Time. It all comes down to time. Certainly, as one definition put it, “…the progress of time as affecting people and things.” Perspective, too. Perhaps, it’s why the number of films during the 1950s offered a more measured tone when looking back at the cataclysmic events that erupted the previous decade — World War II. A subject that continues to resonate as we’re still riding in its wake. In my mind, one of the better ones to come out of the era lay just beneath the surface. The Robert Wise-directed, Run Silent, Run Deep (1958).
I am a long-time admirer of Robert Earl Wise (Sep 10, 1914 – Sep 14, 2005). Film editor of My Favorite Wife and Citizen Kane, among others, and a supremely versatile craftsman who spanned eras and genres with ease. You name it, this director-producer did it…and well. Drama (Somebody Up There Likes Me), Western (Blood on the Moon), Musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), Horror (The Haunting), Sci-Fi (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain), and the war film. This one easily the standout in that category.
As this is the Memorial Day holiday, I’ve made a habit of watching war films in remembrance of the men and women who died serving this country. The war film makes for excellent drama amid the grand conflict depicted. Whether between sides, or in this case, centered among two on the same one. Much like last year’s examination, “Submarines usually are great vessels for tension on film. Just about everything outside of the boat is trying to kill those within.” Run Silent, Run Deep added another more personal one.
“It’s one thing to drill a crew for fighting. But when you duck a Jap sub, they wonder why they should break their backs on drills when the captain has no stomach for attacking. What does he want? Obedience? Efficiency? Or the best drilled cowards in the Navy?”
Synopsis: Within a year of the attack on Pearl Harbor, commander P.J. Richardson and his submarine crew are sunk in the Bungo Straits near Japan. While he’s survived it, the now desk-bound commander has an obsession with the area; especially the Japanese destroyer captained by a crafty ex-submariner nicknamed “Bungo Pete”. Upon hearing of the return of the USS Nerka, just back from war patrol, he’ll pressure the Navy Board to give him the command, with the proviso its knowledgable executive officer come along. Doesn’t matter he’ll displace the exec’s captaincy. Possibly placing the crew in unnecessary danger in his single-minded quest for revenge against the Akikaze destroyer, into direct conflict with his first officer.
Have always been fascinated with the storied history of the submarine. A warcraft that’s only grown in import since 71% of the Earth‘s surface is water-covered. When most conflicts arise, some sub and crew is almost always involved. Especially the case during World War II inasmuch as that grand struggle embroiled multiple Navies and spanned two of the largest bodies of water on the planet. Having just finished reading War Beneath the Waves by Don Keith, it only added to my appreciation of this film and its significance.
Adapted by screenwriter John Gay from the 1955 novel by Edward L. Beach, Jr., Run Silent, Run Deep kept the core element of conflict between captain and his executive officer as the film’s main plot point. In contrast to previous sub movies like Destination Tokyo (1943), a fine film but obviously more propagandistic for the time, their Japanese surface opponent received a more respectful treatment here than earlier movies. No doubt, like other later productions, taking into account an ally in the Cold War already forming up.
But it’s the clash of the boat’s captain and exec that drives the tale, much like it did with the lighter but still worthy Mister Roberts (1955). Like that film, this too had two cinematic heavyweights as its leads, to equal effect. Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. The former “King of Hollywood” Gable still carried a masculine aura, even in his final film years. He could still enthrall and command a screen, given the right material; as he did here. The 57 year-old Clark Gable had only a few years of life left, but this was among his best work.
No doubt pushed by the burgeoning and equally virile Burt Lancaster. His first film, the 1946 The Killers, made the self-taught and vigorous athlete-actor a star. Learned the business as he went along to the point he set up his own production company by ’48 with partners Harold Hecht and James Hill; which, if you hadn’t noticed, produced Run Silent, Run Deep. Of course, how well the two crossed swords metaphorically onscreen was likely driven by their real off-screen antagonism1 toward each other.
