Robert Llewellyn examines the enduring appeal of submarine movies, finding a beached Cold War Russian nuclear sub on the Medway and WWII German U-boat pens on the French coast.
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Ah, the sea.
For centuries it has washed up great stories.
Of Jason and the Argonauts, of Horatio Hornblower, of Moby Dick.
But in more recent times, it has given up a different kind of story,
one that, until the last century or so,
remained hidden beneath the waves.
But because of countless films,
we instantly recognise it in all its nerve-shredding glory.
Oh, my God!
Yes, the pressure cooker that is the submarine movie
has been with us since the dawn of film.
But why has it gripped us so?
To find out, let's bring on the subs.
I've loved submarine films since I was a boy.
The fact that I didn't learn to swim until I was nearly 40
never put me off the subaquatic life.
The submarine, for me, is still one of the most incredible pieces of kit
I've ever encountered.
But for filmmaker, the humble submersible
is an excuse to take us places
we'd probably never get to go in our lives,
and in so doing, delivers all the elements that great drama requires.
But, bless my white, ribbed seaman's polo neck, the submarine movie
has created its very own cinematic language
and no great sub movie would be the same without...
Excessive periscope action.
Testosterone-fuelled power struggles.
-The ping of the sonar.
One ping only, please.
Booming depth charges.
Courageous John Mills.
-Dive, dive, dive, sir.
Plummeting pressure dials.
Whoosh of torpedoes.
Sweaty but meaningful looks.
Valiant John Mills.
Looks as if we've got it on a plate.
The Russians. The Germans.
The Japanese. Gung-ho Americans.
Blimey. We're through.
-And the fearless John Mills.
-Stand by and hold on tight.
People in a locked, trapped environment.
It is claustrophobia, fear.
It's about fortitude.
It's like being buried alive.
The stakes are immense.
You are in a very free world in an un-free environment.
That's unique to the submarine genre.
It is my mission to dive deeper to discover
not just why submarine movies hold us in thrall
but also to recall some of the real events that inspired these films,
and to bring to the surface the undercurrents
that these films reflect.
This is the River Medway, about 30 miles south east of London
and I'm looking for an intriguing relic of the Cold War
And here's what I've been looking for.
U-475 Black Widow.
Russian hunter-killer class.
Built in 1967. Saw active service in the Russian Baltic fleet.
She was once armed with 22 torpedoes,
and here's the bit that makes people nervous - two nuclear warheads.
Brought to the UK as a tourist attraction
and now fallen on hard times,
this Black Widow still offers a rare chance to see, first hand,
a once-feared predator.
Submarines were never more impressive
than during the Cold War era.
Hollywood knew this better than anyone
and built submarine movies to match.
The film that best captured the conventions of this period
is The Hunt For Red October,
which was based on Tom Clancy's bestselling techno-thriller.
we play our dangerous game.
A game of chess against our old adversary.
The American navy.
Sean Connery plays a Soviet submarine captain who,
along with his crew,
is apparently about to defect to the United States.
His boat, the Red October,
is equipped with a revolutionary new silent propulsion system,
making it virtually undetectable to the Americans.
Sonar is working, Captain. The Russian disappeared.
The Hunt For Red October has various things. It's a Cold War thriller.
It's big budget submarine movie.
It's a vehicle for Sean Connery doing one of his maverick noble
and here's this sonar-inaudible device, now that's really scary.
It reminds me of the heady days of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin,
when the world trembled at the sound of our rockets.
And they will tremble again, at the sound of our silence.
The order is engage the silent drive.
Aye, sir. Open outer doors.
Diving command, engage caterpillar and secure main engines.
If film producers wanted to capture the majesty
of these multi-million dollar machines at sea
they had only one option.
They had to do a deal with the US Navy.
Passing Thor's Twins, sir.
Bob Anderson is the director
of the US Navy's Office of Information in Los Angeles.
If a major studio wants to use one of their submarines for filming,
he's the man they have to convince.
Our charter from the Department of Defence is that the script
must be accurate, must reflect accurately what the military does,
so we have to look at that.
Has to be of informational value to the American public
and it doesn't hurt if it helps recruiting!
Deck nine, what you got, Jones?
Distant contact, probably submerged.
It's a wild guess, but I'd say we hit a boomer coming out of the barn
Could be a missile boat out of Polijarny.
-OK, start your track, I'll be there in a minute.
