Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Movie – Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)

In my prior review of Crimson Tide (1995) – which you can read here – I wrote that it was closer to Run Silent, Run Deep than to other submarine movies it was trying to emulate.  Crimson Tide featured Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington as a Captain and XO of a submarine who clash with each other.  In Run Silent, Run Deep it is Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster – two people who certainly know how to command the screen.  Now imagine having both of them in the same movie, sometimes opposed to each other and you get an idea of why Run Silent, Run Deep is an entertaining movie.

The film takes place during WWII.  It opens with a scene even before any credits.  Commander Richardson (Gable) is Captain of a submarine patrolling the Bungo Straits between two of Japan’s major islands.  After sinking a cargo ship he is set upon by the Japanese destroyer Akikaze and sunk.  The film shows Richardson and some of his crew surviving, although it would be very unlikely in real life.  Other than this survival, which is needed in order to drive Richardson’s motivation for the rest of the film, and Gable being too old in real life for the position, Run Silent, Run Deep is considered a very accurate portrayal of what life was like onboard a U.S. submarine during WWII.

The film then forwards to a year later.  It is now 1943 and Richardson is commanding a desk at Pearl Harbor, bored out of his mind and obsessed with the Akikaze.  Since his loss it has also destroyed three more subs the U.S. has sent to patrol the same area.  He and an aide, Yeoman Mueller (Jack Warden), play pretend war games in his office.  There is more than little of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale in Commander Richardson and his desire to destroy the Akikaze.  So much so that when he learns that a sub, the U.S.S. Nerka, is arriving in Pearl Harbor having lost its Captain he goes to the Pacific Naval Board and convinces them to put him in command of the sub, rather than promote the boat’s current XO Lt. Bledsoe (Lancaster).  Naturally, Bledsoe is pissed at this outsider usurping his command, but he plays nice at first.

If this plot sounds familiar it is because it has been used in several movies since.  Among those is Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) with Admiral Kirk taking command of the Enterprise away from Captain Decker.  By coincidence (or is it?) both that film and this one were directed by Robert Wise.  He didn’t write the screenplays for either film, though. 

Actually, Run Silent, Run Deep was based on the 1955 novel of the same name.  It was written by Commander Edward L. Beach, Jr.  Beach is the real deal when it comes to submariners.  He served on a sub during WWII, including being part of the Battle of Midway, and earned the Navy Cross.  He achieved command of his own boat towards the end of the war.  When the novel was published he was serving as the Naval Aide to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  In 1959 he took command of the U.S.S. Triton, the fifth nuclear powered submarine commissioned by the United States and in 1960 the Triton achieved the first ever underwater circumnavigation of the globe.  From this he wrote a 1962 non-fiction book titled Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton.  As most writers do he wasn’t thrilled with everything the movie adaptation of Run Silent, Run Deep changed from his book, which took place over the entirety of the war, not just the several months shown in the film.

In the movie the Nerka puts to sea with orders to go to “Area 7” (presumably somewhere in the vicinity of Japan), but under no circumstances to go into the Bungo Straits where the four other subs have all been lost to the Akikaze.  Richardson drills the crew over and over to get them to submerge and fire torpedoes in as short a time as possible.  There is grumbling among the crew, especially because Bledsoe was much admired and they see Richardson as an usurper.  Bledsoe orders them to cool it, but tempers flare between Yeoman Mueller, who Richardson has brought with him, and Ensign Cartwright (Brad Dexter) who has served under Bledsoe.  Making matters worse is the fact that this is WWII and Mueller is of German heritage.

Richardson confuses the crew more by his refusal to engage certain targets.  When they finally do take on a destroyer it is head on to it, not into its flank.  This is a radical maneuver and they finally understand why Richardson has been drilling them in speed; it’s for this specific maneuver.  Bledsoe realizes, though, that Richardson must have something specific in mind for that tactic: to take on the Akikaze.  He confronts Richardson, who admits that he intends to defy orders and go right through the Bungo Straits, as is his right as the Captain to change orders as the situation calls for it.  Although unhappy, Richardson complies.

Things come to a head when the Nerka is almost destroyed when it tries to take on the Akikaze.  They need time for repairs and Richardson is driving them to re-engage in battle as soon as possible.  Making matters worse is that Richardson was injured in the attacks, has a concussion, and might literally die if he doesn’t take it easy.  He tries to conceal this from Bledsoe and the crew, though.  At the urging of the other officers, Bledsoe confines Richardson to his quarters and takes command of the sub.  What will he do, though?  Returning to Pearl Harbor without having used his full complement of torpedoes looks cowardly, but taking on the Akikaze again could be suicide.  And will Richardson be content to just stay in his cabin?  And unbeknownst to everyone, including the movie viewer, there is another thing that makes the Akikaze seemingly so superior.  I will not spoil it, but it is a good reveal when we find out.

As I said at the top, both Gable and Lancaster command the screen.  Both certainly made a career playing tough guys in their movies so imagine seeing them butt heads with each other.  They reportedly clashed in real life, too, with Lancaster also being a producer on the film and Gable not being happy with some elements of his character’s story arc.  If so, this only enhanced the tension in their scenes together.  By the way, you will also see the first screen appearance of Don Rickles in Run Silent, Run Deep.  According to the IMDB trivia he got the role after Frank Gorshin was injured in a car accident while driving to the screen test.

The only negative I have with the film is something that it cannot help.  Even though its use of miniatures during the battles was state of the art and much praised at the time, it’s pretty obvious they are miniatures to a modern eye.  It isn’t so bad that these tense battles become silly.  It’s just apparent that they are not real.

Hopefully that would not be enough to prevent you from seeing this film.  It is the third best submarine movie I have seen.  If you like these kinds of films, and especially if you liked the conflict scenes in Crimson Tide, then I recommend you watch the film that inspired quite a bit of it.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. I like that: The Third Best Submarine movie. :) It must be good if so many movies are based off it.

    1. Thanks. I can see how that comment would be out of context all on its own. In my recent reviews of Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October I referred to them as the best and second best submarine movies, respectively.

      Run Silent, Run Deep is definitely worth the watch if you like either Gable or Lancaster.

  2. That's a great observation: The Captain and the XO in conflict is parallel to Crimson Tide, and I like your comparison of Richardson with Captain Ahab. btw; It is out on Blu Ray now. I wrote a short post on Run Silent Run Deep called "Treating a Person with Honor." Here is the link if you would like to read it:

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the link to your post. I found it interesting that your posts concentrate on particular concepts and you use films to then illustrate them.

  3. I'm doing a blog on this movie and have been casting about for others' opinions and found my way here. Great review/ blog in general. I see the last entry refers to some surgery issues and was from over a year ago and just wanted to say hope all went well, there, and I hope you pick it all back up.

    In the meantime, looks like I have plenty of reading to keep me busy.

    Cheers, thanks for this.