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.


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