspect of the script.  The continuing presence of Morris is typical Hollywood bull crap.  You’ve seen it all before and not because you have seen sub movies.  Because you have seen war movies.  The character who is more wedded to the military than his spouse.  The warrior who is adrift without a war.  The redemption theme.  All of this would be acceptable if the execution was better.  As a sub movie, it is merely competent.  The interiors are realistic, but they are not used to advance a view of life on a sub.  There is little on submariner behavior.  The action is lacking in suspense and the effects are not noteworthy.  The climactic commando raid is full-on stupid.  It requires the sub to surface to send a message (which in actuality would not be required) and duel with shore batteries.  All this because to earn Boyer’s respect, White must do the wrong thing this time!
 
                The movie is more of a character study and it is trite in taking White from hero to desk-bound mope to hero again.  Holden is not at his best in a role that requires him to be morose.  (Oddly, the movie is so focused on White’s character arc that it forgets to be patriotic and pro-Navy.)  Jane Olson appears for the fourth and last time with Holden.  She is typecast as the understanding wife.  Taylor brings some verve in the role he perfected – the cocksure, lounge lizard pilot.  He and Holden were drunk through much of the production.  At one point, they snuck into a crowd scene in another picture.  When told he would be receiving a check and asked what charity to make it out to, he responded “make it out to my favorite charity – Bill Holden”.  The movie only hints at a love triangle.  Carol is too 1950s to be lured by Morris, so the movie does not go full soap opera, thankfully.   At least the cast was well-dressed, as Edith Head was credited with the costumes. Is that where Holden’s $20,000 went?

                “Submarine Command” is a lesser sub flick.  It’s the kind of movie that you seek out after you have seen a dozen other sub movies.  This way you don’t expect much.


GRADE  =  D


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

BOOK/MOVIE: The Red Badge of Courage



                The Red  Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane was published in 1895.  It is considered by many to be the best American war novel.  The novel is about a soldier in the Civil War named Henry Fleming.  He is nervous going into his first battle and rightly so as he ends up going through a gamut of emotions that run from cowardice to heroism.  The book is lauded for its vibrant prose which is rife with symbolism.  Crane described his take on war as “a psychological portrayal of fear”.  It is also acclaimed for its realism, including its depiction of combat.  It comes as a surprise to many that Crane did not fight in the war and in fact, was not even born at the time.  He researched the war through the “Battles and Leaders” series.  Although the book is not specific, it is apparently based on the Battle of Chancellorsville. Crane got his feel for combat partly by listening to the stories of veterans of the 124th New York Regiment.  It first saw action at Chancellorsville.  He was aided by an article from “Battles and Leaders” entitled “Recollections of a Private” by Warren Lee Goss.  I recently read Goss’ recollections and can see where some feel it was the genesis of the novel.  Goss was a reluctant enlistee.  He complains about all the drilling.  He does a lot of thinking about what battle will be like (although he is not really pondering how he will perform).  His first experience is similar to Henry’s except it was a “friend” who ran.  (Yeah, right – a friend, wink, wink).  Here is his description of the first time he “saw the elephant”:

The constant hissing of the bullets, with their sharp ping or bizz whispering around and sometimes into us, gave me a sickening feeling and a cold perspiration. I felt weak around my knees a sort~of faintness and lack of strength in the joints of my legs, as if they would sink from under me. These symptoms did not decrease when several of my comrades were hit. The little rifle-pits in our front fairly blazed with musketry, and the continuous snap, snap, crack, crack was murderous. Seeing I was not killed at once, in spite of all the noise, my knees recovered from their unpleasant limpness, and my mind gradually regained its balance and composure. I never afterwards felt these disturbing influences to the same degree.
               
                  How does the novel compare to the 1951 John Huston movie?  The movie covers most of the iconic scenes from the book.  And it borrows extensively from the dialogue.  It has the same main characters and their personalities are the same as in the book.  The movie does omit some scenes, but this may be due to the extensive cutting the studio did on Huston’s finished cut.  Notably, Huston decided to make some minor changes in details.  The changes included:

                -  Henry writes a letter to his father saying he will attempt to make him proud.  In the book, Henry’s father is deceased.  There is a flashback where his mother counsels him to behave himself against the temptations of soldiering.  Huston’s letter idea does a better job of conveying Henry’s fears of how he will perform in battle.
                -  Tom Wilson learns the rumor of the unit moving forward from another soldier.  In the book, Jim Conklin comes running into camp to proclaim the news.  The movie does a better job of conveying how rumors get spread in the army.
                -  The foraging soldier is trying to steal a pig, not a horse.  His mates make amusing remarks at his expense as the woman fights to get her property back.  The book plays the scene for more physical humor.  Huston adds some typical soldier humor with the change.
                -  Tom gives Henry a watch, not letters like in the book. 
                -  The Cheery Soldier’s monologue is shortened and given the themes that war is confusing and death has to be accepted as God’s will.
                -  Henry captures the Rebel flag, not Tom.