We put a lot of effort into making sure that they don't
give away classified information but when we deal with something
like a submarine security system or something
we go to the people who are involved in that
and get the unclassified version
and get the elements that they can put into the film.
You juggle that with a tremendous opportunity to inform the people
about what our submarines do and what those people are out there doing.
But this drive by film makers
to get the US Navy's most impressive war machines on the big screen,
leaves a wishy-washy liberal like me just a tad concerned.
Because somewhere along the way, the line between
entertaining feature film and highly elaborate recruitment tool
became very blurred.
For the US Navy, any movie in which they are involved
is viewed as a recruitment opportunity
and they will even hand out promotional material
to members of the public inside the cinema where the film is playing.
We do that for just about every military picture,
they invite the recruiters down to set up tables
and meet people that come out of the film and might be interested in
getting more information on the Navy.
We've had a very good relationship with theatre operators to do that.
We're very grateful that they do.
Diving officer, make a depth 1200 feet, 20 degree down.
While it may be that the US Navy simply want to
use the movie for their own purposes,
and, reportedly, recruitment did surge
in the year following the film's release,
for director John McTiernan the opportunity for actors
to experience life on board a real, operational submarine,
helped them to achieve a more authentic performance.
The Navy guys taught our actors to be a lot less gung ho
and a lot less emotional and a lot less warrior-like
because that isn't what the real men are like.
Men on a submarine behave the way men do in a monastery.
In fact it's very much like a monastery.
Well, I'll be damned. Now what?
'Submariners speak softly.'
All right. If defection...
'They never move quickly.'
They don't make very large gestures when they talk,
they make small gestures.
mr Thompson, call Chief Watson to the conn with his sidearm.
'It showed them as men who were not in the least eager
'to go to war with anyone.
'It showed them as intelligent and the Navy liked all that.'
They really did.
However there are occasions when the US Navy isn't always on board
with the filmmakers.
-Control, bridge, sounding.
Crimson Tide was a 1995 release directed by Tony Scott
from a screenplay by Mike Schiffer.
Lookouts, clear the bridge.
Clear the bridge, aye, sir.
Set just after the Cold War, on a US submarine,
a young first officer stages a mutiny to prevent
his captain launching a nuclear missile
against a group of Russian rebels.
You continue upon this course
and insist upon this launch without confirming this message first.
And by the rules of precedence...
As captain and commanding officer of the USS Alabama
I order you to place the XO under arrest on a charge of mutiny.
I say again, I order you to place the XO
under arrest on a charge of mutiny.
For the US Navy, an onscreen mutiny was totally unacceptable
and they pulled the plug on their support.
There was one in 1849, there was a small mutiny on board a ship there,
but we've never had one and it's just such a strong thing with us
not to portray the reality of something like that happening
because we don't feel it ever would happen.
We gave the producers several other scenarios that they could choose
and, for reasons that you would have to get from them,
they wanted to stick to the one they had
and we helped them up to the point as far as we could
and then we had to break off and let them go their own way.
Freeze, hold it! Drop the weapon now!
Move, move. move!
Number one did not fire, sir.
Sir, the captain's key has been removed.
I felt that every great movie about submarines
and many great movies about the Navy involve this kind of power struggle.
Run Silent Run Deep, The Caine Mutiny.
Mutinies are part of the lore of great navy tales but they decided
because there was a mutiny on board they wouldn't support it
and we were very disappointed.
The biggest loss would have been
the loss of these beauty shots of the submarines at sea.
Once you're underneath it you have to build a set anyway,
you're not going to shoot in a live submarine.
And Tony Scott, God bless him, went to Hawaii,
rented a helicopter and cowboyed those shots
of the USS Alabama submerging, which are beautiful.
I think he got ordered out of air space!
I really think he stole those shots.
I'm eternally grateful.
These high-concept blockbusters may be the biggest manifestations
of the submarine movie,
but there were many others that set sail before them.
From the moment the very first submarine was built
it gripped the imagination of writers and filmmakers.
In fact, the first fictional submarine
was planted in the public's imagination in 1870 by a Frenchman,
the writer Jules Verne.
In his novel 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,
a renowned professor sets off to investigate
the mysterious disappearance of ships in the Pacific Ocean.
He encounters the anti-hero Captain Nemo,
in his futuristic submarine, Nautilus.
It was Verne's wonderful science fantasy that, a few years later,
would inspire a new breed of storyteller.
