The Hunley (1999)
If it wasn’t for reading the books of Clive Cussler while growing up I’d not likely have been aware of just what “The Hunley” was. For years Cussler had been writing about the adventures of NUMA and more specifically, Dirk Pitt. Then along came his non-fiction book, The Sea Hunters, where he detailed some of the real life tales of lost ships flavored with some backdrop stories. Which brings us to The Hunley which in reality was a hand propelled submarine used by the south during the Civil War. What’s even more fascinating is the fact that though lost at sea during the war it was actually found in a real life adventure by Cussler himself in between writing his fictional James Bond like tales that surround the Earth’s oceans.
The film version of The Hunley was produced by Ted Turner’s TNT network which I guess shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Mr. Turner, a Civil War buff, also was involved in bringing to the screen the epic length Gettysburg and it’s prequel Gods and Generals.
The story picks up it’s narrative in Charleston, North Carolina, in the year of 1864. The city is under a constant barrage of cannon fire due to a Union ship patrolling the coast line. Donald Sutherland plays Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard who has assigned Armand Assante’s Lt. George Dixon to find a way to make the “torpedo boat” work and destroy the Union ship anchored off shore. Not an enviable assignment considering 13 men have already drowned while trying to man and operate the submersible.
Assante with his customary 5 O’Clock shadow is on the hunt for volunteers and isn’t finding any takers. The word is out that the latest military invention is nothing but a coffin for seven men at a time. At least not until the next barrage of cannon fire hits the city leaving people dying in the streets and buildings burning in the night. Along with his second in command, Alex Jennings, he’s inundated with requests to serve below the depths for the glory of the South. And so the training begins for the men selected to crank the handles that make the propeller turn. I couldn’t help but think of the slave galleys below decks in Roman ships like the one we see Charlton Heston chained to in Ben Hur …..
And do you know what this means? …… Time for a long overdue Heston cameo!
Now back to Assante and his men in a cliched look at male bonding. A barroom fight, disagreements among them settled by their rugged leader and stern task master, Assante. For his role, Assante, delivers another brooding performance that is highlighted by a haunting backstory of lost love that plays out in black and white flashbacks to great effect throughout the film’s 94 minute running time. I’ll let you see the film yourself to understand the despair and sense of doom his Lt. Dixon carries within himself.
Over a bottle of wine between Assante and Sutherland, both men’s pasts will be unveiled prompting a great line from one of Canada’s finest, “We are both romantics in an age of barbarians.”
Among the men signed on to propel the submersible towards it’s destiny is French actor Sebastian Roche’ turning in what I thought was a convincing performance as an Irishman. But I’m no Irishman so I’ll let those who are make the final judgement. Perhaps a bit of a throwback to the days of Victor McLaglen in the John Ford cavalry films? That’s a stretch I suppose but the character did like to engage in drinking and fighting in no specific order. The other members are assorted characters with their own backdrops added in to give them some authenticity and their own beliefs of the war they are mired in.
Sutherland’s role as the General is more or less an elongated cameo that gives some weight to the production. The film clearly belongs to Armand Assante, an actor I most often identify with his turn as P.I. Mike Hammer in the 1982 big screen adaptation of I, The Jury. Assante has long been an actor I’ve looked for in movies and like Rutger Hauer was a staple of the straight to video era with one action oriented film after another turning up in local video stores back in the glory days of the VHS rental while at the same time starring in major releases. He has an incredibly long list of credits to his name over at the IMDB. Titles ranging from big screen appearances in Private Benjamin, Paradise Alley and American Gangster to movies that just turned up on video like Last Run (2001), Partner in Action (2002) and Blind Justice (1999). Still active in his 70’s he has no less than 12 credits listed in post production for 2020 as of this writing. And though I’ve yet to see the heavily trashed John Travolate version of Gotti, Assante made for an intimidating Teflon Don in his 1996 take on the Mafioso icon.
For more details on the actual story of The Hunley, it’s role in the Civil War and it’s reconstruction you can read about it here on it’s official website.
You can also read about it’s rediscovery in the Cussler book, The Sea Hunters.
As for the TNT movie that tells the story and pays tribute to the men who manned The Hunley, thankfully it was released to home video under the Warner Archive branch which is exactly how I secured my copy.