While Burt Lancaster was as big a star as Hollywood could boast of by 1958, the actor wasn’t scared to give up top billing to play opposite a screen legend and I would imagine one of his hero’s, Clark Gable for this WW2 navy adventure. Burt did the same thing in 1954’s Vera Cruz playing opposite Gary Cooper. Both films were produced by the teaming of Hecht – Hill – (Burt) Lancaster.
As a prologue, the film opens with Gable’s submarine losing a head to head battle with a Japanese destroyer. He and what’s left of his crew are hanging on to any raft or floating object in the ocean off the Japanese coast until rescued. Cue the harrowing Franz Waxman score. One year later our story begins with Clark a desk bound officer wanting a new command. With his aide Jack Warden in tow he sets his sights on a newly outfitted sub ready to head to sea. This isn’t about to sit well with the young and brash officer who believes the command should be his, Burt Lancaster. Even the crew consisting of Don Rickles, Brad Dexter and Burt’s old circus act pal, Nick Cravat are shocked when Burt isn’t given command. This in turn puts Gable on board and not at all liked or respected from Burt on down.
Not uncommon in military films that involve training sequences, the crew and officers bitch and complain while the commander, in this case Gable drives them to exhaustion in order to perfect an attack that he plans to deliver personally to the Japanese fleet. “Dive! Dive!” he’s heard frequently hollering into the sub’s intercom. Behind Gable’s back, Dexter is the officer griping and complaining to Lancaster only to find Gable’s aide, Warden not taking kindly to it. Fireworks between the two soon follow while Burt’s authoritative screen presence tries to keep the men in line.
“Stand by to dive.” “Clear the bridge.” and “Direct hit!” music to the ears when watching a claustrophobic submarine movie. Even more so when there’s the sure hand of Robert Wise directing the action. As is the custom of sub films, we’re going to see models in the giant pools of Hollywood and barrels full of explosives being dropped down and erupting near the sub causing the actors to flail about inside the confines of the death trap they find themselves in. Cat and mouse games with the destroyer above, oil slicks and ejecting dead bodies through the torpedo tubes follow suit before one of the combatants can claim victory.
It’s easy to argue that there is only so much you can do with a “sub”movie but like boxing films, they can make for great entertainment and drama on the movie screen. From what I’ve read, the film was somewhat attacked for Gable being too old for the role of the sub commander. While that may be, from this point looking back at his film career, I’d much rather have him going toe to toe arguing with Lancaster over Navy ethics and bravery then seeing him squire Sophia Loren around Naples or showing up for an English class where teacher Doris Day is taking attendance. As much as I love both those leading ladies, yes, Gable is far too old in those roles. Having said that, let’s be fair and point out that Gable’s final film opposite Marilyn is a hell of a screen exit and for my money one of his best performances.
Burt Lancaster, an actor I have always numbered among my top tier of favorites once again delivers another strong character on screen. It was during this era that Burt was acting in one film meant for box office success while the next was a more artistic venture. Run Silent was sandwiched in between Sweet Smell of Success and Separate Tables.
Another bonus with submarine films is that the casting director can fill out many of the roles with a solid cast of character players and “B” leading men. Even more modern fare can round up some impressive cast lists. Red October, Crimson Tide and U-571. In this one we get Jack Warden and Warden has long been a credit to any film he’s been associated with. Rickles, the king of insults made his film debut here and Dexter was just two years away from immortality as the one member of The Magnificent Seven that many people have a hard time recalling his name.
Star Trek fans should have fun with this one if they want to look back in time to see a similar project directed by Robert Wise. The Enterprise slowly moving towards V’ger much like a submarine underwater and two commanders struggling for the right to command. One older, one younger. Hmmmm.