In fact, one of the first films ever made was a submarine movie in 1907,
directed by George Melies, a pioneer of early cinema.
His 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea film
features a fantastic journey done with big cardboard cut-out sets,
and then you get a line of very pretty chorus girls
who come on and do a very elegant ballet.
It's in line with the kind of stage revue
that you would have seen at the Moulin Rouge or the Folies Bergere
at that time.
It's a long way from Jules Verne's story about, you know,
hard-bitten adventurers facing incredible risks.
It's really a different world.
This is a very rare print of Melies' work.
In 1913, his company went bankrupt and the French Army
seized some 500 of his films in order to use the cellulose
to make boot heels for their soldiers in the First World War.
As a result, many of his films no longer exist.
But it wasn't just Melies who took inspiration from Verne.
In 1916, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was re-made
by Glasgow-born director Stuart Paton
for Hollywood studio Universal.
This feature-length version was much more faithful to the Verne story
and was applauded
for its groundbreaking underwater photography.
Perhaps not a great film in the annals of cinema,
but it really does take seriously
how to produce those under-sea effects.
And the diving sequences looked very convincing.
Much more convincing than anything that had been done before.
We really believe that we're under the sea.
This was the start of our obsession with the submarine
and the story-telling opportunities it presented.
If early filmmakers used it as a springboard for the imagination,
there was one further element that would establish
the cinematic submarine story and that was the Second World War.
There were a handful of submarine movies made before World War II,
including a couple of talkies
directed by John Ford and Frank Capra.
But it wasn't until the outbreak of that war,
where submarines played a vital strategic role,
that the British public became fascinated with the submarine movie.
None more so than the 1943 classic We Dive at Dawn.
Stop starboard, slow port.
Destroyer, maybe a screen.
-You getting anything?
Wait a minute. Picking her up now.
-Two of them.
The film stars plucky John Mills, yes, it's him,
in the first of his many Second World War submarine pictures
as the captain of HMS Sea Tiger
on a top-secret mission to sink the German battleship, the Brandenburg.
It's her, the Brandenburg.
Blow up all tubes.
Blow up all tubes.
Made at a time when allied forces were suffering severe losses,
the film, with its message of solidarity, was intended
as a morale booster to calm public anxieties regarding Britain's role
in the Second World War.
she's dancing about like a pea in a blasted drum.
Making films about the Second World War was pretty difficult
while the war was still on because there were tremendous restrictions
about what could be shown.
And there were real anxieties about alarming the public,
so there was a bit of a prohibition on being too realistic.
It was very important that no-one was seen to panic,
'so nobody panics, but they sweat.'
-Pump all engine room bilges.
-Pump all engine room bilges.
It was also trying to send a message back to the home front
that in the dire circumstances
we really had to pull together and forget old differences.
There's a leak in the water room and we can't get a suction on the pump.
Right, get a bucket team going.
Right, get all the buckets you can find and bring them on.
The home of the Royal Navy Submarine Service during the Second World War
was HMS Dolphin, at Gosport.
Now it is the location of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum
and I have come here to try and understand
what it was really like for the men who served on submarines
during the war.
This is HMS Alliance.
Launched towards the end of the Second World War,
she is the only surviving example of her class.
The simulated depth charge experience on board Alliance
is probably as close as I will get to the real thing.
There's no point denying it - I jumped at a sound effect.
That was terrifying.
Dive, dive, dive.
Life on a submarine during the Second World War
was hard for the men on board
who had to be ready for action at any time.
You obviously survived the conflict, but did you ever have...
'Two men who remember it well
'are Cyril Sothcott and Captain Michael Crawford.'
In 1941, aged 20, Cyril joined the 9th Flotilla, based in Dundee.
When war broke out, Michael was then a sub-lieutenant
but by 1942, aged only 25, he took command of HMS Unseen,
operating out of Malta in the Mediterranean.
The most frightening experience I had was being depth charged off Toulon.
Our Q tank, which was the quick diving tank, flooded
and we started plummeting down.
At more than you wanted to do go.
Much more, in fact we nearly went to double the safe diving depth
so it was very frightening.
One or two close encounters with...
mine cables slapping down the side of the ship.
You're just hoping that the cable won't snag on anything
and pull the mine down on top of you,
but it does tend to concentrate the mind!
Our losses were very heavy.
You never thought about it but that was the case.
