I once wrote the following, and it still applies: “Here we go, again. It is another September 30th. It seems that ever since I became a parent, approaching
14 16 years, now (that’s 98 112 in dog years), I’ve become acutely aware of this date. Today is the eve of what I like to refer as The Slide. That is, the cosmic phenomenon of the beginning of the end for whatever year you or I happen to be living through. You know the one where the space/time continuum accelerates to the point that the year is suddenly over. And, all of those things that happen between now and the end of the Rose Parade are just a blur. A fleeting memory. October 1st… January 2nd.” So I say once again, I’m too old for this…
With that in mind, it is time once more for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to add another of our duo posts in the series we started in the technological dark ages that was 2010. For this one, we re-enter the adrenaline rush realm, this time with a distinct tinge of geekdom, as we examine the novel/film pairing of a noteworthy and groundbreaking techno-thriller. As usual, the wordy one will look at the text of a well-known novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at a page-turner from the recognizable span of time that was the Decade of Excess, The Hunt for Red October. The 1984 source novel by Tom Clancy also served the film adaptation of the same name later in 1990. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: As the Cold War goes through what will be its last chilly vestiges in the 80s, a Typhoon-class Soviet submarine sets on its maiden voyage into the Atlantic. Onboard is the accomplished Captain Marko Ramius and a super-secret propulsion system that makes the missile boat, Red October, silent and invisible to its U.S./NATO adversaries. Unknown to the Russian Navy, however, is the fact that Ramius is planning on defecting to the United States, and bringing the Red October with him. Also jetting across the same ocean is historian Jack Ryan, currently an analyst for the CIA. He brings British intelligence and questions to Washington concerning the new Soviet boat. Ryan, having worked up the bio on Ramius, will be the only one who can put together what is really going on once the Soviet military hierarchy learns of the defection and sets out to hunt down and kill their new submarine. The larger potential threat all this poses, to both sides, is the crux of the story.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“The hard part about playing chicken is knowin’ when to flinch.”
1990’s The Hunt for Red October film surely was a pleasant surprise for Paramount Studios when it debuted, especially given the release date execs stuck it with. I mean, March, typically, is not exactly a month loaded with movie blockbusters, especially in the post-Jaws (1975) summer action-thriller film era. As well, there’s a reason Tom Clancy’s début ’84 bestseller military-techno-thriller of a novel took as long as it did for film adaptation. The movie-going public wasn’t exactly clamoring for more ‘submarine’ films (itself a sub-genre of the ‘war’ film). That this film succeeded, wildly at that, despite the less-than-confident scheduling, was testament to the film’s direction, one superb cast, and perhaps more importantly, one smart screenwriting endeavor. That alone paid off the implied gambit this motion picture conversion was and made the film worth it all.
Clancy’s novel was the next plateau in the thriller genre of fiction, and a clearly American one, at that. Readers of such (and that included the then President Reagan) could spot the familiar fraternal influences from famed British authors Alister MacLean (The Guns of Navarone), Jack Higgins (The Eagle Has Landed) and Frederick Forsyth (The Day of The Jackal). Clancy’s take, though, swayed more toward the technological (something really beginning to impact both sides of the Iron Curtain during that time). Prefaced, surely, by the works from his like-minded U.S. author-in-arms, Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain). The public, weary from post-Vietnam and economic recession, and the spiritual doldrums that came from them, found a positive, escapist fare with his tightly packed, plot-driven tale about the real life tech war being waged below the oceanic surface.
Plus, the high-tech, cat-and-mouse story of Ramius (along with his sub) defecting was an intriguing concept few were offering in suspense and action fare. The story’s motivation for the betrayal, the death of the captain’s wife and the fear of his own government’s use of the new sub as a ‘first strike’ weapon, provided a potent mix of the personal and ideological in both novel and film. The filmmakers, notably director John McTiernan and screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart, worked to keep the essence intact in their cinematic translation from the source material. But chiefly, the reason it proved successful was they dispensed with enough of the tech/political/espionage detail that saturated the book, a facet that made the novel a computer geek/political wonk’s wet dream. Their treatment built a film that was much more reachable by a wider audience without dumbing it down for them. Here, they exceeded beyond expectations, in my opinion.
“Conn, aye. All right, Ryan, we just unzipped our fly. Mr. Thompson! Open the outer doors, firing point procedures. Now if that bastard so much as twitches, I’m going to blow him straight to Mars.”
