JoeMc on 08/20/2009 at 08:06AM
Last weekend, I caught an old flicker that I'd never seen before, and a fairly well-known one, too. It was Run Silent, Run Deep, a 1958 World War II actioner about a submarine on a dangerous mission to take out a Japanese destroyer. I have to admit that I'm not a big fan of war films in general, but I do have a weakness for submarine films. Ever since I saw Das Boot as a teenager (the Citizen Kane of sub movies), I've had a jones for movies that feature a bunch of stressed-out dudes defying death in a floating tin can.
Today's post is sort of a little sub movie in itself. Feel free to listen to it after you watch the trailer for Run Silent, Run Deep here.
Run Silent, Run Deep seems generally more realistic than some of the movies of the submarine movie genre. Based on a book by a navy sub commander, the movie takes pains to show the procedures the men on the sub follow as they train for battle and learn to deploy their "fish" (torpedoes). Apparently, director Robert Wise hired a bunch of WWII vets to train his cast, and other vets who saw the movie later praised it for its accuracy. Compared to the special effects possible today, some of the effects in the film seem a bit creaky now, but they're never comically so. Anyway, all of the technical veracity and battle photography is really just background for the emotional fireworks between the stars of the film, Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.
Gable plays Captain Richardson, a tough old salt who has been blasted out of his own ship in an area called the Bungo Straits, a strip of water that separates the Japanese islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. "Bungo Pete" and his ship the Akikaze have been responsible for several lethal attacks on U.S. vessels there, and Richardson is determined to put him out of business, even if it means undercutting the command of Lieutenant Bledsoe (Lancaster) and practically hijacking Bledsoe's sub to go back to the Straits and knock out the Akikaze.
In a lot of ways, the story plays like Moby Dick with explosions; Richardson is a navy Ahab chasing his white whale (the Akikaze) with an almost insane persistence, even breaking the rules of his government to do it. Breaking the rules for the "right" reasons is a sore topic these days given the exploits of our government in recent years, but the magic of Hollywood is that this renegade posture produces results. I won't ruin the film for you, but let's just say that all of the fish are delivered to the right people. In the meantime, we get to watch Gable and Lancaster go toe-to-toe with clenched jaws over issues of honor, respect, and loyalty. It's a lot of fun to watch these movie titans snap at each other, Lancaster straining to tamp down his fury in the slowburn way that he does, and Gable perfecting the steely, hawk-like look of his later years, miles away from the handsome rogue of the 30s.
Because it's a submarine movie, there are also at least two nail-biting scenes in Run Silent, Run Deep in which it seems as if the sub and its crew are about to snuff it. This is really what makes these movies so compelling, the narrow escape from what seems like sure annihilation. Later on, Clouzot would push this kind of tension to the limit in Wages of Fear, but you can get a good taste of it here, too.
Run Silent, Run Deep shows just how significant submarines were to America's war effort during World War II, but subs themselves weren't all that new. Quick history: The first American sub was built in 1862 during the Civil War, and efforts had been made even before that time. The navy got involved by the turn of the 20th Century; their USS Holland, the first navy sub (built right near WFMU in Elizabeth, New Jersey!), was active from 1900 to 1910. By the time of World War I, the navy was using submarines to escort convoys of supplies. At the same time, the German navy was becoming notorious for its U-Boats, their version of the submarine. U-Boats became a dreaded part of the Kaiser's arsenal during the war.
This is the period depicted in "A Submarine Attack," which finds the Premier Quartet "and Company" aboard a ship that encounters a German U-Boat and puts paid to it. All while singing, of course, and with a special appearance by a Red Cross girl! It was recorded in 1918, the last year of World War I, and you can almost hear the feeling of sure victory in the singers' voices. As on most Premier Quartet records, Edison recording star Billy Murray's voice sticks right out during the choruses. It's a long way from Run Silent, Run Deep, but it's still interesting!
If you get a chance to see Run Silent, Run Deep and you like it, there are some other submarine movies that are definitely worth seeing: Submarine, directed by Frank Capra (1930); Men Without Women, directed by John Ford (1932); We Dive at Dawn (1943); Crash Dive (a bit cheesy, but it has a nice finish) (1943); the epic Das Boot (1981); and U-571 (2000). Have a favorite? Chime in on the comments.