The sub-genre (pun not intended) of the submarine based war movie seems to only have a handful of tropes. Watch a couple in a row and you’ll see them as plain as a suspicious blip on a sonar screen; there’s usually a battle of wills between officers either sharing command or between combating ships; there’s a motley crew ready to provide either/or comic relief/drama; there’s usually a flooding scene; oh – and let’s not forget the obligatory depth charger moment! If it sounds like I’m being down on the submarine movie, I can assure you that simply isn’t the case, but to stand out in a genre with less elbow room than a sub’s crowded mess room, you really have to be extra special.
It’s at this point where we blow a whistle and announce that a captain is on deck as we welcome on bridge Robert Wise’s sublime Run Silent, Run Deep – a war movie that’s practically the best of it’s kind that cinema has to offer.
Commander P.J. Richardson has something of an Ahab complex. His previous command ended abruptly when his submarine was one of four taken out by a Japanese destroyer in the Bungo Straits and he’s itching to get himself another command in order to head back out there and engage the opposing captain, nicknamed “Bungo Pete”. That command ends up being the USS Nerka and Richardson’s further demand that his executive officer is one who has just returned from active patrol – that ends up being Lieutenant Commander Jim Bledsoe, who’s nose is immediately put out of joint seeing that he and the crew of the Nerka thought that he would be promoted to command. Yeah, awkward.
Anyway, Richardson takes the Nerka out and starts running drills, seemingly practicing a single manuever over and over for some mystery mission that he’s keeping to himself. The kicker is that despite getting a new ship and crew, Richardson never actually obtained permission to go back to the part of the Bungo Straits now known as the Graveyard in order to get his revenge on but is going to go anyway with a ballsy new strategy.
Jim, unsurprisingly, is appalled at this brand new Commander barging in on his territory with seemingly little or no regard for his crew’s safety and the tension between the two steadily mount to bursting point that, if left unchecked, will leave them all at the mercy of a well placed Japanese torpedo.
Put in an unenviable position, Jim has to weigh up if taking his rightful command by force is worth the various risks and even if he does, does he fight and risk the crew’s lives, or flee and risk losing their loyalty.
Watching Run Silent, Run Deep these days – especially if you have a working knowledge of the genre – is not unlike watching John Carpenter’s Halloween or Goldfinger: they’re all so representative of what came next in their respective genres, they’ve pretty much been ripped off non-stop ever since. Luckily , however, time – not to mention repeated viewings of Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide – hasn’t weakened it a jot and even though modern technology may be able to plant you into the constricting metal corridors in a far more immersive way, Run Silent, Run Deep is still high drama where egos clash under the waves.
If you want to draw out as much drama as you can from a high pressure situation, then you better have a lead who can cast a steely glare with the best of them and this movie pulls a blinder by casting Clarke Gable as a man rightly incensed by the fact he was one-upped by someone dubbed Bungo Pete. His trademark pencil moustache located above his set top lip, he maintains a formidable presence without having to lapse into bug-eyed mania, so god help anyone who has to be the one to square up to mister “Frankly My Dear, I Don’t Give A Damn” himself. Stand forward and be commended Burt Lancaster, who pits his lantern jaw against Gable’s ‘tache and holds his own admirably as a man who doesn’t have the luxury of revenge to help him make his decisions. Having to weigh up every choice with the added responsibility of a crew who look up to him, which way should he turn – there’s no doubt that Bungo Pete’s reign of terror has to end, but on the other hand, Richardson is being stunningly reckless. His plan is to take out the Destroyer is straight shot at the bow and he actively avoids other viable targets in order to get to the Straits without incident.
However, as good as Gable and Lancaster are, it’s the direction of Robert Wise that holds everything together and the man who went on to make such varied classics as The Haunting, West Side Story, Audrey Rose and The Sound Of Music does an inspired job.
Drawing out the claustrophobia of fighting for your life in a submerged, metal, death machine, the workings of a submarine are plainly laid out and the cat and mouse scenes where the Nerka has to out manuever a rival sub who’s been the surprise secret behind Pete’s brutal winning streak all along are crisp and easy to follow. Using the talents for utilising inventive sound design we went on to see in The Haunting, Wise makes the experience feel remarkably genuine and ups the stakes considerably as the mission goes on creating real, stand out moments. A shot where both subs – unsurprisingly both running silent, predictably both running deep – hang motionless in the ocean, barely 100 meters away from each other, both blind as bats; Richardson, recipient of a heinous concussion at the hands of a falling torpedo, battles not to lose consciousness in front of his men – there’s incredibly strong stuff here, lurking beneath the waves.
Earlier on, I named dropped Crimson Tide and if I’m being honest, that was for tactical reasons because I freaking love that movie. However, if not for the fact that Run Silent, Run Deep is a magnificent representation of the genre, it simply wouldn’t exist and god forbid that either of these aquatic masterpieces of tension should ever sink without a trace…