Every now and then we are reminded of the so-called "silent service" - the submarine arm of the navy. It is hard to believe nowadays but active use of submarines in warfare is barely over one century old. There had been three attempts at getting submarines into warfare before the 1880s: in the American Revolution, when Connecticut inventor David Bushnell designed the "Turtle" to attack Admiral Howe's flagship in New York Harbor; when Robert Fulton attempted to interest Napoleon Bonaparte in his submarine as a weapon against the British fleet in 1800; and when the Confederate (and Northern) navies experimented with torpedo boats and submarines - culminating in the success of the C.S.S. Hunley - in the American Civil War. But the real spur was anti-British animus in Irish-American circles in the 1880s, when they financed the researches of John P. Holland. It was his successful submarine that became the model adopted by most navies.
But that was after 1900, and the early submarines were small and unpleasant and smelly craft (due to the closed space and the gasoline fumes). Disasters occurred frequently enough. It was not until the sinking of three British cruisers on one day in 1914 by U-boat Captain Weddingen that their power became widely realized. The number of maritime fatalities (led by R.M.S. Lusitania) demonstrated how deadly these ships could become. So by the end of the war everyone was improving their submarine fleets.
But the ships still had major disasters in the 1920s and 1930s. 1939 was a banner year with major French, British, and American sub disasters. But the last one, the U.S.S. Squalus off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was important for another reason. For one of the few times in modern history, the crew of a disabled submarine was mostly rescued. Diving bells and decompression chambers saved nearly two thirds of Squalus' crew (and the sub was raised, repaired, and recommissioned to be of use in World War II). But Squalus sank very close to land, and the depth was not an impossibly deep one as a result. Still it was quite a rarity to have survivors of a sub sinking. With a normal shipwreck (of a surface vessel) the crew has a chance to use lifeboats, life preservers, floating wreckage, rafts. You can't readily do that if you are underwater to begin with.
For some reason submarine disaster films have rarely appeared on screen. There were films about submarines (several versions of Jules Verne's TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, for instance), and even of the wartime subs. For instance RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP, and DESTINATION, TOKYO were two. Some misfires also appeared. Charles Laughton appeared as an insanely jealous submarine commander opposite Gary Cooper and Tallulah Bankhead in THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP (he scuttles his own vessel at the end, going down with the ship). But films about actual tragedies never popped up. Except for this British film.
John Mills is the commander of a submarine out on maneuvers in the British Channel. A mechanical failure causes it to sink. Mills is able to get most of his men out using snorkel breathing apparatus, and shooting them out of the torpedo tube. But he is unable to do it for the last three men in the sub with him: James Hayter, Richard Attenborough, and Nigel Patrick.
In their situation they have to just wait out official attempts at rescue. But this is based on the amount of oxygen left on board, and how long it will last. Also, it is turning the ship into a huge tomb for them. And Attenborough, who has claustrophobic problems to begin with, is going over the edge. Patrick turns out to have physical problems that if not treated will possibly be fatal. It is not a happy situation.
It is a gritty little movie, and it has it's moments of unexpected reality. Hayter was not supposed to be on the cruise, but at the last moment he agreed to go in place of a fellow seaman who had to attend an ailing wife. Details like that make one realize what a gamble our daily life experiences can be.
As a look at a disaster that is normally uncommon (but still possible - remember the Russian tragedy of the "Kursk"), with four good performances in it, I strongly urge catching this film.
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