Reeling Backward: Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
The terrifically tense submarine genre starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster still pings with its authentic claustrophobic setting and mano a mano standoff between captain and XO.
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There were plenty of submarine movies prior to 1958’s “Run Silent, Run Deep” — including “The Enemy Below” just the year before starring Robert Mitchum — but in many ways it feels like the granddaddy of the genre.
It was among the first to feature two strong male leads in opposition, a dispute in which they are not on different sides of a wartime conflict but the captain and first mate (or executive officer, as the U.S. Navy calls them, XO for short) aboard the same sub. I think this dynamic was popular with audiences because we get to see them go mano a mano in the same frame rather than cross-cutting between different ships.
It also hearkens back to the mutiny on the HMS Bounty and Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny,” both of which have been seen in various cinematic forms. The idea of the opposing values of loyalty versus duty, especially in a military context, is a compelling one where there are no purely heroic or villainous figures.
Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster star in a tried-and-true pairing of older and younger Hollywood stars in conflict, though in truth they were only 12 years apart in age. (Gable, who would pass away a couple of years later, was 56 but looked much more worn down.)
Lancaster plays Lt. Jim Bledsoe, the XO aboard the submarine Nerka, which has just returned to port in Pearl Harbor in 1943 after a successful mission in which its captain fell ill and Bledsoe took over as acting captain. He’s beloved by his crew and everyone, including Bledsoe, just assume he will keep the job permanently — even going so far as the men giving him a sea jacket with “Captain” stitched on it.
Gable is Commander P.J. Richardson, who intervenes with the Navy brass to have himself installed as the captain of the Nerka over Bledsoe. He had been riding a desk at Navy command for the past year after having his own submarine destroyed by the Japanese destroyer Akikazi in the Bungo Straits. Several more subs have subsequently been done in the same way, leading the Navy to decide it wasn’t really his fault.
Richardson has spent the entire time stewing and dreaming of tactics to take on the enemy ship, running daily desktop gaming scenarios with his yeoman assistant, Mueller, played by Jack Warden. He sees this as his last chance to get into the action and exact his revenge on the Akikazi and its captain, nicknamed “Bungo Pete.” The Japanese captain is seen briefly but does not really figure in as a true antagonistic figure.
(By the way, the Navy really was building a submarine with the name Nerka, but it was decommissioned in 1944 as the war in the Pacific became one of attrition more dominated by air power and island landings than submarine attacks on convoys. And there was an Akikazi, but it was destroyed while protecting an aircraft carrier in the same year.)
His pride hurt at being passed over for a deserved promotion, Bledsoe visits Richardson at his home and demands to be transferred, but is haughtily denied. The commander understands that he will need a strong XO who already has familiarity with the crew and the ship.
This sets up the remainder of the film in which the two men vie in a contest of wills while on patrol, with the crew sticking up for Bledsoe and urging him to take over command from a man they consider inept and even cowardly.
“Run Silent, Run Deep” is based on a novel by Edward L. Beach Jr., a decorated real-life submarine captain who wrote 13 nautical-themed books in his spare time. It’s not based on any single real naval action but gleans bits here and there from actual events, like the Japanese finding out about a submarine patrolling their waters from the garbage heaved overboard.
The screenplay adaptation was by John Gay (“Separate Tables”), and by all accounts Beach did not care for the movie version of his book, which changed things around substantially.
The great Robert Wise directed, and makes full use of the cramped, claustrophobic environs aboard a World War II submarine. The real USS Redfish served for most of the exteriors of the sub, but the sets for the interior closely emulated the actual dimensions of a real sub. If you’ve ever toured vessels from that time, one is amazed at how men could exist in such stingy confines for weeks or even months at a time, alway literally on top of other bodies.
Indeed, the film is revered among naval veterans for its accuracy toward military technology and doctrines of the time.
Though this may not extend to the measures Richardson came up with to take on the Akikazi, which are extremely daring to the point of foolhardiness. Submarine hunters of the day based their entire thinking around remaining undetected, sneaking up to take potshots at convoys, especially the fat supply ships while avoiding their armed guardians, and then running away.
Richardson’s tactic is to take out a supply ship, then charge straight at the destroyer full speed while remaining on the surface, quickly diving to release a couple of “bow shot” torpedoes straight down the enemy’s throat at close range. It’s basically a suicide run, in which either the submarine or destroyer are ensured of certain annihilation.
Although, as a non-military person who doesn’t even particularly like boats, I can see a certain amount of manic logic to the move. By staying on the surface and running full speed straight on, the Nerka presents the smallest target profile possible to the Akikazi’s big guns. Once a submarine dives below the surface, it’s at the mercy of the destroyer and its ubiquitous depth charges.
The production values of “Run Silent, Run Deep” are quite good and have a lived-in authenticity, from the grungy look of the sub interior to the sweat-stained clothing of the crew.
For the underwater combat scenes, they mostly used the then-new special effect of miniatures, which probably seemed amazing in 1958 and are still decently convincing now. And, of course, you’ve got the now-iconic high-pitched pinging of the sonar heralding the approach and fade of enemy craft, which practically serves as the musical score.
The entire middle of the movie is taken up with the growing tension between Richardson and Bledsoe, with the latter increasingly struggling to put down mutinous talk from the crew even as he finds his captain’s tactics and behavior hard to grasp.
Over and over again, Richardson has them run shock dive drills, in which they quickly dive to 50 feet and then fire off their fore torpedoes. In addition to their exhaustion with the tedious exercises, the men are confounded when Richardson passes up a Japanese submarine and later a convoy they happen upon, instead making for the Bungo Straits and Akikazi.
Away from the crew, Bledsoe complains to Richardson that it seems like he’s trying to make them “the best-drilled cowards in the Navy.”
Of course, all of this acrimony would be eased if Richardson had simply explained his intentions to his XO from the get-go. But then, as they say, we wouldn’t have a movie.
In addition to the always-reliable Warden, whose character follows Richardson onto the Nerka and becomes his lone champion among the crew, the film has a solid supporting cast. Brad Dexter plays Cartright, the acrimonious third in command who’s a leader of the malcontents.
Nick Cravat, who was a frequent background player to Lancaster, gets a rare speaking part as the Bronx-braying Russo, who gets left outside to nearly drown while dumping garbage during the endless drills. Funnyman Don Rickles, just 32 at the time but already looking much older, made his screen debut as Ruby, the wisecracking designated comic relief.
I also liked the relationship between Bledsoe and Chief Petty Officer Kohler (Joe Maross), an experienced hand who’s seen it all and expresses his discontent by simply sidling up to the XO and giving him a wordless, distraught stare. “Shut up,” is Bledsoe’s automatic response to this pointed silence, knowing Kohler doesn’t need words to say what’s on his own mind.
Of course, in the end Bledsoe sees the strategy behind Richardson’s ways, and even adopts them when the older man is injured by a falling torpedo. He uses the bow shot technique in the final standoff with the enemy, though he improves it by having the ship submerge just deep enough to fire its torpedoes — “decks awash” — while further reducing its target profile.
This notion of a ship captain and his right-hand man vying for the upper hand would be used in many subsequent films, sea-based or otherwise, including 1995’s “Crimson Tide” with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, which is basically an uncredited remake of “Run Silent, Run Time.”
Terrifically tense and authentic, this submariner adventure still pings more than 60 years later.