“Gray Lady Down” was an addition to the venerable submarine subgenre of war movies. It was based on the novel by David Lavalee entitled Event 1000. That title refers to U.S. Navy terminology for a rescue of a sunken submarine’s crew. It was directed by David Greene (“Friendly Fire”). It attempted to tap in to the craze for disaster films in the 1970s, but barely made a blip at the box office. The movie stars Charleston Heston sporting his Moses beard. The production got cooperation from the Navy and the Department of Defense. The USS Trout was loaned to stand in for the movies USS Nautilus. Footage and a full-scale model were provided by “Ice Station Zebra”.
It’s Commander Blanchard’s (Heston) last cruise before a desk job. Should be a piece of cake, right? On a foggy night, the sub is running on the surface when they encounter a Russian freighter that lacks radar. Since the Nautilus does have radar, you would think it could easily avoid a freighter. However, what would be entertaining about that? The resulting collision tears a giant hole in the engine room and the sub goes down in deep water. Well below crush depth, of course. The American-built sub withstands the pressure, but settles precariously on a ledge. The angle makes rescue by a DSRV (Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle) problematical. The DSRV goes down and it looks like the rescue will go off without a hitch until a “gravity slide” covers the escape hatch. Complications, complications. What we need here is an iconoclastic genius! Keith Carradine - enter stage right. Carradine plays Lt. Gates. Gates commands an experimental mini-sub named after him. It’s called the Snark. Fresca product placement! Leaks, mechanical breakdowns, command dysfunction, etc. ensue. The dominoes elicit the following line from Heston: “I’m beginning to feel like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.” (A line recycled probably from the uncut version of “The Ten Commandments”.) Somehow the movie manages to throw in an underwater explosion. If you have seen any disaster movies, you know there will be survivors and some who sacrifice so there will be. Did you think the Navy cooperated with a movie that showed its DSRV as a failure? Do you think recruitment to the submarine service would be improved by having the crew perish? Cooperation comes with some script vetting, after all.
“Gray Lady Down” is not as bad as you would expect. It is middle of the road for the subgenre. And, by the way, I’m not sure it really is a war movie. Unless you want to believe my conspiracy theory that the Soviet freighter meant to sink our sub. (Or how about this one? Commander Blanchard purposely disregarded his radar in order to provoke World War III so he would be able to avoid the desk job.) Regardless, it certainly is a submarine movie. This is proved by the escalating series of crises common to this subgenre. You get many of the greatest hits - flooding compartments, lack of communication, fear of crushing, and so forth. All of this drama is competently performed. The cast is fine. The recognizable stars are strong, especially Carradine. His character is stock, but he brings a twinkle to it. He balances Heston’s pomposity. I have to admit that Heston does not chew the scenery as a much as usual. However, the supporting cast is weak. It includes Christopher Reeve in his film debut. (You know you are in trouble if Moses and Superman can’t save you.) The special effects are those of a made-for-TV movie. But at least they are not laughable. The music also reminds of a TV movie.
Will “Gray Lady Down” crack my 100 Best War Movies list? Obviously not. But it is a fairly entertaining movie.