Judge Erick Harper gives this sub flick two depth charges up...err, down.
There's no end to misery and destruction. You cut the head off a snake, and it grows another one. You cut that one off, and you find another. You can't kill it, because it's something within ourselves. You can call it the enemy if you want to, but it's part of us; we're all men.
The Enemy Below has long been one of my favorite World War II films, ever since I caught it late at night on some cable channel during my college years in the early 1990s. It still makes the rounds on the various old-movie stations from time to time. However, it is now available on DVD, so fans of this classic naval adventure can now get rid of their old VHS copies and stop watching pan-and-scan television versions.
Facts of the Case
World War II, the South Atlantic. The US destroyer Haynes is on sea patrol, searching for any signs of German activity. Her new skipper, Lt Commander Murrell (Robert Mitchum, Cape Fear (1962), The Story of G.I. Joe), is a mystery to the crew; he spends most of his time in his cabin, recuperating from 25 days spent on a raft in the North Atlantic after a U-boat torpedoed his last ship from under him. Murrell is a quiet, reserved man, weary of war, but conscious of the job he has before him.
Under the sea lurks Captain Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Battle of Britain), a seasoned, wary U-boat commander. Like Murrell, he is a man sick of war and killing. He has no love for the regime he serves, but realizes that he has a duty and a job to do.
When these two experienced commanders meet on the high seas, the result is a duel of wits, each man using every bit of skill and every trick he knows to try to defeat the other man in a classic battle between destroyer and submarine. More importantly, it is the story of two good men in unpleasant situations, each one striving to do his best amidst the madness of war.
The Enemy Below is an excellent though often overlooked entry in the submarine movie subgenre. The sub/destroyer fight is as good as any ever filmed, capturing all the necessary tension of battling with torpedoes and depth charges. I have no idea whether or not the combat conditions are realistic, but they certainly feel that way. Hollywood has a set of conventions and clichés that govern submarine movies; The Enemy Below is to a certain extent bound by those conventions, but executes them more skillfully than most films.
What makes The Enemy Below unique and more satisfying than most such movies is the humanity of both of the adversaries. This presentation of both commanders as real characters is highly unusual for a film made only twelve years after the end of the war, and in the midst of Cold War paranoia besides. Jurgens's German commander is not a typical, cartoonish Nazi; on more than one occasion he expresses his distaste for Hitler and the whole lot of them. In fact, the only diehard Nazi on board the U-boat is treated with a certain disdain from the entire crew, much as would later be the case in Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot. There are few war films, certainly few from the 1950s, that feature a German sub skipper calling Hitler's war a "bad war," whose "reason is twisted and purpose is dark." This de-Nazification of the U-boat's captain and crew, whether realistic or not, allows director/producer Dick Powell to paint a balanced picture of two honorable opponents reluctantly squaring off against each other.
In order to show us the similarities between the two men, the script gives each man a friend in whom he can confide. In the case of Murrell, it is the ship's doctor, played by Russell Collins (Fail-Safe). The relationship between a ship's captain and doctor is often shown as a unique, close relationship, whether it be Lucky Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin or Kirk and McCoy. Perhaps it is another cliché, but there does seem to be a definite literary precedent for captains using their surgeons as sounding boards. In this case, Collins has a gentle, easygoing manner that makes Murrell's revelations and philosophical musings seem natural and unforced. His counterpart below the sea is "Heinie" Schwaffer (Theodore Bickel, The African Queen, My Fair Lady), second-in-command and confidant to Captain Von Stolberg. The relationship between the two Germans is more tentative, despite their having served together for years; Von Stolberg is a hard man to know, sharing his thoughts only with Schwaffer, and then only sparingly. There is a level of trust between them, however, and Heinie's character serves much the same purpose as the doctor on the American destroyer, serving as a viewpoint for the audience to catch a glimpse of the captain's inner persona.
Mitchum's great strength as an actor was his ability to convey strength and intensity disguised by a casual, almost disinterested air. In this film it allows him to create a destroyer captain who is professional and experienced without being stuffy, commanding without being overbearing or arrogant. His portrayal of Murrell is of a man completely in charge of his ship, but disarmingly easygoing about it. Jurgens, who was imprisoned by the Nazis as a young actor in Germany, plays his underwater counterpart with a bit more intensity and ferocity, but also the haunted air of a man who knows he fights for an evil cause. Even though the commanders carry on their battle removed from each other by distance and ocean, they complement each other nicely and in a very real sense play off each other just as if they were sharing the screen.