Having watched dozens of submarine movies,
the question which continues to haunt me,
and now I feel it more acutely
having just met these brave, former submariners,
is could I do what they've done?
I'd like to think that I could, but I'm really not sure.
I'm going to read a quote from Winston Churchill.
I'll read it to make sure I get it just right.
"Of all the branches of men in the Forces, there is none
"which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariner.
"Great deeds are done in the air and on the land.
"Nevertheless, nothing surpasses your exploits."
I wouldn't disagree with that,
not for a second.
From 1950 to 1959 there were more naval war films made
than any other branch of the military,
and more submarine movies than at any other time,
which kept John Mills very busy!
In Britain, this post-war period proved to be a difficult time
as the nation was struggling to deal with the debt
of the Second World War that was crippling the economy.
These nostalgic films reminded audiences how great Britain once was
when Britannia ruled the waves.
There are a couple of submarine pictures from this period
which are reliving moments of heroism,
particularly heroism against all odds,
when the outcome was not so very wonderful.
For instance, a film like Above Us The Waves,
which I remember seeing in the cinema,
left a tremendous impression on me.
Hold it. Hold it.
Above Us The Waves stars...John Mills, as the skipper once again
but this time in a film based on the true story of a World War II attack
on the German ship the Tirpitz.
Mills is captain of an X Craft,
otherwise known as a midget submarine.
These tiny subs were able to creep under enemy torpedo nets
to carry out highly dangerous missions.
-Blimey, we're through.
-Do you know, I believe we are.
-Periscope depths, sir.
There was room for only four men on board
and so the feeling of claustrophobia was intense.
This is HMS X24, the only remaining X-craft to have seen service
in World War II.
At just over 50 feet long and with a beam of 5'9",
in its day it was capable of diving to depths of 300 feet.
Midget submarines of this class received no less than four VCs.
You can see how tight a space it is
and how claustrophobic it would have been for the four crew members.
In fact they nicknamed them madmen.
It really isn't very nice in here.
In fact, can I get out now?
Get ready to bail out.
Above Us The Waves really does seem to capture the risks and the heroism
of the submariner during the Second World War,
and John Mills epitomised the British spirit
of grace under pressure.
But in America, it was a rather different story.
The role of the US submarine captain
was one of rugged masculinity and prowess.
Who better to lead a crew into battle
than the Duke himself, John Wayne?
Even though it's only a small plastic boat in a tank!
For Hollywood filmmakers, the submarine became the perfect setting
for an all-out action-packed, star-studded
naval drama where the skipper is king.
Put air pressure in that compartment.
Put air pressure in that compartment.
I think for quite a number of years
doing one of those war action movies and on a submarine was regarded
as no bad thing because you could be a kind of tough guy hero
when men were men, in a confined space.
You're in charge, you're god of this universe, and wasn't it fantastic?
And of course a lot of those actors gave very powerful performances.
One film that featured not one but two Hollywood alpha males,
Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster,
was the 1958 classic, Run Silent Run Deep.
Right full rudder, come right to course 030.
'Open outer doors of tubes one and two.'
Open outer doors of tubes one and two.
Deep in the pacific, Clark Gable plays a submarine commander
on a revenge mission to sink a Japanese destroyer, The Momo.
He is accompanied by Burt Lancaster as his first officer.
Angle on the bow now, starboard 70.
Complete a spread, one right, one left.
Everything set, sir.
But Gable's authoritarian style of command
clashes with Lancaster's more democratic approach
and the film cements what was to become a staple of the genre -
the head-to-head power struggle.
We have operational orders. They are explicit.
The crew that expects the captain to follow them.
You know as well as I do that a captain can redefine orders
if he feels he has an advantage.
-You just named it, a bow shot.
We proved we could do it with the Momo, we can do it again.
This pointed to wider concerns about the best style of leadership
to deal with the new enemy in 1950s America - communism.
Although it's ostensibly about the Second World War,
there's a lot being dramatised which is about...
you know, Eisenhower's America and how it faces up
to the communist threat.
Destroyer's angle at the bow now zero. Bearing?
Harold Hecht, who was the producer, had been one of the stool pigeons
at the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
He'd named names, only 18 months before.
And the film can definitely be interpreted as,
what's the best style of leadership for taking on the Commies?
The democratic style, represented by Lancaster,
the authoritarian style, represented by Gable.
