WWII Film Guide: Naval Warfare - The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, August 8, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Naval Warfare

 

*This post is part of a film guide on World War II. Click here for the main page
*For more context on the process behind this guide, click here for an introduction

Overview: The 1960 film The Gallant Hours opens with a haunting choral theme, "I knew a lad who went to sea and left the shore behind him. I knew him well the lad was me and now I cannot find him. Away, away, away he went, in deep and salty water." The theme seems to stir up something in the listener and touch that strange and mystical connection humans have had with the sea for thousands of years. It reminds me a bit of the mysteriously affective opening shot of the dark and deep ocean in Titanic. Our naval vessels may traverse the giant sea, but seem to do so only by leave of the ocean; a permission that can be rescinded at any given moment. The sea makes us feel small. The sea reminds humans that we are not in control. Our ships are little floating islands of civilization in a vast sea of chaos. If humans view traversing the skies as something done with wonder and freedom, traversing the sea often feels more like a mythical challenge that brings what seems like inevitable doom for those who undertake it.

I think these factors, and likely many more, are why naval films seem to connect with me in ways that the aerial warfare films just didn't. Largely taking place in the great expanses of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, World War II naval films run a large spectrum of stories but can typically be classified into two categories: surface ship stories and submarine stories. Each category contains classics and are worth your time checking out. 

In order to get you to the thing most of you came for, "What's the best in this genre? I've put my recommendations for you below. Following that, if you'd like to learn more about the 16 films in this section, then you can find each film in this category organized by release date (oldest to newest) with a brief commentary, a link to its IMDB page, and my grade.

Recommendations
The Basics: The quality and variety of this category make it nearly impossible to suggest just one simple movie as the best in class. Instead, I offer two double viewings for each of the major types of naval stories. To get the best introduction to the life of a surface ship I recommend the comprehensive coverage of 1953's The Cruel Sea (the Master and Commander of WWII) and the intense focus of 2020's Greyhound. Turning to the submarine story, you have two films that comprehensively cover what life on a submarine is like, but each do so from a different perspective. For a more romantic, adventurous, and positive spin, I recommend 1943's Destination Tokyo. For a undiluted anti-war gut-punch, then find the director's cut of the 1981's Das Boot.
  • Surface Ship Classics: The Cruel Sea (1953) / Greyhound (2020)
  • Submarine Spectrum: Destination Tokyo (1943) / Das Boot (1981)

Deep Dives: Moving beyond the classics I've mentioned above then the next double-header you'll want to view is on leadership. Check out Humphrey Bogart's PTSD affected Capt. Queeg in 1954's insightful The Caine Mutiny and follow it up with a more positive example of leadership in 1960's The Gallant Hours covering a key five weeks in the life of Admiral Halsey played by James Cagney. Lastly, I think 1958's Run Silent, Run Deep and 1965's In Harm's Way are both strong naval films, but also do well to fill out what life in the WWII Navy would have been like. You cant' do wrong in giving them a view either.
  • Leadership at Sea: The Caine Mutiny (1954) / The Gallant Hours (1960)
  • Life in the Navy: Run Silent Run Deep (1958) / In Harm's Way (1965)

Individual Film Commentary (Oldest to Newest)
  • A+ = All-time Classic
  • A   = Excellent Film
  • A-  = Excellent Film, but some minor faults
  • B+ = Very Good film
  • B   = Good Film
  • B-  = Good Film, but some key faults
  • C+ = Average with some redeeming qualities, but major faults
  • C   = Mediocre Film
  • C-  = Poor Film
  • D+ = Bad Film
  • I don't usually rate anything lower

1. Action in the North Atlantic (1943) IMDB
- Made in the middle of the war, this is a kind of "what was the merchant marine service like?" educational adventure film with a dramatic story composed of threadbare characters and premium action set pieces structured around it. Or put more cynically, this is a propaganda film meant to lift morale and encourage people to join the exciting merchant marine service! There's a handful of scenes devoted purely to propaganda purposes and technical inaccuracies that haven't aged well, but there's also a handful of informative (like the convoy planning conference) and engaging action sequences that more than make up for the film's downside. The opening moments of the film introduce us to the main cast of sailors and gives us one of the best ship sinking sequences captured on film. After being struck twice by a German submarine, an American tanker (with Humphrey Bogart on board) goes up in flames. Rather than just a couple shots of miniatures and some quick fire cuts, this is a ten minute sequence with dozens of incredible fire stunts with real people on real sets that are covered in fire. As the ship explodes, burns, and sinks the sequence creates real suspense as men are trapped and work against time to find stragglers, navigate the fire obstacles, and get life rafts and boats into the water. For good measure, due to the oil in the water, the fire spills out into the ocean and there's a harrowing sequence where a lifeboat cuts through the fire and two stuntmen swim through - their heads getting lapped in flames occasionally. Combine this with a submarine wolfpack attack set piece later in the film whose ambitions, scale, editing, and visual effects combine to create a pretty intense sequence and you have a war film that a young me would have eaten up. In fact, it wouldn't be until 2020's Greyhound that a better Atlantic convoy sequence would be be made. GRADE: B- 

