Director: James B. Harris
Writer: James Poe; based upon The Bedford Incident by Mark Rascovich
Cinematographer: Gulbert Taylor
Producer: James B. Harris and Richard Widmark
by Jon Cvack
The Bedford Incident is a great follow up to Run Silent, Run Deep which I watched just a couple weeks back; except rather than pure war film it’s more fitting for the cynicism of Seconds (1966), Fail Safe (1964), or Dr. Strangelove (1964). It involves the photojournalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) who boards a battleship in order to document the infamous Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) who patrols the waters near Greenland at the peak of the cold war. Munceford is joined by a Navy reserve doctor Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter (Martin Balsam) who’s been brought aboard in order to assess the crew’s physical and mental health.
Finlander is a tough captain who’s struggling with the mandate that he shouldn’t strike any enemy ship unless permitted. As of late, he’s been tracking down a Russian submarine which flirts between international and protected waters. Finlander runs a tight ship, though his crew is exceptionally loyal.
The dynamic is odd, yet works. Given Poitier’s series of racially charged films, I kept expecting his storyline to shift over. Finland would reveal himself as a bigot and Munceford would have to earn his place on the all-white ship. Insead it’s the complete opposite. I can’t recall one moment where a character addressed his race. It’s a role that makes you grasp Denzel Washington’s frequent admiration. Given the period, it’s difficult to think of an African American actor who so successfully asserted himself into a film. You can’t help but predict how the dynamic will evolve; the intrusive photographer against the old school sea captain, and yet it never does. Throughout most of the story Finlander respects Munceford’s role (whether for his own personal credit or not).
It’s then combined with Chest Putter’s role as a new medical officer, who after conducting an initial round of interviews, reports to Finland that the soldiers need to take better care of their physical and mental health. He offers a goofy calisthenics routine and opts to track each crew members’ health one by one, but Finland rejects the idea. Instead he demands Putter read about a dozen books about the updates to Navy code on medicine before prescribing a remedy.
It’s the one section of the film that feels a bit too loose as compared with the other plots. I was imagining a scene with one of the soldiers going through a breakdown; perhaps smoking too much and becoming increasingly volatile. In fact, Donald Sutherland has a brief cameo as one of the hospitalman who’s conducting research on trash found in the ocean. Again, I was thrown for a loop, figuring him to play a far larger role before realizing it was one of his earliest parts. Still, imagine if he started having a breakdown and offered the direct evidence of Putter’s hypothesis.
So we got a photojournalist doing a story on Finland, Cutter attempting to assess the crew’s health who’s in some type of power struggle with Finland, and Finland who’s trying to track down the submarine and accommodate the strict parameters of what constitutes lawful engagement. I’m struggling to think how they all relate. On the one hand could be Finland’s vanity, but I’m not sure how this compares to his reluctance to look after his loyal troops. It’s an engaging setup, it’s just not the most coherent.
Finland is joined by a bizarre NATO commander and former U-boat captain Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman) who, being a former Nazi, sympathizes with destroying the Russians, advising Finland on just how close he can get. Soon they end up in some glacial waters outside of what I believe was Greenland, where the Russian sub drifts in and out of international waters. When a radioman who’s been working over 24 hours straight passes out, the crew grows weary of the pursuit, but not wanting to appear weak, Finland persists.
They chase the submarine down within the enemy territory as it pops up on occasion to get air (revealing only a few tiny pipes, for lack of a better description). Knowing that it can’t stay down forever and that it’s simply trying to get to international waters, Finland orders the crew to run over the submarine as it mounts for air. The crew abides and they strike. Expecting the submarine to then rise, Finland orders them to prepare weapons. Munceford steps in, arguing he cannot destroy the sub. Amidst the heat of the argument, Finland shouts, “If he fires one, I’ll fire one” which the crew member mistakes as an order and fires a missile. Finland races to cancel and we watch - in that amazing documentary footage that’s often blended so well with old black and white films - as the missile rises up, unleashes a parachute and falls back to the ocean. We assume it’s safe and everyone waits and it then explodes; unloading a thunderous blast of water. Within moments, the Russians fire three torpedoes in their direction. Finland freezes, having no evasive maneuvers planned. The torpedoes close in and just as we realize what’s happening- the ship explodes. Killing everyone.
It’s a grim ending, comparable in tone to Seconds, Fail Safe, and Dr. Strangelove; portraying a world on the brink of total destruction. Given the similarities, it serves as another example of how pervasive the cold war paranoia was. Today we are experiencing similar instability, and for some reason the threat of nuclear weapons seems distant from more immediate concerns. What this film achieves is the sense of anxiety in unstable times. There is something haunting about a ship and its crew in the middle of the arctic ocean, chasing an unseen enemy. I’m not sure what it all means exactly but the feeling itself - extending throughout the film- is palpable enough to make me anxious for a return. It’s not a large story of worldwide disaster so much as what could begin it and how it can come down to a single individual.
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