We're going to have to be very ingenious and nimble on our feet
to cope with the Commies.
And that comes displaced into this,
the 32-second bow torpedo followed by a quick dive.
If you had any questions about the drills,
I think you'll have them answered now.
We're taking on the Momo. Right standard rudder.
Come right to course 045.
Down their throats. It's a bow shot.
It's a clever manoeuvre that Clarke Gable's worked out
to outwit a Japanese destroyer.
-Fire Three. Three fired, sir.
You get less films about the Nazis in the fifties at that time,
but the Japs were still the bad guys and that was OK.
So, there's a lot of sort of gung ho kind of chauvinism.
-We got him!
At the end of the '50s came one last World War II submarine movie
that would take on both the Japanese and gung ho chauvinism,
bringing the red-blooded crew of a US submarine to their knees.
In Operation Petticoat, Cary Grant and Tony Curtis would discover
exactly how chaotic things can get when you let real women on board...
Good night, Marilyn.
As the crew of USS Sea Tiger sets off on patrol in the Pacific
they come upon a group of survivors
who have been stranded on a remote island.
The captain is forced to do the gentlemanly thing.
Am I going down right?
-Is she going down right?
-She sure is!
Though set in the Second World War,
the usual conventions of the submarine movie
are blown completely out of the water
by the arrival of the nurses on board.
And the submarine, far from being a confined, claustrophobic space
is transformed into a hotbed of sexual innuendo and excitement.
Operation Petticoat is very much of its moment.
It's very much a 1950s film about men being in charge
except when they're slightly befuddled by sex.
It's very '50s because it's absolutely fixated on breasts.
Which is a very 1950s Hollywood thing.
Think about Marilyn Munro, Eva Gardner.
The Japanese have nothing like this.
'I always think of the '50s as the era in which'
America regressed into infancy and developed a breast fixation.
If anybody ever asks you what you're fighting for, there's your answer.
The final feminisation of the boat occurs when poor, emasculated
USS Sea Tiger, due to a lack of supplies, is painted not regulation
battleship grey, but...
25 years I've been in the navy. I ain't never seen nothing like this.
As the concerns of war faded,
the submarine movie withdrew from the front line
and re-focussed on the realms of fantasy and adventure.
It would take on more forward-looking aspects
and these colourful creations would occasionally conceal powerful ideas,
sometimes from the most unlikely film makers.
In 1954, more than 80 years after Jules Verne first published
his classic undersea tale of the Nautilus submarine,
Walt Disney decided to revisit this story
that had so inspired the early filmmakers.
Only this time, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea would be Walt's first
cinemascope live action feature film, shot in glorious Technicolor.
The motion picture screen explodes with unprecedented power
as the two masters of imagination, Jules Verne and Walt Disney,
join to bring you a shattering new experience in entertainment.
All stations ready, prepare for diving.
It's a natural conjunction.
Disney was aware that submarine movies were becoming very popular.
We're right in the heart of the peak production period
from the mid '40s to the late '50s of submarine movies.
Don't leave us! Help! Help!
After their ship is sunk the professor and his crew come across
a strange submarine-like vessel and decide to investigate.
Is anyone down there?
When Captain Nemo, played by James Mason,
returns to find the intruders on board the Nautilus,
he is less than happy.
James Mason as Captain Nemo is brilliant.
Dark, saturnine, seriously believable as a man
who has a grudge against humanity.
When he sits down and plays at the organ,
that is one of the great moments when you really do believe
this kind of fantasy world that he's built for himself under sea.
Disney, of course, was very interested in the new technologies
that were being developed for, well, military purposes.
And yes, he was aware of the looming nuclear standoff.
And it's very natural if you're making an up-to-date version
of the Verne novel that you will incorporate nuclear power
because the source of the Nautilus' power in Jules Verne is mysterious.
Now the mystery is solved. It's nuclear.
It had its roots in the Victorian gothic
but it's actually coming up into the present.
The end when Nemo decides to self destruct,
you not only get a mushroom cloud
but you get a voice over from James Mason saying,
"One day the world will be ready for this. In God's good time."
This is hope for the future.
When the world is ready for a new and better life,
all this will some day come to pass,
in God's good time.
It's no coincidence that the same year
that 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was released,
the US Navy launched its first ever atomic-powered submarine -
the USS Nautilus.
And by 1957 it had achieved 20,000 leagues...
that's distance, not depth,
thus matching Jules Verne's fictional vessel.