2. Destination Tokyo (1943) IMDB
- I thought about passing this film up. It didn't really get a lot of talk on "Best Submarine Films" lists I researched and I've just about hit my limit of "old" style war films. I love it when I get rewarded for sticking it out and giving it a chance. This has to be the most underrated submarine film I've seen. The basic premise here is that it's 1942 and a submarine slips out of San Francisco Bay. They read out their orders and are surprised to see they are to head to Tokyo Bay, right into the lion's den to gather information to be used for the Doolittle raid. Along the way we get a full spectrum of events that can take place on a sub. We get great relational scenes showing fellowship among the sailors; A small musical troupes playing songs Christmas songs they practiced all year just for the big day, a sailor with a female doll he uses as a gag to get dames on shore, the ship cook playing Santa - in just the first twenty minutes they've established multiple characters, rapport, and culture, while still getting the plot underway. Add to that a spectrum of suspenseful and dramatic sequences, some of which are new to me and sub films: an air attack from the surface drops a bomb that doesn't explode forcing a sailor to try and defuse it, finding an audio record of a sailor killed in action and discovering it was a message from their family, performing an emergency appendix removal, sending out secret operatives at night, and the classic sinking and death charge scenes as well. The film isn't interested in great character arcs, it's more of an observational film. The pleasures here bear out in the little details: the crew waiting in just the right place to get hints from which maps the Captain asks for to discover their orders; seeing routine life with showers, haircuts, quarters, mess, bunks, and the control room; overhearing conversations about Japanese culture, thoughts about dames, about children, about God, prayer, and why we fight. The acting is relatable and headed by a quiet but confident Cary Grant. It has some problems with propaganda sequences, some dated moments, and other small faults - but to me, this is the classic "romantic" view of submarine life. It has a little bit of everything, with enough action, drama, and everyday detail that it feels grounded and realistic. GRADE: B+

3. We Dive at Dawn (1943) IMDB
- Filmed in 1942 at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, this WWII submarine film begins with a British submarine crew going on shore leave. It's not long before their leave is cut short to take urgent action against the German battleship Brandenburg. The British sub hopes to track and find her before she gets free in the heavily defended Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, they miss out on the Brandenburg and decide to bravely venture past sea mines and sub nets and enter the Baltic to search for the battleship. After a fruitless search they finally happen upon the Brandenburg, fire their torpedoes, and dive. Destroyers attack until the Brits, through some subterfuge, are able to get away. Down on fuel, the film concludes with a risky night raid of a Dutch harbor to obtain fuel. 

The film is a slow starter, a bit stiff in its style, and lacking virtually any special effects, but it still manages to tell a solid little submarine story. It's hard to knock it for including all the submarine cliche's when it pre-dates most of the films on this list - so let's just say it turns in a decent rendition of the standard submarine sequences. This is a good film for 1943, but I don't think it transcends its era or demands a viewing in this crowded category. GRADE: C

4. They Were Expendable (1945) IMDB
- This John Ford passion project starts in the Philippines in 1941 as two Lieutenants, played by Robert Montgomery and John Wayne, try to convince a Navy Admiral that PT Boats should be a bigger part of the Navy arsenal. Soon the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reaches them and Japanese planes harass their base in Manilla. It's here you can see one of the strengths of the film - the action sequence features real planes and real PT boats exchanging fire and taking hits. It's a nice change of pace from the traditional time period reliance on stock war footage and back projection. The rest of the film covers events surrounding the Battle of Bataan regarding the torpedo patrol boats and...well...this is where it gets pretty slow moving and uninteresting - including a romantic subplot with Donna Reed (Mary from It's a Wonderful Life) and John Wayne. They talk about a lot of action happening, but they just don't show much of it. There's an action finale that's decent but the ending of the film drags from there for way too long. If it wasn't for a couple decent quick action scenes, I'd give this would be in the D range. Skip this one unless you were a huge fan of Hulk Hogan's Thunder in Paradise and can't get enough of speed boat action. GRADE: C-