That’s not to say they forgot about the key ingredients of what it is to be an action movie. Far from it. All the artifacts and hardware audiences by now fully expected from a military-based thriller, especially after the mega-successful Top Gun in ’86 (see my look at that one), were there. The fact that the Dept. of Defense lent a carrier, ships, naval aircraft, and an attack sub toward this production is on full display in the film. It showed the Pentagon thought they’d get the same PR and recruitment after-effects as TG afforded them years before (no doubt they probably did). Plus, the visual special effects of the time still hold up remarkably well (now 21 years later), even if the small uses of early CGI don’t quite anymore. Take the film’s nice salute to the iconic Star Wars sequence (that of a Star Destroyer thundering overhead at the onset) when the U.S.S. Dallas is introduced on-screen. Simply awesome on a big, wide movie screen. It’s still fondly remembered by the movie’s fans [see Naomi, I didn’t forget about our B’con talk regarding this ;-)].
The cast, too, went above and beyond, and that’s more clear looking back at this decades later, I think. I mean, when wasn’t Sean Connery not been in a big, expensive production during this period? One that fully expected his presence to carry a headline film. He’s certainly been in enough of them, and with good cause. His strength and charisma (he’s still my favorite OO7, btw) delivered fully and had the presumed impact in the film. Yet, many forget the other actors in their roles (both large and small), fulfilled just as much, I believe. From a young Alec Baldwin (who shows why Paramount thought they had an oncoming star and franchise with him in this film) in his magnetic performance, to the cadre of multi-national veterans. Sam Neill, Richard Jordan, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Courtney Vance and Stellan Skarsgård didn’t take back seats to anyone when onscreen. Christ, even a former-Senator and my favorite Chief Medical Officer from Star Trek, Fred Dalton Thompson and Gates McFadden, got into the act to good effect. It was a rare, stellar troupe of performers who did yeoman work in a action-thriller that rose above the genre.
Helicopter Pilot: “Fuel status says we turn back now.”
Jack Ryan: “Wait a minute. Fuel status? You have a reserve, don’t you?”
Helicopter Pilot: “Yes, sir. I’ve got a ten minute reserve… but I’m not allowed to invade that except in time of war.”
Jack Ryan: “Listen, mister, if you don’t get me on board that goddamn submarine, that just might be what you’ll have! You got me? Now you have ten more minutes’ worth of fuel, we stay here ten more minutes!”
Let’s also face what’s readily apparent to those who’ve read the novel and seen the film adaptation. Tom Clancy’s strength was always his ability to mold history, techno-military jargon and weaponry, along with political intrigue, into suspenseful plots. It was rarely the quality of his prose or character dialogue on the page that made him a popular novelist. This is where writers Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart (and the uncredited work of John Milius) really shined in The Hunt for Red October‘s film treatment. There is a palpable snap to just about anyone that has lines in the movie. The differentiation it has on the author’s characters (as well as the glee the actors showed in delivering them), by the very words they utter on-screen, really gives the film a personable leg up on the novel (after I re-read/re-watched both). Case in point, when Ramius is throwing cold water on his officers as they complain about his decision to leave a revealing letter (one telling the Russian Navy of their defection) with the following retort:
“When he reached the New World, Cortez burned his ships. As a result his men were well motivated.”
Nowhere is that line, or reference, in the book (which really smacks of Milius’ writing, btw). As well, Connery’s panache with those words is way above anything Clancy ever had going in text for his seagoing Lithuanian renegade. Even so, it is precisely because the writers held to the spirit, instead of the letter of the novel (something I once heard Clancy had complained about) that allowed them to trim and improve on the original story’s hefty overhead. Not to mention, they were unafraid to interject some needed humor to the goings-on. Certainly, it made for many more triumphant moments in the film, enough that you could easily ignore the few parts that don’t work so well (don’t get me started when the crew starts singing). Still, THFRO proved instrumental to the submarine movies spurred on by its success. Some were good and effective thrillers (U-571, Hostile Waters, Below), while others less so (Crimson Tide, K-19: The Widowmaker)
No doubt, all of this was helped by John McTiernan being at the tail-end of his best period as a director (Predator and Die Hard preceded this). The film, in actual fact, was that rare meeting of material, filmmakers, cast, and momentous timing (the ending of the real Cold War was fast approaching). Obviously, the film being an undeniable box office hit cemented its cherished standing. And certainly, I’m of the mind that The Hunt for Red October remains the foremost of the submarine films in recent years. It brought modern naval warfare to light while remaining thoroughly entertaining fare for its audience. Yet, like best of them in the this sub-genre (Das Boot, The Enemy Below, Run Silent – Run Deep), it remains at its finest as a personal tale of seamen living and reacting under-pressure. Amidst all the action, military hardware, and special effects readers and movie-goers were drawn to, there is another astonishing secret to the success of this film. Re-watch the film again, and this time note how many close-ups there actually are. It’s an impressive quantity. While the movie occurs in the vast expanse of the ocean, literally, the entire story plays across the canvas of all those great actors’ faces. In other words, “A great day comrades, we sail into history!”
Note: for another great examination of this film, I highly recommend J.D.’s fine 20th anniversary look back at The Hunt for Red October from early 2010.
“Give the man a chance.”