More than that though, it became apparent that Disney
was helping to promote a positive role for the atom in general
and atomic submarines in particular.
Take a look at this for an early Disneyland ride.
And now for the ride that I nominate as the most unusual
and completely fascinating that I have ever enjoyed.
The General Dynamic Corporation which had built the USS Nautilus,
built for Walt Disney the atomic submarine ride
for Disneyworld in Anaheim, California.
So I mean there was a complete connection between
Disney making 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea '54,
and what was going on in the real world
with the development of nuclear submarine technology.
It's quite an extraordinary moment.
Who would have thought that the man who brought us the Magic Kingdom
would treat the children of the 1950s
to a Disney ride on an atomic submarine?
With make-believe missiles, of course.
Furthermore, Disney produced,
with the US Navy and the General Dynamic Corporation,
a film called Our friend the Atom,
which predicted a bright, clean future where the atom
"..will truly become our friend".
I remember watching it at school.
Here's America and the use of the nuclear power
with an amazing sequence where they show
how a nuclear explosion occurs with the aid of hundreds of mousetraps.
An atomic chain reaction works in exactly the same way.
Our Friend the Atom. In medicine, in hygiene, in energy,
in transportation, the atom is going to sort out all our problems.
And then, the atom can run our ships.
'Disney loved new technology,
'he loved American ingenuity, Yanky ingenuity.'
And of course, the atomic submarine already exists.
Like everyone else he was... the Sputnik goes up
and they're very, very paranoid that the Russians are getting
rather better at this than the Americans are.
So they redouble their efforts to show
how American ingenuity leads the world.
But not everyone shared Walt Disney's optimism.
The catastrophic events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
were still in people's minds
and there was significant anxiety about the dangers of nuclear power.
These concerns were captured in the 1959 melodrama On The Beach,
based on the novel by Nevil Shute.
And our scientists disagree as to when radiation will reach Australia.
The atomic war has ended but the Prime Minister reports
no proof of survival of human life anywhere except here.
Any contacts topside?
'No contact, sir.'
An atomic explosion in the northern hemisphere
has wiped out all of humanity.
All that's left is a US Submarine.
The given is so gloomy, the only safe place in the world
is inside a metal tube and the moment you surface you've had it.
So you don't need the Japanese and the Nazis,
you just need to breath the air.
It's the last vessel that can explore the ruined world
that they have destroyed.
It's the last place that they can hide in.
It's the last place they can escape to before it's all over.
When it's up periscope it's not to see a predator,
it's to see the real world.
It's information about civil life that they want
through the periscope rather than information about the enemy.
It's downhill all the way. It begins downhill and it gets worse
until, at the end, they all kill themselves.
'You cannot imagine a big-budget film with a star like Gregory Peck
'being made about that now.'
It gives an idea about the atmosphere of the time.
Although the nuclear threat still hovered
at the beginning of the '60s, it felt like things were looking up.
Space was now the place
and new frontiers were presenting themselves.
You're listening to the sound of a completely new screen experience.
A startling new kind of excitement.
20th Century-Fox plunges you
into the most incredible adventure that man could ever achieve.
With the Fantastic Voyage,
the submarine movie proved how adaptable it was.
The journey was not to the bottom of the sea
but to inner space, inside the human body itself.
Wasn't so much that sinking feeling
as that shrinking feeling as a group of scientists were miniaturised
in order to enter the patient's bloodstream.
But this was back in 1966 and things were getting groovier, so obviously
one of the scientists had to be played by Raquel Welch.
Oh, yes! Take me down, doctor!
Phase 1, phase 1.
Scanner, computer, nine, five.
Dr Duvall? What could those be?
It's interesting to see when women come on board submarines
in the guise of scientists.
Raquel Welsh, pretty much a classic example of that.
The film spends about 30 seconds, you know,
informing us that she's very, very smart
and then she never does anything intelligent again.
She's there in a very tight-fitting suit so we can admire her figure.
But what the Fantastic Voyage lacked in its commitment to women's lib,
it more that made up for in scientific innovation.
It was the swinging '60s but it was also that thing where
technology was moving really rapidly
and the submarine was still very much at the forefront of technology.
It had moved from being this quite crude weapon
that was there to blow up ships in the great films of the '40s and '50s,
and suddenly it was a pioneering scientific exploration vessel,
exploring things that other people couldn't explore.