5. The Cruel Sea (1953) IMDB
- Based on a 1951 book of the same name, I'd call The Cruel Sea the "Master and Commander" of World War II naval films. In the same way that 2003's Master and Commander gave its audience a glimpse into life on a ship of the line during the Age of Sail, The Cruel Sea gives the audience a glimpse into life on a convoy escort ship in the Battle of the Atlantic. Told over several years, Jack Hawkins plays Captain Ericson and we witness a showcase of the many roles and experiences an escort ship takes on: keeping ships in convoy on rough seas, picking up survivors of downed ships, and hunting U-boats. We also glimpse the difficulties and trials of trying to maintain a personal life as well. 

For its time in 1953, the film is surprisingly hard-bitten and cynical without ever feeling tedious or tendentious. It’s not really a surprise to find out the film is based on a book as the story beats, dialogue, art direction, and relationships feel like they derive from first-hand experience and careful research. In one particularly difficult moment, a U-boat chooses to hide underneath a group of survivors and the captain must choose whether to depth charge the U-boat and kill the men in the water, or leave the U-boat and risk his own boat’s death. Small details and moments like that pervade the entire film. This is a grand overview of the merchant marine life and a wonderful hidden gem of a naval film. GRADE: A-

6. The Caine Mutiny (1954) IMDB
- It's 1943 and the USS Caine minesweeper is a ragged, decrepit, and aging ship. Her captain knows it, her officers know it, and her crew know it. The ship is serviceable, but they've stopped following Navy regulations by the book. The film begins with a new Ensign Keith coming aboard and shocked by the standards of the Caine. Eventually the laid back Captain, who clearly gave up on running a tight crew after the years of service added up and amounted to not much action, is replaced by Humphrey Bogart's demanding Captain Queeg. As Queeg drives the crew hard they become resentful and personality flaws begin to show as well, like dressing down officers at the expense of the ship's safety, ignoring orders to escort ships to within 1,000 yards of a beach because he became rattled, or fixating on a quart of stolen strawberries. The last straw for Executive Officer Maryk, played by Van Johnson, is when Queeg freezes up and begins giving belligerent and contradicting orders in the middle of typhoon that endangered the entire ship. Maryk relieves Queeg of duty and guides the ship through the storm. He faces a court martial for mutiny and a possible hanging for his actions. 

The last 30 minutes or so of the film is given over to the court martial. It's flies by and introduces two excellent actors, Tom Tully and Jose Ferrer, as the prosecutor and defender respectively. With each witness called the case looks bleak. What will happen? I don't want to give up too much here let's just say that it ends with a succession of powerful sequences that really help to define the movie and give it a more powerful punch than just being a great little story. You see, the final sequences, punctuated by Jose Ferrer's out of left field punch in the mouth, turn this from a basic story of bad leadership into a nuanced story of bad fellowship. It's remarkably insightful and recasts the entire film in new light. Beyond Ferrer, this must be the best Van Johnson performance I've ever seen. He's older here, more mature, and plays salt of the earth goodness with a few extra layers than most of his "young rookie" roles from earlier. The star of the picture is Bogart's iconic paranoid Queeg. Between this role and 1948's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - I'm not sure anyone's played paranoid and delusional better. GRADE: A-

7. Above Us the Waves (1955) IMDB
- Most people are aware that German submarines worked hard to try and sever the British Isles from supplies by sinking as much shipping as possible. However, it was also major German battleships that threatened Allied shipping and one of the biggest ships available to the Germans was the Tirpitz. For the most part it was docked in a Norwegian Fjord, but just the threat that it might get loose and attack shipping meant that the British had to assign a fleet of ships to watch here; ships that were much needed elsewhere. After the failure of air bombing, Britain looked to try midget submarines in a real life Operation named Source. Unlike many "special operations" naval and aerial films - this one doesn't follow the typical introduction/training/mission act structure. Over half the film this time is given to the actual mission of using a fleet of midget submarines to take out the Tirpitz. Along the way there are a lot of trials and obstacles (mechanical failures, German patrols, mines, etc.) and it's all portrayed with the basic kinda British proceduralism I've come to expect from their 50's and 60's war films. Oddly, the unreliability of the midget submarines and the trials they encounter make a good case for why they should never have been used in the first place - at least executed like they were. In this film at least, those midget submarines come off as deathtraps. It's all just okay stuff. I think a better training intro to acquaint the audience with the sub, it's strengths and weaknesses, would have been helpful. This is the kind of film that would've really benefited from coming out in a time period of better visual effects too. Better effects would have really sold the main conceit of the film - the intrigue of underwater special operations. In real life the mission was a mixed bag, lots of losses, but the Tirpitz was put out of action for nearly a year. The film here doesn't quite acknowledge the mixed success (similar to The Dam Busters), it just kinda ends with the captured British sailors being saluted for their bravery by the German admiral. Meh. GRADE: C

