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Dive, Dive, Dive: The Five Most Underrated Submarine Movies


The most underrated subdivision of war films is the submarine thriller.  I might be biased—in my family, those who never developed a sufficient affinity for the genre were tossed off a cliff to die alongside the corpses of the unfit—but most submarine movies have a foolproof setup.

  1. Establish large (but not too large) group of primary heroes.
  2. Stuff said heroes inside an adjusted-for-scale tin can with propellers (bonus points if nuclear energy powers the vessel).
  3. Place that tin can deep under water, preferably either just above the point where the metal exterior starts to buckle and groan or just below that point.
  4. Sic enemy tin cans of equal or greater force against our tin can, and give the bad guys all means of missiles, depth charges, etc.
  5. Minimize the amount of movie action taking place outside the ship’s confines.

This formula plays on so many inherent fears that viewers have (claustrophobia, drowning, and my favorite, nuclear exposure) that even the subpar entries in the canon generate decent suspense.  The Kelsey Grammar “comedy” Down Periscope face-plants as a laugh-machine, but the underwater peril scenes thrill, even if just a little bit.

Problem is, this genre hasn’t surfaced (pun most certainly intended) much recently, and I suspect that for many people, the tension at work is too primal, too uncomfortable.  It’s a nightmare situation, only without the luxury of running away or waking up.

Watching the newly released Blu-ray of Das Boot (head HERE to check it out) reminded me what a shame that is.  The director’s cut remains the best submarine movie ever made because of how relentlessly it immerses the audience in submarine realities.  After a short prologue on land, the only respites we get from the submarine’s confines are brief interludes when the ship surfaces, and then it’s back underwater.  Director Wolfgang Petersen shot on a real sub, and as a cost-saving method he forced his crew to operate only within the limited space available.  That means no pulling out walls for a better camera angle or giving us copious establishing shots of the sub from the outside—we’re inside whenever the cast is, with the periscope our only means of outside orientation.  We are locked in, not just to the depth charges or missile attacks, but also to the isolation, the boredom, the creeping dread.  It’s a great movie.

Das Boot is not, however, the only great submarine movie, and I wanted to list five of my favorites.  A heads-up:  you will not find Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October on this list.  Both are great (The Hunt for Red October is especially exciting) and very, very familiar.  People who don’t even like sub movies like those two; I want to highlight for some oft-neglected gems.  In one instance, I cheated a little, though hopefully my rationale for doing so warrants the indiscretion.

Without further ado (and click on the titles for Amazon linkage)…

The Enemy Below.  Other than the fact that director Dick Powell makes his sub interiors more expansive than they should be, this is a tense and satisfying movie about the battle between an American destroyer escort and a German U-boat.  During the resulting conflict, both ship commanders (Robert Mitchum for the Allied side, Curt Jürgens for the Axis) develop increasing respect for each other, turning the film into a chess game, albeit one where “checkmate” equals “death.”

The Abyss.  Yes, I know that, technically, this isn’t really a submarine movie (though a downed one does set the action in motion) and that the goopy alien ending leeches the not-inconsiderable tension out of the film.  All things being equal, no film outside of Das Boot has wrung such terror from the merciless depths and pressures of the sea.  Ignore the science-fiction aspect, if you must, and focus on the ample white-knuckle thrills.

U-571.  Back in 2000, most dismissed U-571 as the “Classics Illustrated” version of Das Boot, what with U-571‘s stock characters and breakneck pacing.  We made a mistake.  The film, about a group of Allied spies stranded on a crippled U-boat, certainly isn’t Das Boot‘s equal, but it’s a textbook example of great “B” moviemaking.  Director Jonathan Mostow keeps things lean and mean, and his ability at staging coherent and focused action makes up for the film’s many historical and logistical shortcomings.  He also gets an understatedly intense performance out of Matthew McConaughey, free of the “Hey, Dude” charm he’s coasted on for so long.

Below.  A rare beast, this one—Below mashes together submarine movies and ghost stories, and the end result is surprisingly gripping.  Evading a German warship, the crew of the badly damaged USS Tiger Shark begins to experience setbacks of a decidedly supernatural bent; are the strange happenings just a side-effect of fear and depth pressures, or has an entity far worse than the Nazis taken residence on the ship?  Below doesn’t quite stick the landing, but for a good three-quarters of its runtime it plays like Robert Wise’s The Haunting set miles below sea level.

K19: The Widowmaker.  I have no idea how K19: The Widowmaker flopped so badly during its initial release; in its own way, it is as good as Das Boot.  Directed with considerable finesse by Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), the film focuses on the top-secret voyage of the Soviet Union’s first ballistic missile nuclear submarine.  If avoiding enemy radar wasn’t stressful enough, tensions between the beloved executive officer (Liam Neeson) and the borderline-incompetent-yet-brutal captain (Harrison Ford) threaten to compromise the sub’s mission, when suddenly…and I’ll say no more.  Let’s just say that Bigelow takes us places we don’t expect to go.  This is harrowing stuff, and Ford gives one of his best performances.