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.


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