             Most significantly, Huston added some scenes for entertainment purposes.  The more important ones were:
                1.   Huston introduces the concept of a battle wound being referred to as a “red badge of courage” by way of a conversation Henry has with a Rebel sentry.
                2.  After Wilson spreads the rumor that they are about to march off to battle, but before the orders come, his mates toss jibes at him while in formation.
                3.  Before battle, a general rides down the line motivating his troops and promising each unit that he will have supper with them that night.

Those last two added some nice humor to the humorless novel.  And Huston added the line “After all the trouble we went to getting that wall, I’d like to set by it a while.”  This serves as the last word on their battle experience and adds a note of irony to the conclusion.

                I strongly belief that movies should be better than the books they are based on.  Notice I used the word “should”.  Just because some directors and screenwriters are incompetent does not refute my theory.  Unless the book is perfect, it can be improved upon.  A good screenwriter and director may not be able to make the story more literate, but they should be able to make it more entertaining.  “The Red Badge of Courage” is a difficult case study.  First, it is considered to be one of the great American novels, so it would be tough to beat.  Second, we don’t know what Huston’s uncut movie would have looked like.  We only have his word that he considered it his best film up until then.  Even with 50 minutes cut, the movie is still a classic.  An underappreciated classic.  The additions and changes Huston made did result in a more entertaining film than if he had adhered more closely to the book.  (If you don’t agree with that assessment, watch the 1974 version which is very close to the book and sucks.)

                It is my policy to watch a movie based on a book before reading the book.  This is the reverse of what most people do (if they do both).  My reasoning is that the movie very seldom has more to it than the book, so if you read the book after seeing the movie you will get the story fleshed out.  In this case, I would have to recommend that you read The Red Badge of Courage before you see the movie.  You haven’t read one of the most famous novels and the most famous American war novel?  Shame on you.  It’s brilliant, and short!  Then watch what one of America’s greatest directors did with it.  You can do this in one night.  Try it.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

ADAPT or ADOPT: The Red Badge of Courage (1951/1974)



                The second most prestigious Academy Award should be the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  To create a great motion picture out of nothing is an amazing accomplishment.  There have been only five war movies that have won for Best Original Screenplay.  There have been 33 that were nominated.  The winners were:  “Battleground” by Robert Pirosh (who was also nominated for “Go for Broke!”), “Father Goose”(!) by Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff, “Patton” by Francis Ford Coppola, “Coming Home” by Robert Jones, Waldo Salt, and Nancy Dowd, and “The Hurt Locker” by Mark Boal (who was also nominated for “Zero Dark Thirty”).  Adapting a screenplay is not as impressive.  You already have the source material and you turn it into a script.  I’m not saying it’s easy, I am saying that it is not as difficult.  As I scanned the Academy Awards list of nominated Adapted Screenplays they even had some plays that were converted into movies.  Are you kidding?  And sometimes it was the same writer!  There have been nine war movies that have won for Adapted Screenplay (out of 34 nominees).  The winners were:  “Mrs. Miniver” (inspired by a character in newspaper columns), “Casablanca”  (play), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (novel), “From Here to Eternity” (novel), “Bridge on the River Kwai” (novel), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (teleplay), “MASH” (novel), “Schindler’s List” (novel),  “The Pianist” (memoir),  and “The Imitation Game” (biography).  Of these, the last two are the most impressive because they are based on nonfiction.

                Why do I bring up this topic?  Because recently I spent an evening watching the two movies based on The Red Badge of Courage and then read the book again.  Along with my theory that an original screenplay is better than an adapted one, I have a belief that a movie based on a book should be better than the book it is based on.  This makes for an interesting case study because the first movie adapted the novel’s plot and the second adopted it.  The first is a very good movie so it can be logically compared to the acclaimed novel.  I have already reviewed it here.  Let’s look at adopted first.

