The Final Countdown (1980)
Like many others I suppose, I’ve always enjoyed a good time travel story and this feature starring Kirk Douglas offers us a great “what if” to Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
The film begins in present day, 1980 and the U.S.S. Nimitz is preparing to head to sea with Douglas in command. The implication is that the ship is the most up to date fighting machine on the oceans. Holding up the ship is the arrival of a civilian played by Martin Sheen who will arrive at the docks and be seen off by a mysterious benefactor hidden in a large black sedan who has a very Howard Hughes(ish) feel to me.
Sheen will make his way on board and meet the likes of Ron O’Neal and James Farentino who will play roles under Douglas’ command. I suspect that a good majority of the other crewman on board and getting a line or two are probably real life sailors being used as extras. Sheen is a military observer and Douglas isn’t exactly a fan of having a civilian aboard his ship which will make for a bit of tension once the plot gets moving along and major decisions are to be made. Aside from Douglas and Sheen, it’s Farentino sharing a larger role as he’s a flight commander who also happens to be writing a book on the history of Pearl Harbor and the events leading up to the attack in ’41. His knowledge will serve Douglas greatly as the battle closes in.
From the moment the ship is at sea, the weather conditions begin to take on an eerie look and the ship and it’s crew will find themselves in some sort of black hole wind tunnel that renders them helpless until coming out the other side and seemingly back to normal. Still, something isn’t quite right. There is no radio contact, coded messages long out of use are being listened to and Jack Benny can be heard on the radio. I do believe I heard a broadcast of heavyweight champ Joe Louis fighting Billy Conn as well.
Douglas wants answers.
The reality of the shift in time is going to become all too apparent when Douglas sends up some reconnaissance planes. The first one will fly over a small yacht calmly taking in the sunshine. On board is Charles Durning as a viable political candidate for the vice presidency and his aide played by Katharine Ross. When they see the 1980 jets blast the skies above them with U.S. markings on them, they can’t believe their eyes. As the jets retreat to higher airspace two Japanese zero’s scouting the waters ahead of the Japanese navy will attack the small vessel to prevent any radio signals giving away their impending arrival. “Splash the zero’s” Douglas orders. Farentino will then lead a rescue mission to get Durning, Ross and her dog Charlie safely from the water. They’ll also pick up one downed fighter pilot for the Japanese played by Soon-Tec Oh.
I’d rather not spoil much more of this intriguing premise for those that haven’t seen it but obviously Douglas has at his command a ship that can pretty much wipe out the Japanese fleet and change the course of history. He’s getting advice from all quarters, most notably star players Sheen and history expert Farentino. It’s Farnetino who points out that rescuing Durning may have been a mistake. His just being alive could change history. On December 6th, his boat went missing and was never found. Had he lived and upon Roosevelt’s death, he very well may have become the next President of the United States.
There’s plenty of intriguing plot developments under way and a great ending coming at you in this Don Taylor directed feature that I caught at the theater way back as a newly minted teenager.
Plot holes? Probably but then I’m no expert in the science of time travel. I just know that I enjoy a good story and this film delivers just that with Douglas at the helm. Martin Sheen was just right at this point in his career as the observer on board and serving as both Kirk’s conscience and someone hungry to right the wrongs of the past forty years. It’s a role that when watching I couldn’t help but think it would have been well suited to a young Michael Douglas at the time. At least then they would have appeared in a movie together far more enjoyable than the one they ultimately would make, It Runs In the Family.
I’d have to hit the history books to see if time travel films were in vogue during the era of this release but I do know that Somewhere In Time was released the same year. Also, perhaps my favorite time travelling feature was in theaters the previous year, Time After Time. Maybe there was a trend after all. As for Kirk, according to his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, he had a great time aboard the Nimitz and cajoled the actual skipper into letting him soar the skies as a passenger on a jet fighter. By the sounds of it, he was mighty happy to set his feet back on the deck of the gigantic ship when all was said and done.
Kirk’s son Peter Douglas was the film’s actual producer and Kirk’s company Bryna was involved as well. The Final Countdown is a nice surprise for those unaware of it’s existence at a time when Douglas’s box office pull was faded to the next generation of action stars. His presence to the proceedings along with an above average cast adds a touch of class and gives the film an extra bite of credibility.