The Enemy Below marked the high point in the directing career of Dick Powell, a former child star of the '30s who had become a reputable dramatic actor in the '40s. Powell's direction is slick and professional, enhancing the psychological nature of the duel between the two captains. A couple of sequences in particular stand out. First, there is a great shot of an American sailor dropping a fishing line into the water. The shot follows the line down into the blue, and continues right on down to the U-boat lying in wait. Later on, as the battle intensifies, a nicely done montage compresses a lot of depth-charge scenes and accumulating damage to the sub that would have been tedious if done in real time. He cuts smoothly between the submarine and the destroyer, reinforcing the notion that the two captains are really just reflections of each other.
This DVD release is part of the Fox War Classics line. As they have dusted off some of these old war films, they have seen fit to include some interesting special features. On this disc, we have a particular treat: a collection of old Fox Movietone newsreels from the war years. There are three of them here, each focusing on Allied efforts to battle German naval forces, particularly submarines. The newsreels are not reproduced in their entirety, which is a little unfortunate, but the segments that we do get are quite interesting. Also included are a theatrical trailer for The Enemy Below and a collection of trailers for other Fox War Classics DVDs, including 13 Rue Madeleine, The Desert Fox, The Blue Max, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, and Sink the Bismarck.
Picture quality is quite good. Colors are amazing and vivid, especially the blues that are so important to a seagoing picture. Flesh tones are a bit ruddy, in a Technicolor sort of way, and blacks seem to be just a bit oily and oversaturated, but for the most part the colors are dead on. The transfer was either made from a pristine print or Fox took some time to do a little restoration, because I could see no nicks, scratches, or dirt anywhere—not even in the opening credits and first reel, where those sorts of things tend to show up the most in older films. For the most part, the picture is sharp and clear, with very good definition of fine details, although this does vary somewhat and there are scenes that are a bit softer than they could be. Some edge enhancement crops up once in a while, but it is not severe. All told, this DVD looks much better than I had expected.
The audio has been remixed into a Dolby 4.0 mix, which gives some attention to the rear channels, but not much. The sound is solid and crisp most of the time. There is a subtle but definite hiss under the audio at almost all times, but it is no worse than for most films of this age.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As noted earlier, submarine vs. destroyer films are built on a collection of honored conventions, which, if not used carefully, can easily spiral into bad clichés. In particular, the crew of the USS Haynes are presented as generic Hollywood sailor types, played mostly for comic relief. In another scene, a crewman is injured during a depth charge drill and loses some fingers on one hand. Murrell pays him a visit in sickbay, naturally, in an effort to show the character's compassion and concern for his men. He tries to comfort the man by telling him that at least the war will be over for him now, and he will be able to go back to civilian life. It will surprise no one to learn that the man's civilian occupation is, naturally, watchmaking.
There are other conventions that I wonder about as well. For example, it is almost compulsory that Hollywood submarine flicks show at least one scene where the captain actually "lands" his sub, bringing it to rest on the bottom of the ocean. Of the three submarine films I have watched in the past week, this has happened at least once in each one. To me, this seems like a very risky maneuver, and one that submarine captains would probably not pursue as regularly as they do in the movies. After all, submarines have no windows, and it seems like World War II era sonar would not necessarily be able to pick out a smooth, safe landing spot with no jagged rock formations sticking up to skewer the hapless U-boat. Also, one has to wonder about the depth of the Atlantic in this particular film. I don't know about the South Atlantic, but I do know that the North Atlantic is quite deep. For example, Bob Ballard and James Cameron certainly needed something a little more high tech than a World War II sub to explore the wreckage of the Titanic. In any case, realistic or not, the "bottom landing" sequence is another ingrained convention of submarine films, and works relatively well within the context of this film.
Although some of the underwater shots may seem a bit dated to our CGI-besotted eyes, The Enemy Below won a 1957 Academy Award for Best Special Effects for its convincing depictions of battle above and below the sea.
This film has inspired other, later works as well. Star Trek fans in the audience will be interested to know that Gene Roddenberry and his pals often cited The Enemy Below as a source for the original series episode "Balance of Terror," featuring Captain Kirk, like Captain Murrell, facing off against a noble, resourceful opponent who is more a kindred soul than an enemy.
Not guilty! The Enemy Below makes fine use of submarine movie conventions in giving us a well-crafted chess match between two skilled opponents. It also rises above the conventions and clichés of the submarine subgenre by showing both captains as good and decent men stuck doing a nasty job. Fox is to be commended for bringing this often-overlooked gem to DVD.
We stand adjourned.
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