The best naval warfare movies

At the expense of sounding cruel and insensitive, war movies have a way of provoking more feelings than a romantic one. A good one is a complete package, albeit with a marked bias for the bitterness. I have always believed that a good piece of work is one that makes you think, irrespective of how gloomy it makes you. And so, I have always found myself gravitating towards these movies, with almost a morbid fascination.

Of all the kinds of war movies that I have seen (I am yet to catch up on many), the ones that capture my attention with barely the outline of the premise, are the ones that involve seafaring vessels, particularly submarines. My perennial fear of water may have something to do with this, but digging around for this category of movies has thrown up some gems, which triumph not just as superlative works in the field of naval warfare, but also easily qualify as the kind of work which would make you ponder about the broader questions in life…

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)

Naval Warfare movies_Run Silent Run Deep

Based on the novel under the same name by Commander Edward L. Beach Junior, this movie comes highly recommended from all fronts, particularly, in my opinion, the tightly wound plotline and the economy of words and scenes, the stratagem employed and most endearingly, the brilliant acting, especially by Burt Lancaster. Undoubtedly Clark Gable is unsurprisingly terrific too, as the vengeful, yet clear-headed captain, but execs all over in naval movies have often been portrayed as stoic, long-suffering loyalists and Lancaster does full credit to the character.

The special effects on this one are remarkably good too, particularly considering that the movie was made more than 60 years back.  The plot revolves around a submarine captain’s fixation with the destruction of a Japanese destroyer and the rest of the crew and officers, fighting – both mentally and physically – to come to terms with that. Unlike in many of the earlier war movies, the background score is bare and much of the atmosphere is created by the sonar pings and the muffled underwater explosions. All considered, this is a neatly tied up naval warfare movie, which strikes the right balance between action and sentimentality.

Das Boot (1981)

Naval Warfare movies_Das Boot

Hailed as one of the most genuine and remarkable movies made on naval warfare, Das Boot  is a German creation, based on the novel by Lothar-Gunther Buccheim,  penned in 1973.  It charters the voyage of a German submarine U-96 as it sails out of the La Rochelle harbour in the early years of WWII. The plot is rife with the nerve-wracking rigours of submarine duty – braving the uncharitable weather, the constant ambushes and the unconditional requirement to conquer the numbing fear all that entails. This is not in the least a happy movie, mostly because, besides covering the strategic aspects of naval warfare, it also builds the human angle of the crew. You might say that that is true for every war movie, but I say that, this is sadder than most. So watch at your own risk.

The Enemy Below (1957)

Naval Warfare movies_The Enemy Below

Based on the novel by Denys Reyner, The Enemy Below is a different kind of a movie, which, for once, has nothing to do with mutiny (nearly all movies of this kind have some degree of that unmentionable). Rather, it is the story of two enemy captains leading their respective vessels out of each other’s way, and trying to annihilate the other simultaneously. What actually transpires, is a building respect for each other and almost a reluctance – albeit only verbally – in the pursuit. Though the ending of the movie does seem a wee bit stretched, what I treasure in The Enemy Below is the whole concept of sane, thinking men reasoning and being repelled by what they have to do in the name of war. Given the predominance of the sentiment over hard, cold action, the archetypal American Robert Mitchum and the pale-blue, clear eyed Curd Jurgen are at their very best, lending their measured, soft treatment in the midst of the churning, violent sea.

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Naval Warfare movies_The Caine Mutiny

There hasn’t been an artistic medium where The Caine Mutiny has not been adapted for, besides a musical that is. Authored by Herman Wouk in 1951 and adapted on screen in 1954, this movie is not specifically steeped in the stratagem. The Caine Mutiny does not take aboard a submarine, but it cannot be given a miss for the sheer relevance of its observations. By the end of it all, it rather feels like a thought-provoking human drama (which it is). The movie follows the exploits of the crew aboard an ageing minesweeper USS Caine, captained by an ambiguously unstable Philip Queeg. What happens in the ensuing journey can be well deduced from the title. There is a marked lack in hair-raising action scenes or mind-boggling war tactics, but the vacuum is more than made up by the sterling performances of Humphrey Bogart as Queeg, Fred McMurray as Tom Keefer and Jose Ferrer as Barney Greenwald.

The Bedford Incident (1965)

Naval Warfare movies_The Bedford Incident

Based on the 1906 book by Mark Rascovich, The Bedford Incident is yet another crazed-captain-at-the-helm story. The plot recounts a cold war-era situation, involving the crew of USS Bedford, being led by the relentless and hard-hearted Captain Eric Finlander, who continues to behave as if the war is a constant. His boat also houses the civilian photo-journalist Ben Munceford (played by Sidney Poitier), who along with the rest of the crew can do little than to watch and despair at the captain’s fatalistic stubbornness. Despite the flagrant behaviour of the captain, which is simultaneously alarming and interesting (on pure psychoanalytical terms), there are certain deviations from the real picture, if there would have been any. Discounting these discrepancies, The Bedford Incident makes for a fine viewing and raises legitimate questions about the perils of over-commitment to something as sensitive as a war.

U-571 (2000)

Naval Warfare movies_U-571

One of my all-time favourites, U-571 is a slightly different breed of submarine-based movies. There is no regular crew and its plights, but the far more dangerous business of boarding and navigating a German submarine – the U-571 – by Lieutenant Tyler and a handful of others of the US Navy, while simultaneously capturing the elusive Enigma cipher machine. The stealthy party tries all tricks in the books to avoid recognition and capture (or worse) and it is a race against time to make for safety for the men whose nerves are strung to the limit. There is plenty of raw tension, bouts of absolute silence and of course, the excellent special effects which surpass the impact of watching similar movies made in the 50s, 60s or even the 80s. That also understandably makes for a more harrowing experience for the viewer too, but unlike The Bedford incident or Das Boot, there is at least something to calm the nerves as the end credits start rolling.

Crimson Tide (1995)

Naval Warfare movies_Crimson Tide

This is almost a rough parallel of The Bedford Incident or The Caine Mutiny, and relies mostly on the clash of personalities of the Captain and the Executive Officer, which takes a near-disastrous turn when the submarine USS Alabama is attacked by a Russian counterpart. There is a whole lot of heated discussions and mutinous behaviour, while all along there is the suppressed anxiety about when and how will the next attack turn out. As in The Caine Mutiny, this is also predominantly a human drama, with sterling performances by Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, and both do plenty of justice to the oft-repeated concept of the faltering leadership in crisis. But in all fairness, Crimson Tide may not be quite the same as Run Silent, Run Deep or Das Boot.

The entire premise of being locked up in a hulking iron cylinder in the depths of the ocean is in itself something that takes some time for a layman to wrap his head around. Besides, the technicalities involved are also not as succinct as with surface combat, which adds to the esoteric nature of the plot. But keeping intricate details aside, I would chance to say that a submarine and her men bring out a strange other-worldly quality to combat – the endless sea and her whims, the relentless weather, and most importantly, the unfailing courage of every man on deck, a thousand miles adrift from his home.


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