                “The Red Badge of Courage” (1974) is a made-for-TV picture starring Richard Thomas (who also starred in the very underrated TV version of “All Quiet on the Western Front”).  The movie adheres more to the plot of the novel than the 1951 Audie Murphy version.  It includes several more scenes from the novel and does not have any added scenes like in John Huston’s film.  You would think that would make the screenplay for the 1974 version better than the original because the closer you adhere to a great novel, the better.  Right?  But before I take on the two screenplays, let me make it clear that I do not believe either movie is better than Crane’s novel.  It is the rare war novel that probably cannot be improved in a movie rendering.  That is mainly because of Crane’s way with words, which no script can match.  Both movies borrow extensively from dialogue in the book and both stick closely to the plot.  It’s a similar situation to “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

                If you have seen Huston’s movie, be aware that the changes that the 1974 film makes are all in the direction of the novel.  Here are a few examples.  Jim Conklin (the Tall Soldier) spreads the movement rumor, not Tom Wilson (the Loud Soldier). The main character Henry (Audie Murphy) moves on with the Tattered Soldier after the death of Jim and eventually runs off to escape his ramblings.  Their unit is taunted as it comes away from the final battle.  And the finale is different because instead of leaving in good spirits, a general reams their colonel for stopping their attack too soon and calls them “mud diggers”.  The Thomas version adds some flashbacks that occur in the book.  Henry remembers his mother sending him off and the girls ogling him in his uniform.  (This version does manage to get some females in – something the original did not.)  It includes a bizarre surreal scene where a general tells the cowardly Henry that he was wise to run away.  This is not in the book, but pretty much everything else is.
 
                If you don’t want to read the book and still need to write a book report, watch the 1974 movie.  If you want to watch a good war movie, watch the 1951 version.  The 1974 version is terrible.  The acting is horrible, even Thomas, who was very good in “All Quiet…”.  He does not have a grip on the character and cannot match Audie Murphy’s portrayal of the conflicted Fleming. The supporting cast is low rent and it shows.  There is a lot of scene chewing.  When Bill Maudlin kicks your ass, it’s time to stop acting.  What good is it to pull lines from the book if you don’t have actors that can deliver them?  At least it does not have the insulting narration of the original.  You would think the combat would be better, but it is competing against John Huston and his cinematographer Harold Rosson.   The cannons do recoil, so point goes to 1974 on that.  And there is blood and it’s in color.  However, the combat scenes are mediocre and played by poor actors.  It does not help to slo these dudes down. 

                The script is poorly executed in the 1974 version, but it is closer to the book.  So why is the screenplay worse.  The reason is John Huston adapted his screenplay better.  He was handed a script by Albert Band that closely conformed to the novel and Huston rewrote a good bit of it.  We’ll never know if that just means he added some scenes because his original cut of the film has been lost.  It may have had the same scenes that the 1974 version decided to enact.  (We do know for sure that the studio cut the scene where Henry is walking with the Tattered Soldier.)  It’s the additions to the book that Huston put in that separate the two scripts.  Huston does not exactly tamper with the novel (like “Full Metal Jacket” did with The Short Timers), but he Hustonizes it.  Mainly that refers to adding some humor.  Two of the most memorable scenes in his movie are not in the book.  The scene where his mates clown Wilson for promising they would be moving up and the scene where the general promises to have dinner that night with several units.  He shortens and tightens the monologue of the Cheery Soldier.  He also makes subtle changes like having the feisty Wilson spread the rumor instead of the sober Conklin. More importantly, he has Fleming capture the Rebel flag instead of Wilson.  I feel that these changes are improvements over the book.  He also chose (or the studio did) to consolidate the last two attacks and omit the scene where the general berates them.  The decision of the 1974 version to end with this was perplexing, especially since the book does not end with it.  I suppose you could theorize that Huston was making his movie in the middle of the Korean War and the other was made after the Vietnam War.  Discuss.

                In conclusion, let me show some love for the adapted screenwriters - in this case, John Huston. He did not equal the brilliance of Stephen Crane’s prose, but he did add and tweak to make improvements on the story.  On the other hand, we have a screenplay that was too respectful of the source (and poorly executed).  It may be better as a Cliff’s Notes version of the novel, but no one should watch the 1974 version ahead of the 1951 version.  In virtually every parallel scene, the Huston movie is superior. 


GRADE:  1974 version  =  D