The film in 1966 is anticipating being able to insert humans
but also technology into the bloodstream and the brain
and do operations with lasers on the brain, etc.
It's very prescient in that sense
and anticipates a lot of things that would then come true.
The submarine was at the cutting edge of innovation and technology.
And where that cutting-edge technology
intersects with cold war espionage,
you will find only one man, James Bond.
Surface. Full ahead.
In The Spy Who Loved Me,
a British Polaris submarine has been captured.
Oh, my God.
For Bond, it's a race against time as he tries to locate the submarine
before its nuclear warheads are fired.
Can you swim?
The most audacious scene in the film comes as Bond's Lotus Esprit
morphs into...a midget submarine.
It's time we said goodbye to an uninvited guest.
Of course, being 1977, the action just has to be played out
to an exceedingly cheesy disco score.
Midget submarines don't get more bling than this. Stunning.
Submarine movies found themselves rather becalmed in the late '70s,
with only the occasional, admittedly spectacular, foray onscreen.
The Spy Who Loved Me delivered the required subaquatic thrills
and all without breaking a sweat or chipping its nail varnish.
But just when you thought the submarine film
had all gone a bit silly, from out of nowhere
a film surfaced that would become
the towering achievement of the genre.
This is the naval base of La Pallice, in La Rochelle
on the French Atlantic coast.
It was from these brutal concrete submarine pens
that the German U-Boats departed.
It is also the setting for the opening of one of the finest,
most realistic submarine films.
At just under 5 hours running time,
director Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boat is a brilliant study
of the terrifying psychological effects of waging war
from a cramped, underwater, metal prison.
As is often the case, though, the story starts on a sunny day
with dreams of heroism.
One of the most expensive German films ever made,
Das Boat was released at a time when Germany
was finally ready to dramatise its role in the second world war.
The story follows the crew of a U-boat
as they set off on patrol in the Atlantic
in the early years of the war
and is told from the point of view of Lt Werner, a war correspondent.
Lt Werner is our guide to both the fearful nature of life on board
and to the stoicism of its captain, played by Jurgen Prochnow.
Das Boot is one of the great contributions
to the celluloid history of war.
It's no two ways about it.
He's an action filmmaker, Wolfgang Peterson,
he wants to hit you in the chest,
he wants you to feel it there and Das Boat does that.
You live the experience with them,
because of the verisimilitude of the technology,
the sound, the look, the claustrophobia.
The details of the engineering.
I think it's a remarkable film,
I think it's one of the best submarine films ever made, actually.
The extraordinary thing about war films generally
is that the focus is on the action.
They're not described as action films for no reason.
And I think if you ever talk to any serving soldiers
the thing the always stress isn't the action itself
but it's the long gaps between the action.
Long gaps in which there is time for self-reflection,
there is time for fear to develop,
there is time to get anxious about what's going to happen next
and how they're going to respond to it.
I think what's exciting about Das Boat
is that it very much puts that psychological perspective
at the forefront of the film,
which is you understand something about their fears and anxieties
and anything that does happen in the film happens with that
as the obvious psychological backdrop.
The crew face a constant barrage of physical and psychological pressure
throughout the patrol.
But nothing pushes them further to the edge than when,
to avoid enemy fire,
they are forced to take the boat to a depth way beyond its limit.
When they're stuck in the depths and you hear the pressure on the metal
and the bolts start unscrewing and everyone feels,
"My God, this machine is about to implode with us all stuck inside it."
No-one had ever done that before. Submarines had got stuck,
but you'd never quite seen the engineering effect of that.
I even dreamt about it after I saw the film.
It got to me that scene. What would it be like to be in that situation?
When you can do absolutely nothing about it and you can see your
environment implode around you very slowly as the pressure builds up.
Yes, I think that was very effective.
We like to watch the character losing it because, in some sense,
they represent us.
We know, I know that if I was in that situation I would be that character.
And what's interesting, from a psychology point of view,
is that fear is a very contagious emotion.
Human social groups evolve successfully because
if one person felt fear there was usually a good reason for it
so we had to pick up on that and work out where the threat was.
In some sense what's wonderful to watch is that if someone
shows extreme fear how does everyone else react?
That's the beauty of the film, which is, you feel sympathy for
these people because this is not part of the great Third Reich.
This is not part of the, you know, the blitzkrieg across Europe.
This is human beings, like yourself, very vulnerable.
