“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