Submarine movie evening: Underwater war waged in TCM’s Memorial Day films
In the U.S., Turner Classic Movies has gone all red, white, and blue this 2017 Memorial Day weekend, presenting a few dozen Hollywood movies set during some of the numerous wars in which the U.S. has been involved around the globe during the last century or so. On Memorial Day proper, TCM is offering a submarine movie evening.
More on that further below. But first it’s good to remember that although war has, to put it mildly, serious consequences for all involved, it can be particularly brutal on civilians – whether male or female; young or old; saintly or devilish; no matter the nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other label used in order to, figuratively or literally, split apart human beings.
Just this past Sunday, the Pentagon chief announced that civilian deaths should be anticipated as “a fact of life” in the United States’ revved-up fight against Daesh (a.k.a. ISIS). Something that’s perfectly understandable, of course – unless, that is, the bombs are being dropped on your head or on the heads of those you care about. Just ask the 225 civilians blown to pieces by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria in the last month.
And let’s not forget war victims’ non-human companions. By far the most heart-wrenching scene in William A. Wellman’s widely acclaimed – and infuriatingly cliché-ridden – 1949 World War II drama Battleground features a terrified dog roaming the streets of an European town as bombs topple buildings all around him/her.
But hey, that’s war, invariably fought for a good cause (well, at least by the “troops” on your side) while just as invariably leading to controversial ethical dilemmas – e.g., how can American Civil War movies dehumanize The Other Side when both warring parties consisted of Americans?
TCM goes to war
TCM’s red-white-and-blue movies this extended Memorial Day weekend have, as to be expected, mostly avoided such thorny issues. On Friday, for instance, Southern hick Gary Cooper – as a highly fictionalized version of the real-life Alvin York – joined U.S. troops in World War I-torn Europe, where he became a decorated War Hero after poking bullet holes in the hearts, brains, stomachs, etc. of German soldiers, quite literally using the same tactics he had previously applied to killing turkeys back in Tennessee.
The (non-graphic) shooting of the – thoroughly dehumanized – Germans, in fact, is supposed to be comical, and it must have had 1941 audiences pissing in their pants while rolling down the aisles, as Sergeant York went on to become one of the biggest box office hits up to that time, ultimately earning Howard Hawks his one and only Best Director Academy Award nomination and Gary Cooper his first of two Best Actor Oscar statuettes. (The second one was for another gun-wielding all-American movie hero: the lone small-town sheriff in Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 political/psychological Western High Noon.)
All in all, Sergeant York would make for a great double bill with Lewis Milestone’s 1929-1930 Best Picture Academy Award winner All Quiet on the Western Front, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel – set “on the other side” – and nearly a century later quite possibly the greatest war movie ever made.
One of TCM’s Saturday highlights starred top box office draw Rock Hudson – as another real-life character, pilot/clergyman Dean Hess – attempting to eschew violence while rescuing hundreds of orphans during the Korean War in Battle Hymn (1957), a somewhat unusual effort by Douglas Sirk, the director of romantic and/or female-oriented fare such as Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life.
On Sunday, highlights included Henry King’s Oscar-nominated psychological military drama Twelve O’Clock High (1949), which earned Gregory Peck his fourth Best Actor Oscar nomination and Dean Jagger the year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar statuette, and Richard Fleischer’s semi-documentary – and costly box office flop – Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), which, long before Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), attempted to depict both sides of the war in the Pacific.
As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, on Memorial Day itself TCM’s focus is on the war inside the Pacific. Submarines are the war vehicles of choice in the five movies being presented on Monday night: Destination Tokyo, Operation Pacific, Up Periscope, Torpedo Run, and, the Atlantic submarine movie exception, The Enemy Below (actually filmed in the Pacific).
In 1943, Warner Bros. was fighting a dangerous submarine war, what with Humphrey Bogart experiencing underwater Action in the North Atlantic and Cary Grant and John Garfield braving enemy waters in Destination Tokyo. If only the filmmakers had taken as much care with plot and character as they did with the action sequences found in either film.
