This article is being written as part of the Out to Sea Blogathon, hosted by Moon in Gemini. Thanks for letting me take part!
World War II was a vast conflict with a thousand different theaters, most of which have made their way into the movies at one time or another. Indeed you could call “the World War II film” a genre unto itself, albeit one with a myriad of sub-genres, from the star-studded battle epic (think A Bridge Too Far or The Longest Day) to the caper film set against the backdrop of war (The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare), the Holocaust film (Schindler’s List, The Pianist) or the sweeping wartime romance (From Here to Eternity). One sub-genre that World War II completely defined, and is especially distinct from the others in its ilk, is the submarine picture. Curiously, though, the submarine film as initially conceived in World War II-era pictures seems to have transcended that conflict and become a form of its own. If you try to trace the DNA of the submarine film back to its source, at some point you would find Run Silent, Run Deep one of the most direct progenitors.
Made in 1958, an era when the war was still fresh in the minds of moviegoers and the people who lived through it for real were still mostly young, Run Silent, Run Deep is in many was as paint-by-numbers an exercise in cinematic submarining as you can get. It’s the story of Commander P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable), beached after his previous sub is sunk by the Japanese in the treacherous Bungo Straits and who’s itching to have another go at them. He gets his wish by nearly stealing the USS Nerka out from under executive officer Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who was just about to inherit its command. On an uneasy war patrol Richardson takes unnecessary risks, drives the crew to the breaking point, pushes Bledsoe almost too far and risks the safety of the ship for what increasingly appears to be a personal vendetta against the enemy captain who sunk him. Is it a reckless mission, or is Richardson exactly the kind of commander America needs out there fighting the Japanese?
Here is the trailer for Run Silent, Run Deep. It looks like a standard-issue 1950s war film, but it has some excellent points.
If Run Silent, Run Deep sounds like a cliché from start to finish, that’s because it is. Every element of the plot seems to appear in just about every other submarine film ever made. There’s the hard-as-nails captain haunted by the demons of his past…just like Sean Connery’s Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October. There’s the by-the-book exec, well-liked by the crew, who clashes with the captain and tries to reign him in…just like Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide, Matthew McConnaghey in U-571 and Liam Neeson in K-19: The Widowmaker. The crew comes to the brink of mutiny, as they do in K-19 and Crimson Tide. The captain with the score to settle, the unlucky crew member who the others think is a jinx, the gag of fooling the enemy by jettisoning a dead crewman to float up…it’s all been done. But what’s interesting is that the vast majority of these tropes were established after 1958 when they were done in this film. Run Silent, Run Deep was a trend-setter, the source code for these tropes. Honestly it doesn’t do them better than these other films do, but in most cases it did them first, along with its near-contemporary, the 1957 The Enemy Below.
Influential as it was, Run Silent, Run Deep was not the first WWII submarine film to cross this particular swath of cinematic sea. Two important submarine films were made while the war was still going on, Crash Dive, directed by Archie Mayo and starring Tyrone Power in 1943, and Destination Tokyo, directed by Delmer Daves and starring Cary Grant in 1944. Britain also contributed a sub picture in 1943 to the sweepstakes, the rather little-known We Dive at Dawn. Yet these films, influential as they were (especially Destination Tokyo), show surprisingly few of the tropes that would become so common in the submarine genre. Indeed, they appear mainly as propaganda, framing the war at sea as a noble but grinding pursuit whose warriors, fighting the good fight, are worthy of being called heroes (and in whose name war bonds should be bought). There’s still a little of that feeling in Run Silent, Run Deep, but it’s hard to imagine a film made during the war showing the sort of uneasy tension and outright conflict aboard a sub, much less a nascent mutiny, that you see here. Thus, it took a bit more than a decade for the genre to come into its own.
Most submarine films feature an executive officer character who’s close to his men and at odds with the captain. In Run Silent, Run Deep the XO is played by Burt Lancaster. Here’s a taste of his performance.
Entertaining as it is and as well-versed in the tropes, Run Silent, Run Deep is far from a perfect picture. Something is lacking in Clark Gable’s performance. Granted, he was near the end of his career, ravaged by drink, still unable to recover from the 1942 death of his beloved Carole Lombard; Gable would go into his grave two years later after finishing The Misfits with Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe. Watching Run Silent, I noticed that Gable often has a sort of nervous quiver that made me wonder if he had undiagnosed Parkinson’s Disease (I could find no reference to that on his Wikipedia page, but it crossed my mind). He doesn’t have a lot of chemistry with Burt Lancaster. Don Rickles, in his debut performance, is excellent. I would have liked if the movie gave us a bit more of the Japanese captain known as “Bungo Pete,” Richardson’s nemesis, but humanizing the Japanese was a tall order for American filmmakers only 13 years removed from the war.
One thing that the movie has going for it that others in the genre often don’t, is that it’s very realistic. A significant portion of my 2006 novel Life Without Giamotti is set aboard a submarine in World War II, and I did a lot of research on the details. Run Silent, Run Deep gets most of them right. I especially liked the close-ups of the TDC, Torpedo Data Computer, the device that submariners used to calculate bearing and distance to their targets and which was responsible for the overwhelming superiority of U.S. submarines against Japanese shipping in the Pacific War. Also, the sets look realistic. Few films beyond Wolfgang Petersen’s seminal Das Boot dare to show how cramped and tiny the interiors of submarines really are, but this one at least comes close. It’s a little too clean, and the average age of the crew is much higher than it would have been on a real World War II sub, but at least the visual details are accurate.
On the whole, this is a good film, not a great one. But it deserves a place in cinema history for blazing a trail that many others would follow in subsequent decades.
Movie YouTube channel Watch Mojo put out a list of what it considers the best submarine films ever. Run Silent, Run Deep is number 6, but many of the others on the list were influenced by it.
Thanks to Debbie of Moon in Gemini for hosting the blogathon!