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Five Movies About Submarines

There are movies that sound like they’re about submarines, but then you watch them and find out they’re not. Submarine (2010) is a coming of age story, for example, and Yellow Submarine (1968) is about… I’m still not sure what exactly. Movies that are about submarines are fortunate to have a truly special subject matter to work with.

With a sub’s small and confined interior space, the claustrophobia and the isolation – and the fear that can come with being confined while so far underwater – can create a mood that’s hard to duplicate in other settings.

Submarines are also a great symbol for exploration and wonder; a distant cousin to the airplane. Each vehicle lets us do things we aren’t otherwise capable of doing. The submarine lets us visit the parts of the sea we wouldn’t otherwise know, as the airplane lets us see the world in a way that people on the ground can’t. But submarines can inspire even more awe than airplanes, I think. Nearly all of us have traveled (or will eventually travel) on an airplane during our lives, but few will ever ride in a submarine. And while we see airplanes flying above us everyday, how often do we see a submarine?

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) 

Some of the old live action Disney movies haven’t held up particularly well over the years, but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has.

The perils of the deep sea include GIANT squid.

The perils of the deep sea include GIANT squid.

In many ways the look and style is dated, and not likely to inspire the same degree of awe that it did 50+ years ago. The film was released 15 years before we landed on the moon (and a few years before Sputnik), so the ocean depths were still something of “the last frontier.” Watching the footage of whales and schools of dolphins on a big screen in 1954 was probably quite awe-inspiring, even though today’s kids – having grown up watching the Discover and National Geographic channels – won’t be quite as impressed.

“There is hope for the future. When the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass, in God’s good time.” – Captain Nemo

Still, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea does have the Nautilus; an embodiment of a powerful future technology that could either revolutionize the world, or destroy it. The Nautilus is a wonder, and it foretells the horrible game of chicken that men would later play with its nuclear technology. Even those who ignore the “big picture” themes of the story can still enjoy the Nautilus for its steampunk sensibilities.

The film also has Captain Nemo, a John Galt-ish figure whose abilities and knowledge far surpass that of the world around him, but who withholds his submarine because he doesn’t think the world is ready for it. Men are simply too cruel, and too quick to make war, to be able to handle the power of the Nautilus. While Nemo does resort to violence (in order to stop violence), he isn’t a particularly challenging or threatening character. I wouldn’t be surprised of David Fincher’s remake/re-imagining puts a little more menace into the Captain.

The Hunt for Red October (1990) 

In The Hunt for Red October a submarine is again the reason for major conflict. The Russians have launched a sub that incorporates a spectacular new technology, and now the commander of that sub has either decided to defect, or possibly to launch a rogue attack on the United States, depending on whom you believe. Either way, that one submarine could fundamentally alter the course of the ongoing conflicts.

The Hunt For Red October

So much power had built up on both sides of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. conflict that each had the ability to destroy the world many times over. The key to the balance was early detection. Since the missiles were so far away, either side could detect an attack from the other and retaliate. The comfort of Mutually Assured Destruction! But the Red October had a technology that could fundamentally alter that balance.

“When he reached the New World, Cortez burned his ships. As a result his men were well motivated.” – Captain Ramius

The story still works well today, but as we move further away from the time of the Cold War, younger film-goers are going to view that period of time in the only way that I can watch movies about the Vietnam War or WWII – with an unavoidable sense of distance. I was born decades after the end of WWII, and was very young at the tail end of the Vietnam War. I only know what I do about those was because of what I’ve read and movies I’ve watched. So even though I remember what it felt like during the Cold War, I’ll never have memories of Vietnam or WWII. Someday there will be very few moviegoers who have memories of the Cold War. The Hunt for Red October will still be a good movie, although perhaps not in exactly the same way.

The Enemy Below (1957)

I didn’t have high expectations about The Enemy Below. I didn’t know much about it beforehand, and was afraid I might be in for something similar to Hellcats of the Navy. But The Enemy Below is solid and gripping, and works very well as a drama today. The tension builds and sustains itself throughout, even when each side is sitting quietly and patiently in order to bait the other.

“There’s no end to misery and destruction. You cut the head off a snake, and it grows another one. You cut that one off, and you find another. You can’t kill it, because it’s something within ourselves. You can call it the enemy if you want to, but it’s part of us; we’re all men. ” – Captain Murrell

Robert Mitchum plays the captain of a destroyer escort and Curt Jurgens (Curd Jürgens) plays the captain of a German U-Boat. The two commanders are not only sharp and smart, but able to anticipate the other’s strategic moves in battle. In fact, each captain has a great respect for the other, and empathizes with the other’s position and duties.


This is probably the biggest contributor to the viability of the movie today – each man recognizes the other as a man, not simply as a cutout enemy with the singular worldview and irrationality.

Despite the fact that there’s very little death in the movie, the philosophy of war in The Enemy Below is not simply that war is a venue for proving one’s honor and courage (although it’s demonstrated by nearly all the soldiers on both sides), but that war has no clear-cut and undamaged winners. There are winners by comparison; one side loses but the other side loses more.

Fantastic Voyage (1966) 

I loved the start of this movie, since I’m generally fond of a movie beginning that gives us tension and dramatic visuals,
even though we’re not quite sure why they’re dramatic, or what exactly is going on. The story quickly unfolds as we’re treated to a shrinking submarine that’ll be injected into the body of an injured scientist. The mission for the crew (also miniaturized) is to repair the injury before the patient’s body treats them as a foreign body and attacks.

Fantastic Voyage

“The medieval philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity between outer and inner space, and there’s no limit to either. ” – Dr. Duval

The combination of submarine technology mixing with military and medical technology, together with the themes of exploration, was potent. It’s a great sci-fi premise, but I was hoping that the trip would have been… a little trippier. I know the visuals are limited by the state-of-the-art in 1966, but I would imagine the world inside the body to be more complex and claustrophobic.

There’s apparently a remake in the works, so I’m curious if it’s just going to be a special effects update, or if we’re going to get a re-imagining of the story as well.

Das Boot (1981) 

Das Boot is the movie about submarines to watch if you can only watch one. We go inside the U-96 as it begins a tour during WW II, and find that the captain and crew are real men.

“It’s not the way they said it was, is it? I just want someone to be with. The only thing I feel is afraid.” – Lieutenant Werner

Not caricatures of heroes or one-dimensional characters to fill expected roles, but men who get afraid, who feel lost, and who sometimes crack when the pressure gets too great. And the pressure always gets stronger when the sub goes deeper.

Another "danger zone" shot.

Another “danger zone” shot.

Unlike the expansive and antiseptic interiors of the Nautilus and the Red October (and even the Proteus), the U-96 has extremely claustrophobic quarters coated with a thick layer of grime and sweat. It’s impossible for the crew to do anything without bumping into each other. During a battle or dive alert, there’s no way to get out of the way of the men rushing to one end the sub – run along with them or get run over.


Even though the film is long, things are never boring. The storytelling and the direction by Wolfgang Peterson are exceptional. The back and forth between mind-numbing boredom and borderline panic draws the viewer in deeper and deeper. In the sub’s first real confrontation, we get 15 solid minutes of gut-wrenching tension, with no real break.

A 3 1/2 hour movie of non-stop drama is a special thing.

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.