Director: Robert Wise
Writer: John Gay; Run Silent, Run Deep (1955) novel by Edward L. Beach, Jr.
Cinematographer: Russell Harlan
Producer: Harold Hecht
by Jon Cvack
I mentioned my love for the submarine subgenre in my thoughts on The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Crimson Tide (1995) - two great films that have yet to be topped in over twenty years. Das Boot (1981) is the masterpiece and The Enemy Below (1957) is unappreciated. U-571 (2000) is the younger brother to all of them; serving as that rare movie experience where the sound design is worth the viewing, and after a decade, has aged particularly well with some surprising faces. It’s the film most similar to Run Silent, Run Deep, involving an American submarine crew led by Commander P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable) who’s determined to destroy the Japanese destroyer “Bungo Pete” whose sunk four of his submarines in the Bungo Straits. Richardson demands submarine command be led by an Executive Officer straight from active sea patrol. In other words, Richardson is willing to leave his cozy office in order to get revenge via submarine. The premise is perfect in brevity.
Richardson meets the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster), who while admiring Richardson's record, is annoyed and offended by the move; evidently with his eyes on command. Richardson leans on Bledsoe to whip the crew into shape, specifically by its ability to dive and raise periscope to fire within thirty seconds, no matter how many times they have to try.
My favorite aspect of submarine stories is that, if done well, you get to see the division of labor. We see the mechanics, missile control, the radio men, cooks, and engineers all working together in order to accomplish the mission and stay alive. They take us throughout the ship where we learn the geography and how they do what they do. We witness the bonds they share which makes any great war movie part family film.
Although Richrdson’s superiors banned him from the Bungo Straits, he ignores the order and shocks his crew when he avoids taking out an enemy cruiser in order to enter. They arrive in a long convoy where they find Bungo Pete. They take out a destroyer and attempt to hit Bungo Pete, but enemy fighter planes swoop in, followed by another ship dumping depth charges. It’s a scene that could be just as thrilling today; containing all of the elements that provide a great submarine movie - the Captain waiting to get the enemy in sight; hearing the torpedoes as they close in and narrowly miss; and most surprising, the classic silence while depth charges drop, rumbling the entire ship, or in Run Silent, Run Deep’s case, killing three. Going even further, they stuff the dead bodies into the launch tubes as a decoy.
Richardson is knocked unconscious during the counter attack and led to the infirmary. Recently I wrote in The Misfits (1961) that Gable would die later that year from his alcoholism. While not nearly as haggard in this film, Gable still shows signs of decay. There’s a madness to the role that feels far more personal than you’d find in an action movie. Believing he can recover, the crew assembles privately, inviting in Bledsoe and requesting that he take over as commander. Reluctant and enraged, he later capitulates and explains that Richardson is done.
There’s a great mythological quality about the movie; of a former cocky Knight who wishes to return to the Dark Forest and fight the kingdom’s enemies. It’s this classic plot that allows the filmmakers to focus on the action and characters while providing just enough juice to keep the story flowing forward. It is a film about individual moments, in which each scene matches or outdoes the previous, building and building until the ride comes to an end.
BELOW: A movie where everything goes back to sex
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