The dynamics of the relationship between two competing men, in this case onboard a warship, remains as one of the well-known tropes of literature and cinema. An older alpha male usurping the younger one, leading to clashes, and finally to a climatic resolve2. Though hardly original, it had a forceful and engaging stint here. A strained connection that evolved throughout. Leadership that may have endangered the crew to the point of recklessness, even if it brought them together byway of triumphal battle.
One of things I found interesting with Run Silent, Run Deep over the years, and lasted me as a long-time movie viewer, was its high-octane submarine environment. The pressure of it all baring down on the fragile beings waiting to break or rise to the occasion. Especially, within the compressed context of a submersible…in wartime. With everything around you, the unforgiving sea, the enemy tossing depth-charges, and even that small, tight craft they live in as it’s pummelled by the first two, trying to banish you to the bottom.
Doesn’t get more dramatic than that.
Key being Clark Gable’s Commander Richardson as the compulsive figure of the film. Upon release, “United Artists promoted the film as a combination of the obsessiveness of Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab and the shipboard rivalry found in Mutiny on the Bounty.”3 Yeah, there’s that distinct process of men quarreling over something, yelling, then coming together in camaraderie that rings true…look, I didn’t design that staid male social dynamic… Yet, if you rewatch Run Silent, Run Deep another characterizes the piece.
No matter what, it always comes down to tribalism. Family, in all its wonder and dysfunction. When Lancaster’s Jim Bledsoe comes to Richardson’s home upon hearing the news he’s lost the command of Nerka, it’s a mom-dad visit. Even Richardson’s wife4 asks Bledsoe to take care of her husband as he departs, grudgingly accepted; the old father-son dynamic uneasily on display. At a point in time when “the old man” is no longer up to clan leadership, the son pulls it on to his shoulders…with a little help from pop5.
That interaction between Gable and Lancaster was what made Run Silent, Run Deep one of the better war films of the 50s; really was something to behold. Add in another extraordinary supporting cast, mostly male and a bit testosterone-laden, and you can see why the film has gathered high male viewership. Jack Warden and Brad Dexter (before they’d reunite in the 70s), Don Rickles’ film debut, longtime Lancaster friend Nick Cravat getting a speaking role for once, and veteran character actor Joe Maross, all brought out their best.
Moreover, the film showcased its talented crew, in front of and behind the camera, with a taut story. One that took its technical aspects of cramped sub life to heart in a fast-paced 93 minutes, with history and expertise6 to bolster it. Though quaint by comparison, the model work used in Run Silent, Run Deep‘s underwater scenes, the special effects of the day (please don’t laugh if you catch sight of a wire or two), were cutting-edge back then. That along with a realistic, tension-filled story of men under pressure and attack.
A war film that stood the test of time, and featured the only pairing of two big-screen giants. It’d take nearly thirty years for the likes of Das Boot to supersede. Maybe it doesn’t have the standards of today, but it served the story and made it important drama. The Pacific submarine fleet accounted for over 55% of all Japanese ships sunk, including one-third of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Yet, it came at a tremendous cost. The “Silent Service” had the highest percentage casualty rate of any branch of the U.S. armed forces during World War II.
- “Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster did not get along during filming, partly due to Lancaster making jokes about Gable’s age. There was one major argument when Gable refused to allow the crucial plot development of Lancaster’s character to take control of the submarine, because he felt this went against the image he had built up for more than twenty years at MGM. After refusing to work for two days, Gable eventually agreed to return to the studio when it was decided that his character would fall ill, necessitating Lancaster taking command.” ~ IMDB ↩
- Robert Wise would be involved with two such similar storylines in his long career. The wartime Run Silent, Run Deep and his marshalling of the venerable TV sci-fi series to the big screen with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. ↩
- Wikipedia. ↩
- Briefly portrayed by Mary LaRoche, the lone female in the entire movie. ↩
- A key aspect why The Godfather remains such a timeless story. ↩
- Another film the Pentagon took special interest in, along with “lending” the film production a rear-admiral as technical advisor. The director Wise had real submariners working with the cast until they could realistically depict the complexities of both torpedo and depth charge attacks. ↩