“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+