Tuesday, August 1, 2017

#5 U-571 vs. #12 Hell and High Water


PLOT:  U-571” is based on the true story of the capture of an Enigma machine from a German u-boat.  It is very fictionalized, especially the part where the Americans are the heroes instead of the British.  An American sub is sent on a special mission to intercept a damaged u-boat and purloin the code machine by way of faking that it is a milch cow.  Unfortunately, the real supply sub arrives at an inopportune moment and now a few surviving Americans must take the u-boat back home.  The plot piles every cliché and implausibility that it can so if you have never seen a sub movie, you won’t ever have to see another one.  GRADE  =  D

Hell and High Water” is set in the Cold War.  An ex-sub skipper (Richard Widmark) is hired by a group of scientists to recon an island in the northern Pacific due to a mysterious nuclear explosion.  The motley crew of mercenaries will travel on a ramshackle old Japanese sub.  Widmark is forced to carry the lead scientist on board as well as his comely assistant scientist.  Having a woman on board causes dysfunction and romance for Widmark.  The movie manages to justify a duel with another sub and a shore raid.  The plot is certainly unique, but not as silly as you would expect considering the premise.  GRADE  =  B

                                             Hell and High Water  =  8

ACTING:   The problem with “U-571” is not with the acting.  It’s a fine cast of veterans and newcomers.  Matthew McConaughey is admirably restrained as the exec who has command thrust upon him.  It’s not exactly a ground-breaking role, but he is a good anchor for the film.  Harvey Keitel is perfect for the crusty Chief Gunner’s Mate.  The movie is essentially an ensemble piece and the actors work well together.  Too bad there is no character development.  GRADE  =  B

“Hell and High Water” is a vehicle for Richard Widmark.  He is his usual snarky self as the captain.  He also plays the amorous Jones as something of a hypocrite and predator.  The most interesting character is Bella Darvi as the hot scientist.  This role could have been sexist, but she is an egg-head who proves to be an asset to the mission.  She also puts up with the condescending sexism with aplomb.  The crew does not make much of an impression.  GRADE  =  B

HALFTIME SCORE:  U-571  =  13     
                                   Hell and High Water  =  16

TACTICS:  You may learn a lot about submarine clichés from “U-571”, but you won’t be tutored on tactics.  The movie has a scene where two subs duel submerged.  I’m not saying that might not have happened once or twice, but it would have been very rare.  There is also a successful duel with a German destroyer (alone in the mid-Atlantic?!) on the surface.  They use their deck gun to take out the destroyer’s radio antenna with one lucky shot from a German deck gun.  These guys’ learning curve is incredibly high.  GRADE  =   C

“Hell and High Water” is not really a movie about submarine warfare.  However, it must have wanted to be one because it throws in a duel with a Chinese (?) sub that make little sense for the narrative, but puts some action into the middle section.  The two subs are tracking each other through passive sonar and both go silent on the bottom.  first, but that does not justify offending our intelligence.  Not to mention the tactic of using a sub’s anti-aircraft guns (and assorted machine guns) to shoot down a bomber that is taking off.  GRADE  =  D

                                               Hell and High Water  =  21

CLICHES:  “U-571” brought submarine movies into the 20th Century, but it is very much a throwback to the 1940s style.  The director made no bones about throwing the kitchen sink in.  That might have worked with viewers who were unfamiliar with the subgenre and its well-established tropes, but for war movie lovers, it comes off as insulting.  This movie has more clichés than any submarine movie ever made.  The American sub has to cut short its leave to go on a special mission.  There is a conflict between the skipper and his exec.  They have to go below crush depth with resulting leaks and rivets popping.  There is a black mess mate, but he is given a major role.  They jettison debris and a dead body to fool a destroyer.  There is a commando on board although not for a shore mission.  The sub has to make an emergency dive leaving crew in the water.  There is a repair necessary, but costly to a crew member.    GRADE  =  F

The plot of “Hell and High Water” does not really lend itself to clichés.  This makes it the exact opposite of “U-571”.  There is a bit of a conflict between Jones and the scientist, but it doesn’t raise the temperature of the boat.  The mission is definitely special – to save the world from nuclear annihilation.  There is a commando raid to blow stuff up.  GRADE  =  B

FINAL SCORE:  U-571  =  23
     Hell and High Water  =  29

ANALYSIS:   “U-571” did well at the box office and got favorable reviews.  This attests to the entertainment value of a submarine movie even as recently as 2000.  If you haven’t seen many sub movies (and who has?) it can seem like a fresh approach to an action movie confined to the claustrophobic interiors of a sub.  The cast is attractive and there is plenty of action of the modern variety (meaning to hell with reality).  However, this is a submarine movie tournament involving only sub movies.  In comparison to its brethren, it comes off as an attempt to be the quintessential example of its ilk.  It tries too hard.  “Hell and High Water” is obviously less known.  It is also reality-challenged, but does not try to be everything you expect in a sub movie.  It does try to bring the sub movie into the Cold War and while not as good as “The Bedford Incident” (another Widmark film), it does keep the subgenre vibrant.


  1. I didn't have high expectations for U-571...and left really angry that I'd spent money on it. WORST! SUB! MOVIE! EVAH!!! :-)

    1. I had a similar reaction. It is so insulting to war movie lovers.


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