Directed by (until then) screenwriter Delmer Daves (The Petrified Forest, Love Affair), who also co-wrote the flimsy tale (with future Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz), Destination Tokyo is one of the worst movies in Cary Grant’s notable career. Not helping matters, the urbane actor is badly miscast as a submarine captain, giving orders to a crew that includes just about every single cardboard cliché and stereotype in human form.
Much more interesting is The Enemy Below (1957), directed by 1930s Warner Bros. crooner and 1940s film noir hero/heel Dick Powell. Long before Tora! Tora! Tora!, the two aforementioned Clint Eastwood war dramas, and Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot – and a mere 12 years after the end of World War II – The Enemy Below strived to show both sides of the war in the Atlantic.
Thus, in this unusually layered Hollywood war movie, U.S. destroyer commander Robert Mitchum plays a game of death with U-Boat commander Curd Jürgens, who, frighteningly, is just as capable and just as human as his American foe. Wendell Mayes (Von Ryan’s Express, In Harm’s Way) wrote the screenplay from D.A. Rayner’s novel.
Also worth noting, David Hedison a.k.a. Al Hedison has a supporting role in The Enemy Below. Less than a decade later, he would have his own submarine experiences as Captain Lee Crane in the hit TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964–1968).
More conventional war movie action can be found in another of TCM’s Memorial Day entries, Gordon Douglas’ Up Periscope (1959), with James Garner as a frogman a.k.a. military scuba diver. Joseph Pevney’s Torpedo Run (1958), on the other hand, has at least an interesting premise: will submarine commander Glenn Ford blow up a Japanese battleship using war prisoners – including his family – as human shields?
And finally, The Wolf Man and Frisco Sal filmmaker George Waggner wrote and directed Operation Pacific (1951), which has a solid asset in the person of future Best Actress Oscar winner Patricia Neal (Hud, 1963), in addition to some still-waters-run-deep Freudian overtones. As Neal’s husband, Hollywood war hero John Wayne, who never fought any bomb ’em/shoot ’em/incinerate ’em wars in real life, must deal with torpedoes that don’t explode.
As an aside, according to various online sources Virginia Gregg provides the voice of the infamous Tokyo Rose in Torpedo Run, while future three-time Best Actress Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker (Caged, 1950; Detective Story, 1951; Interrupted Melody, 1955) provides the voice of one of the soldier’s wives (via a recording) in Destination Tokyo.
Wrapping this up, curiously – though hardly surprising – no country seems to have a day of remembrance specifically for civilians who, regardless of nationality, had their lives ripped from them during wartime. Well, that’s human beings for you.
8:00 PM DESTINATION TOKYO (1943). Director: Delmer Daves. Cast: Cary Grant. John Garfield. Alan Hale. John Ridgely. Dane Clark. Warner Anderson. Robert Hutton. Faye Emerson. Tom Tully. John Forsythe. B&W. 135 mins.
10:30 PM OPERATION PACIFIC (1951). Director: George Waggner. Cast: John Wayne. Patricia O’Neal. Ward Bond. Scott Forbes. Philip Carey. Paul Picerni. William Campbell. B&W. 109 mins.
12:30 AM THE ENEMY BELOW (1957). Director: Dick Powell. Cast: Robert Mitchum. Curd Jürgens (as Curt Jurgens). David Hedison (as Al Hedison). Theodore Bikel. Russell Collins. Frank Albertson. Biff Elliot. Color. 98 mins. Letterbox Format.
2:30 AM UP PERISCOPE (1959). Director: Gordon Douglas. Cast: James Garner. Edmond O’Brien. Andra Martin. Alan Hale Jr. Carleton Carpenter. Frank Gifford. William Leslie. Uncredited: Warren Oates. Color. 111 mins. Letterbox Format.
4:30 AM TORPEDO RUN (1958). Director: Joseph Pevney. Cast: Glenn Ford. Ernest Borgnine. Diane Brewster. Dean Jones. L.Q. Jones. Philip Ober. Don Keefer. Paul Picerni. Voice: Virginia Gregg. Color. 95 mins. Letterbox Format.