8. The Enemy Below (1957) IMDB
- A U.S. destroyer commanded played by Robert Mitchum is patrolling the South Atlantic when they come across a German U-Boat commanded by Curt Jurgens. The movie plays out over 24 hours as they battle back and forth trying to outmaneuver and outthink the other. The sub set is a little corny, but the destroyer stuff feels really good, especially the depth charge explosions which are real, practical, and gorgeous. The battle of wits is nice, but its all the standard submarine stuff – which is a bit tiring if you’ve ever seen it before. A basic story told pretty well. Can do better in the genre, but can do much worse too. GRADE: B-

9. Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) IMDB
- The film opens with Clark Gable commanding a US sub that is sunk. Gable survives but is put behind a desk for a year. Gable gets the chance to command a boat again and is hellbent on returning to the region of his previous sinking and getting revenge on the Japanese destroyer that did it. The catch is that Gable has to ignore part of his orders to achieve it. Gable's second in command is played by the always reliable Burt Lancaster. Lancaster butts heads with Gable when its clear that Gable is out for revenge - eventually leading to a leadership crisis. On the whole, this is one of the better submarine flicks thanks to strong art direction, quality action that is snappy (it doesn't linger around as if we are to be amazed by another depth charge sequence!), and the primary focus of the story being relational - the conflict between Gable and Lancaster. It's good, but I think it wraps up a little too easily and the conflict is never allowed to signify anything deeper than just basic commonsense/loyalty vs revenge. GRADE: B-

10. The Gallant Hours (1960) IMDB
- The film begins with the awesome choral theme song, "Away He Went" as the titles come on the screen. It immediately sets a mood of solemnity and retrospection - almost as if the angels are looking down on a sacred time of history. Covers a key five weeks in the service of Admiral Halsey. It begins with his flight to the South Pacific to inspect forces and help understand why Guadalcanal was not going way. As he lands, Halsey is put in command of the South Pacific forces. Reluctant, he's taking over for an Admiral whom he admires, but ready to take on the task, Halsey convenes the key generals to discuss the problems with Guadalcanal. This is where the unique style of the film really begins to shine. Unlike other war dramas, this film has a semi-documentary style in that it has a narrator who cuts in often to give the audience insight. It's clear the film wants audiences to understand the situation - it's teaching us the character, wills, and strategy behind this important moment in history when the battle against the Japanese began to take a turn for the Allies. The beautiful black and white cinematography highlights the faces of the leaders and gives the sets a stark seriousness. In the generals meetings, each new admiral or general that speaks up about the problems gets a a small narration giving some of their key background and history. It really works well here, giving a large cast of characters some immediate focus and clarity. 

This style really appeals to me, but it does have its drawbacks. As the film progresses, you see another style choice - no battles. The choice to not include depictions of the battles or even stock battle footage does leave a bit of a hole here for a film striving so hard to be comprehensive and realistic. The decision is likely admirable, trying to put the focus on the individual leaders and not the "kinetic action" (and likely to save money as well) - but the final product feels lacking without them to me. Ultimately, the last hour of the film takes place mostly in meetings rooms and covers the competing strategies between the armies. There are some key historical events telescoped into this five week period (most notably Yamamoto's death) that generally work okay, but then make you wonder why the filmmakers imposed a 5 week narrative if they wanted to a broader scope. This is one of the greater frustrations as well - choosing to focus on such a short span of Halsey's life means we miss out on the numerous other major events he played a part in. Yes, we got to know the man under fire at a major turning point, but it still feels incomplete in a way. While this is educational, allows Cagney's great performance to shine, and bears strong production quality, it feels clinical and sterile - even if it does give us battles from the perspective of admirals far behind the lines. I suppose that means the viewers frustrations mirrors the admirals frustrations. Still, its a film first and foremost - not a book. GRADE: B

