You think I enjoy letting men drown? Someday you may have a command of your own. If you want to risk an entire ship, and a crew, and a mission for one man, that will be your decision to make. This one was mine.
Opinions about Ronald Reagan's film career vary, and tend to be colored by one's opinion of him in political terms. However, if one strips away the past 40 years Reagan the politician spent in a very different spotlight, Reagan the actor can be taken on his own terms. The truth is that he was a much better actor than he is often given credit for, and his star was on the rise prior to World War II. Unlike other actors whose careers were interrupted by the war (James Stewart comes to mind), the Gipper's film career never really picked up where it left off, and his age and changing public tastes consigned him to B films and television until he changed careers in the mid-1960s. Hellcats of the Navy is a particularly noteworthy entry in his filmography as the only time he shared the screen with one Nancy Davis, whom many of us remember from our elementary school years as the lady who taught us all to "Just Say No."
Facts of the Case
Commander Casey Abbott (Ronald Reagan, Knute Rockne: All American, King's Row) captains a US submarine in the heat of the Pacific Theater. After a series of daring raids, he and his crew are given a new, even more dangerous assignment. As part of a top-secret submarine raiding force codenamed "Hellcats," Abbott and his crew must navigate the treacherous Tsushima Straits to raid Japanese shipping and cut off one of the last safe supply routes into the Japanese home islands.
Submarine movies are almost an entire genre unto themselves. There are certainly very specific conventions they follow with almost religious zeal. There has to be a "silent running" scene where the crew hunker down as quiet as church mice and try to avoid detection by an enemy destroyer. The destroyer naturally detects the sub at some point, and men brace themselves against the impact of depth charges. Damage ensues, with water leaking in and spraying about. Hellcats of the Navy is no exception, following the requirements of the submarine genre to the letter. There are also several conventions of war films that this movie follows; some characters are killed in action, of course, and they tend to be exactly the ones a viewer would expect. If this were an episode of Star Trek, they would all have been wearing red shirts. There is also a fairly unrealistic moment where Commander Abbott dons a wetsuit and ventures outside the sub by himself to try to effect important repairs; this is, of course, strictly a Hollywood idea, and one could easily imagine William Shatner doing exactly the same thing.
Another war movie cliché is the love triangle, involving a conveniently-placed nurse. The nurse in this case is Lt. Helen Blair, played of course by future First Lady Nancy Davis (The Next Voice You Hear…, Shadow in the Sky). Her triangle involves Abbott, who recently ended a relationship with her, and Wes Barton (Harry Lauter, Escape from the Planet of the Apes), an officer aboard Abbott's sub, who has been seeing her on the rebound. Davis isn't given much to do in her part, but she does a good job of playing the slightly war-weary realist. Hers is a role that calls for a certain maturity, not starry-eyed romantic innocence, and she does well with what she has to work with. The conventions of the genre would normally call for her to be merely a prize for Abbott and Barton to fight over, but both the script and her performance give her an identity and strength beyond what one might normally expect.
It is this romantic triangle that helps set the scene for some of the more unconventional aspects of the movie. The script presents situations that lead Abbott's crew—and the audience—to question his objectivity and professionalism as a commander. When Abbott is forced to leave Barton behind and flee the scene of a commando raid, his first officer, Lt. Commander Landon (Arthur Franz, Anzio, The Atomic Submarine) insinuates that it was done for personal reasons, not just the safety of the ship and crew. The tension between the two men becomes an important subplot, as Abbott strives to teach Landon the difference between command decisions and emotional decisions. This tension, rather than the war with the Japanese, is really the central human focus of the plot. It is fleshed out and developed with mixed success through a series of incidents that propel the plot while sharpening the tension between Abbott and Landon.
So, what of Reagan's performance? He's very comfortable in uniform; like many Hollywood types of his generation such as Theodore "Dr. Seuss" Geisel and Ray Harryhausen, he served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, making training films. He seems a natural for the part, showing the same blend of affability and resolve that Americans would come to know in a much different context a quarter-century later. Reagan is believable in the role, convincingly brave but never cocky, and is able to lend force to Abbott's convictions about command responsibility.
Franz does well in a fairly thankless role that forces him to buck the Gipper's sure, steady hand on the helm. His character raises important questions, but next to Reagan's relaxed but confident Commander Abbott he can't help but seem petulant and untrustworthy.
The picture quality of this DVD is stunning for a B movie from 1957. It is unclear whether Columbia did any restoration work on this print, but in any case it is remarkably free from any major source defects. The sound quality is much better than expected, with much fuller sound than is normal for monaural audio tracks, and a pleasing balance of dialogue, sound effects, and music. This is to some extent a reflection of the time in which it was made, and the amazing technological advantages that American filmmakers had when compared with their overseas brethren in terms of cameras, sound equipment, and film stocks. In contrast, the restoration experts at the Criterion Collection have put in massive amounts of work on several classic foreign films of the same period, with nowhere near these results.
Hellcats of the Navy is based on an actual combat operation from World War II. The way we learn this is remarkable; Admiral Chester Nimitz himself appears in a brief introductory segment, direct from his front yard in Berkeley, California, extolling the heroism and sacrifices of the real-life "Hellcats of the Navy." The presence of such a historical figure, along with Ron and Nancy, is an interesting touch and probably makes Hellcats of the Navy worth checking out for the historical value, if nothing else.
All told, Hellcats of the Navy a serviceable if somewhat creaky war story, certainly no worse and at times quite a bit better than a lot of the indistinguishable war pictures that Hollywood cranked out in the 1940s and 50s. It's not a great film, but some good performances and a decent plot do help salvage a sometimes clunky script.
Now, I'll go back to fantasizing how Reagan's career might have been different had he actually gotten the lead in Casablanca as originally intended…
It's a close call, but we find Hellcats of the Navy Not Guilty. It is unusual to find a seemingly generic submarine movie that actually focuses on characters and has something to say, even if it doesn't always say it very well.
We stand adjourned.
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