The Enemy Below (1957)
Director: Dick Powell
Writer: Wendell Mayes
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
by Jon Cvack
What a film! I love how the submarine movie is a genre in and of itself - Das Boot, U-571, Below, K52, The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, etc. And this is at the very top. Shockingly balanced given the time it was made - and really for any time, for that matter - the movie is very much about honor and duty. The U.S.S. Haynes, helmed by Captain Murrell (Robert Mitchum), who comes from the sailing profession, commanding a private barge in his civilian life, which was once attacked, killing his girlfriend. Nevertheless, Mitchum in no way enjoys the fact that his mission is to destroy life. For his restless crew who’s anxious for any action at all, it’s clear that they don’t understand his views; that is, until they finally spot the u-boat.
On the German submarine, Captain von Stornberg (Curtis Jurgens), is equally determined to meet his responsibilities, but expresses great reserve about what he’ll have to do. Given the stats of the time, in which near the WWII's conclusion, the technology to find and destroy German U-Boats nearly tripled the number of casualties, I’m not sure if the German Navy passed these figures onto the men, but it’s clear that they seem to know what they're facing.
Both Captains are extraordinarily intelligent men, enjoying the hunt and pursuing it no different than a game of chess. Aside from both men’s insight into the difficulties of war, we get to witness their skills and erudition. In a brilliant sequence, Captain Murrell decides to use the depth charges in order to destroy German morale, which after a steady barrage, results in one of the men going frantic and trying to get off the ship. In response, Captain von Stornberg puts on a German national anthem, both for his own crew and to show Murrel that their morale's unaffected.
The cat and mouse game is a thrill to watch, and it’s admirable that director Dick Powell and novelist D.A. Rayner made us want to have the U-Boat sink, though not for everyone aboard to perish. We see that like Captain Murrell, Captain von Stornberg won’t leave a man behind, willing to die with his friend, rather than abandon him. How easy would it have been to portray these two men as vicious and selfish Nazis, getting what they deserve as they attempted to kill the American crew.
The first film that comes to mind that offers sympathy to Nazis is Downfall, which was criticized for humanizing Hitler, in what was indubitably one of the greatest performances of the 21st Century and often overlooked (though that hasn’t prevented it from becoming a meme for the rage of any and all new technologies...). Of course, another easy comparison is Das Boot, which aims to humanize an entire German U-Boat crew , highlighting the claustrophobia and utter boredom they experience.
As the recent Bridge of Spies demonstrates, on both sides are soldiers trying to honor their country, right or wrong. To criticize them or portray them as lesser than such is a horrible and dangerous form of Nationalism. At the end of the day, to be a good soldier is to obey orders and the willingness to sacrifice your life for your country. If only this balance could occur prior to the attacks, from both ends that decide war is the answer, instead of in hindsight, when the high cost of fighting becomes all too apparent.
It’ rare to find a film that balances action with realistic drama. The Enemy Below does an incredible job. Nevertheless, I’m a bit confused over the title, which seems so concrete and definite. I wonder if someone else figured it needed the title. I could see The Enemy Below and Above having once been an option.
BELOW: Dick Powell introducing the trailer
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