Ice Station Zebra, John Sturges (1968)

Every time I think I’ve seen every submarine movie ever, I find another. I have a thing for sub movies, for reasons I’d prefer not to analyze. Sub movies fall into three broad categories: World War II (Das Boot, The Enemy Below), Cold War (K19: The Widowmaker, The Hunt for Red October), and Adventure/Other (20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage).

There are subcategories. I will spare you.

This is a pretty good Cold War sub movie, by a very good director, John Sturges, who made The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, thus assuring himself a place on the Parnassus for movie directors. (Whatever that may be. San Gorgonio? That would be my nomination, anyway.)

Cold War sub movies have a problem: You can’t rely on shooting and explosions for the excitement, as you can in WWII sub movies, because once Russians and Americans start shooting at each other, it was believed not so long ago, the whole world would explode, prematurely ending the movie. So instead you have to rely on psychology (anxiety, guilt, suspicion, and monomania in particular), accidents, radiation, and technology fetishism. Ice Station Zebra has it all. The movie’s a little slow and not particularly inventive, and Ernest Borgnine is annoying (do you know that guy’s over ninety and still working? enough!), but there are some nice moments.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Irwin Allen (1961)

Really, really weird. Partly a sci-fi movie, with a very large and good-looking atomic submarine, complete with tailfins that look a lot like a ’57 Chevy and tons and tons of switches and flashing lights. But it’s like it was directed by Douglas Sirk or something. It’s really hard to know where to start on this one. A bigshot admiral with a Caesar complex has built the Seaview. His secretary is Barbara Eden. Barbara Eden’s fiancée is the captain of the ship. Peter Lorre is the chainsmoking homunculus right hand man of the admiral. Some ill-defined meteorological disaster has raised the temperature of the world to insane levels. The admiral has a plan, requiring him to fire a missile to create a sort of radiological vacuum to put the fire in the sky out. But everyone’s against him. The scientists at the UN—especially the French one, in nifty anticipation of the Iraq war debate at the UN—don’t buy the admiral’s science, but the admiral says the only authority he cares about is that of the president of the United States. The religious fanatic the crew rescues from a research station on a melting polar icecap is against the plan, because it seeks to contravene God’s will. The captain is against it because there’s no consensus in the decision. The psychiatrist on board—a feisty Joan Fontaine—is against it because she believes the admiral is suffering from paranoia and delusions of grandeur. But of course, in the end, the admiral is right. This is really a Cold War parable, warning audiences to submit to the judgment of old hawks, and not to pluralists, psychoanalysts, Christians, or, worst of all, Frenchmen. A deeply pessimistic movie, but full of optimism when it comes to technology. This is probably the most magnificent sub I’ve ever seen in a movie. It has windows in front, with red leather easy chairs to watch the sea go by. And about 12 foot ceilings in the admiral’s quarters. Extremely swanky.

Run Silent Run Deep, Robert Wise (1958)

Ah, the Bungo Straits. One of the great sub movies, fuelled by one of the great sub movie themes: conflict between the captain and the XO. Also, dare one say, this is one of the most literary of the sub movies. Before the credits even begin, sub captain Clark Gable is humiliated by being sunk by a Japanese destroyer. He is rescued and returns to Pearl Harbor, but is given a desk job upon his return. He spends his days obsessing about how he might have thwarted the Japanese destroyer that thwarted him. When Burt Lancaster, XO, brings his sub in from patrol, he expects to be made captain. But Gable has badgered the higher-ups into giving him the sub himself. Sound familiar? Same deal with Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford in K19. And here too, Gable drives the crew hard, putting them through drills they can’t see the significance of but which will become crucial soon. The movie is literary insofar as it is really about the anxiety of influence. Lancaster begins by hating Gable, his father figure. But when Gable becomes incapacitated and Lancaster takes over the boat, he winds up – in a remarkable sequence that must have confused thousands of moviegoers if they stopped to think about it for even an instant – exactly reproducing Gable’s strategy in every detail. It’s totally amazing – the dialogue is exactly the same, the shots are exactly the same, and Lancaster winds up sinking the destroyer that sank his “father” by using the techniques the hated “father” taught him to use. Extremely Freudian. I consider this perhaps the most perfect submarine movie ever, because it evokes claustrophobia not only in its cinematography, but in the logic of its plot. Gable has to go back to the Bungo Straits to get the Jap destroyer that sank his first boat, Lancaster has to resist the usurpation of his command, but then Lancaster also has to use Gable’s strategy when the time comes. Everything in the movie seems to proceed on the principles of predestination and fate, a sense that there is only one option. And of course on a submarine, options are few – one cannot choose, for example, to go for a walk.

The Enemy Below, Dick Powell (1957)

One of the great WWII submarine movies. Robert Mitchum is the clever, hardboiled American destroyer captain who fights with brilliance but no pleasure. Curd Jurgens is the clever, hardboiled German u-boat captain who’s sick of war and contemptuous of the Nazis. The two hunt each other, outwit each other, finally destroy each other’s ships and save each other’s lives. A pretty perfect parable of Wirtschaftswunder-era Germany’s relationship with the United States.

Operation Pacific, George Waggner (1951)

Absolutely ridiculous. John Wayne is tough as nails, which seems to have ruined his marriage, but then why does he win his ex-wife back by being . . . tough as nails? And the story’s far too tidy — what are the chances that the two rivals for the girl would meet up by chance in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — and the good guys win too often. Still, a decent submarine picture with a half-decent love story between John Wayne and Patricia Neal for good measure. Though I’ve long had a thing for submarine pictures; I think this is the first one I’ve seen where the crew watches a submarine movie, namely Destination Tokyo with Cary Grant. They mock it for being unrealistic — pretty funny, considering.