Thursday, November 7, 2013

Submarines and Starships

The 1957 war movie The Enemy Below is essentially proof that a good cliché or trope can be used again and again as the basis for good storytelling—as long as the story is skillfully told.

The movie used what even by 1957 was indeed a cliché—the story of a submarine and a surface vessel stalking one another. And it definitely is done skillfully.

The surface vessel is the destroyer escort USS Haynes, which is tracking a German U-boat. The crew of the Haynes is eager to do their jobs, but they’re nervous about their new captain. Captain Murrell (played with quiet intelligence by Robert Mitchum) just transferred into the Navy from the merchant service after spending nearly a month on a raft after his last ship was sunk. His current crew harbors some doubts about him.

But he soon wins their confidence when he proves himself capable of out-thinking his opponent. But Mitchum doesn’t out-think him every time. The German captain makes some clever moves of his own.

The German is played by Curt Jurgens. In real life, the German-born actor spent some time in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi sentiments, so it’s ironic that many of his best-known roles after the war were playing soldiers or sailors in the German military. Here he plays a determined professional who simply wants to get his boat and his crew home alive.

Much of the movie counterpoints Mitchum and Jurgens as the two men strive to kill each other while simultaneously developing a mutual respect for one another’s abilities. Both the cast and the effective plot construction are combined to make a tense and entertaining movie.

Mitchum’s executive officer in the movie is played by David Hedison (billed as Al Hedison in this early part of his career). Seven years later, Hedison would transfer from surface ships to submarines when he played Captain Lee Crane in the television version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

In the January 2, 1966 episode titled “Killers of the Deep,” Hedison got to relive the events of The Enemy Below. A sub belonging to a small nation is stealing nukes from underwater missile silos because (as the sub captain explains): “A very small country with a few nuclear missiles suddenly becomes a very large country.”

Crane and Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) scout for the enemy in the Flying Sub, but are shot down. Crane ends up a prisoner on the enemy sub, while Basehart is picked up by an American destroyer and leads the effort to destroy the sub.

The episode uses a lot of stock footage from The Enemy Below, but manages to weave this fairly seamlessly into the episode. Though “Killers from the Deep" is a little shameless in how closely it follows the plot of the film (including having Basehart twice use the exact same chains of logic Mitchum uses to predict the sub’s actions), it’s a very entertaining episode. It leaves out the Enemies Gaining Mutual Respect trope, but the villain is played by Michael Ansara, who is always fun to watch as a bad guy.

Of course, the episode adds Captain Crane’s adventures as a prisoner aboard the enemy sub to the overall plot, where he eventually gets loose and leads the enemy a merry chase through the air vents. (Submarines in the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea universe had absurdly large air vents.)

There’s one interesting side effect to using footage from The Enemy Below. Voyage was made in the 1960s, but set in the far future decade of the 1970s. But even by the '60s, the World War II-era depth charging techniques being used by Nelson were long out-of-date. Modern warships could fire ASROCS (anti-submarine rockets) from miles away to take out enemy subs. But the stock footage shows depth charges, so Nelson is stuck with that tactic and ASROCS aren’t even mentioned.

By the way, if you watch the clip below, you may notice the ensign being given orders by Admiral Nelson in John Wayne’s son Patrick. In 1977, Patrick would earn major geek cred by starring in both The People That Time Forgot and Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.

Anyway, the year 1966 was not yet done with The Enemy Below. On December 15, the starship Enterprise went up against the Romulans for the first time. When a Romulan ship equipped with a cloaking device destroys some Federation outposts, it’s Captain Kirk’s job to track the ship down and destroy it.

“Balance of Terror” does a great job of translating the ship vs. sub situation into an outer space setting and (with Mark Leonard doing an excellent job as the Romulan captain) it pulls off the Enemies Gaining Mutual Respect vibe quite nicely. It is one of the strongest episodes of the original Star Trek series.

So The Enemy Below was based on a clichéd idea, but used that idea so effectively that its plot bled over into at least two television episodes and still remained a strong story. It’s not an inherently bad thing to reuse an old story idea. The only question is simply whether you tell that story well.

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