HE SHOUTS OUT
It must have seemed pretty risky, you know,
was the public ready to sympathise, as you have to do, really,
with German submariners who are actually kind of, you know,
cutting up convoys that are coming from America to Britain.
As it turned out they were.
You've got a very conscious attempt to exorcise the Second World War.
Germany was ready to make films about the Nazis in 1981.
It had taken a very very long time.
Hollywood had been making films about the Nazis,
Britain had been making films about the Nazis.
French had been making films, but the Germans had not
and suddenly, they found a way of doing it.
Which is maverick people
who feel a long way away from Berlin.
And that's what Das Boat does.
It was director Wolfgang Petersen's aim to take cinema audiences,
as he put it, on a journey to the edge of their minds.
For me, no other submarine film before or since Das Boat
has been able to give us quite such a brilliantly realistic
and visceral cinematic experience.
At the end of the '80s, the Berlin Wall came down
and the Soviet Union's power began to crumble.
Britain and the US lost their naval enemy.
Despite the success of blockbusters like The Hunt For Red October,
the days of the cat-and-mouse cold war movie were now numbered.
Film makers had to find a new focus for the submarine film.
It is turbulence. We're in a quake.
-Help. All stop.
-Oh, my God.
One director in particular showed the way
as he created a curious cinematic hybrid,
fusing the submarine to elements of science fiction
and state-of-the-art CGI.
In The Abyss the technical wizardry of director James Cameron
rebooted the genre.
All right, just continue forward and along the hull.
The film is about a group of scientists on a mission
to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a US submarine
and the search for survivors.
In the process of trying to mount the rescue, things start to go wrong
and the scientists discover that they are not alone.
The Abyss is a sort of submarine movie.
What Cameron did in 1989 was he reached back
to the imaginative space that the submarine movie and TV series
of the 1960s gave and said,
"Actually, it's not necessarily up there
"where the imaginative space is,
"it's not necessarily in outer space, maybe it is in inner space
"or in sea space."
It was at the absolute limit of what CGI could do at that time.
It was a very expensive and very brave film for 1989.
It was really quite out of kilter, this sort of hybrid
but it confirmed what a distinctive and original director he was,
at doing things with genres,
and with that technology and submarine and undersea technology
that other people just hadn't thought about.
The Abyss grossed 90 million and won an Oscar for visual effects.
But you have to wonder if it left the submarine movie in,
well, a bit of a trough.
Maybe underwater warfare just won't be the same
without those plucky Brits and maverick U-boat Kapitans.
The genre still has life in it
and you can still use modern technology to tell submarine stories,
but you can't tell them with the old bad guys, in the old stories,
in the old contexts with the old politics.
I think all that's gone.
If the history of cinema tells us anything it tells us that, you know,
there is really no such thing as a genre that absolutely dies.
After the bunch of films that we saw in the 1990s,
Crimson Tide, for instance, I think there's no reason
why there shouldn't be new submarine films.
There will be new filmmakers who feel that
they have a story they want to tell.
Personally, I would love to see the first submarine film in 3D.
It could be absolutely terrifying.
It's difficult to see how the submarine
or the sea and submarine genre can regain its space
unless somebody of that ilk,
unless it is Steven Spielberg or James Cameron just says,
"No, I am going to do that."
And if they decide to do that
everyone will be talking about it all over again, I think.
The sea remains one of our deepest metaphors
and the submarine is what takes us under the surface, to face what?
Our fears? The unknown?
The shortcomings and heroism of our fellow man?
For what seems physically very limiting,
the submarine is a great cauldron of emotion.
With one inescapable element that will always remain...
I'm still gripped by submarine movies
and deeply respectful of real submariners.
But it would be dishonest of me not to confess that there are times
when this particular doggy paddler just wants to head for the shore...
and stay there.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
To the sound of pinging sonar, Robert Llewellyn ups periscope to discover why submarine movies have gripped us for over a century. He travels along the River Medway to find a beached Cold War Russian nuclear sub and then on to the abandoned WWII German U-boat pens on the French coast, recalling many of the real events that inspired these films.
From 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October, Llewellyn discovers that fear - and its antithesis, bravery - is the key, and he also reveals the unique role that Walt Disney played in promoting atomic submarines. Interviewees include director John McTiernan (The Hunt For Red October), Sir Christopher Frayling and screenwriter Michael Schiffer (Crimson Tide).