11. Sink the Bismarck! (1960) IMDB
- This film is similar in plot to 1955's Above Us the Waves - it portrays the British military's attempts at taking out major German battleships that threaten the vital Atlantic shipping lanes. In this case, the battleship is the Bismarck and instead of being in dock in a Norwegian fjord like the Tirpitz it had broken free of the Baltic Sea and into the North Sea. Left alone, the Bismarck could seriously threaten all shipping lanes. What follows is a nice little procedural film about the hunt for the Bismarck - from the planes and ships sent after her to the command room they were launched from. Focused and informative, but hurt a bit by it's dated visual effects and restrictions. GRADE: C+

12. In Harm’s Way (1965) IMDB
- An interesting pairing with this film would be 1953's From Here to Eternity. As that dramatic Navy film ends with the dawn of the Pearl Harbor attack this one begins with it. This is less a combat film about naval warfare and more a drama following the lives of several characters with naval warfare bookending the film. It is well-written, filled with natural dialogue, and has high production values. The acting and cast really stand out in this one. The chemistry between John Wayne's "Rock" and Patricia Neal's "Maggie" is pleasure to watch. Neal as a weathered and tough Navy nurse is so good I wish her role was expanded further. Wayne gets to play his normal command role here, but he's more relaxed and reflective than usual. Kirk Douglas is always reliable and brings energy and character into every one of his scenes. As the story brings weaves the characters from Pearl Harbor to the fictionalized South Pacific (Guadalcanal is the likely model here) battles, a cynical undertone flows through many of the subplots: a shady Congressman, politics within military leadership, frankness about rape, suicide, divorce, and estrangement -  this film doesn't sugarcoat things. The film ends in a large scale naval battle that claims the lives of many central characters. This isn't a perfect film and if you don't find yourself buying into the dramatic relationships as much as I did then you likely in for a slog of a view. That said, despite its fictionalized narrative, this is one of the more honest, biting, and insightful war films on this list. GRADE: B

13. Das Boot (1981) IMDB
- For better or worse, there is simply no better submarine film than 1981's Das Boot. In particular I am referring to the director's cut version of the film that adds about an hour of runtime - making it about 3 and a half hours long. The film follows a German U-Boat crew on a mission in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942. Their mission is typical - locate and sink as much Allied shipping as possible. The mission is essentially an excuse for the filmmakers to de-romanticize the experience of being a submariner by portraying the most visceral and realistic depiction of submarine life ever put to film. My favorite aspect of the film was how realistic the cramped sets were, the authentic relationships between the crew, the feelings of the submariners toward the German army and toward the Nazi party, and the anti-war stench of existential meaningless and folly that hangs over the entire picture.

I opened saying this is the best submarine film for better or WORSE because the commitment to depict the miserable experience often makes the viewing quite miserable as well. To be blunt, the film can be boring and monotonous at times. The film features all the basic submarine moments - firing on enemy shipping, navigating in storms, getting depth charged, and going beyond their authorized depths. Given the thesis of the film, instead of condensed for intensity and action, these sequences often are stretched out over lots of runtime and play out in repetitive and tedious ways. I know it's a fine line between conveying tediousness and making a tedious movie, but I think Das Boot too often ends up on the wrong side to be a genuine 'A' level classic. Hopefully you get more out of it than I did. GRADE: B+

14. U-571 (2000) IMDB
- Technically, this is an excellent submarine film. The special effects, sound design, music, and editing are really engaging and tense. The problem is the screenplay, which wants us to believe a small skeleton crew of American sailors can man and maneuver a broken German sub well enough to essentially outwit the German navy. It’s too much to ask. The fact that much of this is historically inaccurate and that the real history could have been just as gripping, makes it worse. Additionally, it struggles to overcome the basic submarine formula: torpedoes, dive, depth charges, wait, how far down can you go? Rinse and repeat. GRADE: C+

15. USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016) IMDB
- If you've seen Jaws there's a scene you'll never forget - Quint telling the story of the sinking of he USS Indianapolis and the shark feeding frenzy that ensured. It's one of cinema's great monologues and although it does exaggerate, it gets the basic facts right:
Quint: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that when you're in the water, Chief? You tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know... was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. Heh...Y'know, by the end of that first dawn... lost a hundred men. I dunno how many sharks. Maybe a thousand. I dunno how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin', Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland- baseball player, boatswain's mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up... bobbed up and down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well... he'd been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. Young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway, he saw us and come in low and three hours later, a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. Y'know, that was the time I was most frightened, waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a life jacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water, three hundred sixteen men come out, and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.
2016's USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage looks to dramatize into a feature film the true story Quint famously shared back in the 1970's. Nicholas Cage stars in the film as Captain McVay of the USS Indianapolis which is under attack in March 1945 off Iwo Jima by Japanese kamikaze pilots. Crippled by a hit, the Indianapolis goes back to San Francisco for repair. It is decided by higher ups that the Indianapolis will secretly be the sole transport for the atomic bomb the US will look to drop on Japan. After delivering the bomb to the island of Tinian they make their way to Leyte when they are hit by a Japanese submarine. The ship goes down quickly and the men are stranded into different groups holding on to rafts and anything that will help them float. Left in the water they fight hunger, thirst, the sun, sharks, and even themselves. These sequences aren't great, but they also convey he horror and struggle decently well. 

In the end, the writing is poor, the dialogue is inauthentic, and the entire production feels like it's trying to ape the style and character cheesiness of Michael Bay's 2001 Pearl Harbor. I don't know, perhaps they thought they could turn this into a Titanic like blockbuster? Anyways, the visual effects are far worse in this lower budget film and the acting is a genuine embarrassment. The central characters are so bland and unlikeable that it becomes hard to care what ultimately happens to them. Do yourself a favor and just watch the Quint scene from Jaws again. GRADE: C-

16. Greyhound (2020) IMDB
- Based on the book The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, Tom Hanks stars as Captain Krause in this modern World War II instant classic. The story focuses on about a forty hour or so period of time where an Allied ship convoy, headed by Hanks, crossing the Atlantic Ocean is harassed by a German submarine wolfpack. As the convoy leaves North America it receives a plane escort, making it fairly well protected from subs. However, there's a gap in air coverage over the Atlantic - the North American planes and British planes can only cover so far. It's this approximately two day gap that is the most dangerous sub hunting grounds and the center of the story. 

Hanks must lead not just the convoy ships but also coordinate the destroyer screen protecting it. During the unprotected pocket he encounters a hungry German sub pack and the tension, drama, and action essentially doesn't stop until they get back into air coverage. The film is a lean experience that cuts out extraneous subplots about romances, home life, or deep character analysis in favor of an extremely narrow focus. What's it like to be in the shoes of a convoy captain during the Battle of the Atlantic? What's it like to make life and death split second decisions on hunches and incomplete data in the hunt for subs, when to use resources for a rescue, and when its best to sacrifice a ship. I absolutely love the focus here. It just so happens to give us the single best submarine war sequence told from the perspective of a surface ship as well. 

The sequence, coming about the middle of the film, involves two destroyer escorts tracking and destroying a German sub. It is masterfully shot and edited -the contemporary advancements in CGI, like in Red Tails and Midway have allowed for convincing photorealistic ship battles that when done well don't distract, but enhance in ways that could not be accomplished practically. The suspense of an enemy pip appearing on the radar, the mystery of where your silent killer sub might appear, to the sudden spotting of a periscope tower where a sub has surfaced to fire – this captures the nerves and fears of this kind of warfare so well. The special effects are not perfect, but they are still able to put in you the moment, it feels (about as close as possible) like you are witnessing a genuine battle in the Atlantic ocean. In this sequence, a periscope is spotted and two destroyers, the Greyhound and Dicky, initiate action against the possible U-boat. As they tactically maneuver against the U-boat the sequence is filled with constant authentic sounding military chatter and commands between ships, commanders, and crewmen that would make Aaron Sorkin proud. The U-boat fires torpedoes and misses and the destroyer (“Dicky”) follows up with depth charges that force the U-boat to surface. What follows is an interesting cat and mouse where the U-boat attempts to stay alive by getting close enough to the destroyers that their guns cannot hit them and will put the other destroyer in a cross-fire. We get some great visuals of cross-fire that feel straight out of Master and Commander and a battle in the age of sail. It’s an effective maneuver and one can just imagine the U-boat crew and captain working to make this happen. This is great stuff that doesn’t sacrifice the drama and stakes as the film always takes the chance to emphasize how the American Captain must make many split decisions that put his ship and others in mortal danger. What a surprise that another Tom Hanks WWII film finds its way on the top of one of my lists. GRADE: A-


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