Das Boot

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With it out on Blu-ray, viewers can once again see that “Das Boot” is still the greatest submarine movie ever made. Other underwater sea adventures like “Run Silent, Run Deep,” “Crimson Tide,” and “The Hunt for Red October” may come close, but none of them can capture or match its power in unbearable claustrophobic tension. It remains Wolfgang Petersen’s crowning achievement as a director, and it has lost none of its power in sucking us into the inescapable terror people face in the deep dark sea.

“Das Boot” takes place in World War II as Commander Willenbrock leads a group of boys to sea on a U-Boat, the German version of a submarine, and covers the tedium of life at sea when no battles are fought. You feel the sweat and body odor of the crew quite vividly to where you will want to take a cold shower afterward. But it’s when they face off against destroyer ships when the intensity really goes into serious high gear.

Petersen does a brilliant job of conveying the terror and claustrophobic nature everyone on the U-Boat is forced to endure. You are right there with the crew and experiencing their frenzied emotions as the destroyers sail over them dropping depth charges which threaten to sink their boat in a heartbeat. The “ping” noises make the suspenseful tension even worse as the position of the submarine becomes easier to determine, and this becomes a film you experience far more than watch.

The director also does a really good job of getting viewers to know various crew members and the important roles they have on the ship. There is Chief Engineer Fritz Grade (the wonderful Klaus Wennemann) who finds looking at pictures of his wife too painful. Then there’s Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) who is in love with his engines the same way Scotty loved the Enterprise in “Star Trek.” And there is also Senior Cadet Ullmann (Martin May) who is constantly worried about his fiancée who is French and pregnant. The more viewers know about the crew, the more emotionally drawn they are to their predicament.

There may some people who object to seeing “Das Boot” on the grounds the crew members were Nazis. Truth be told, not all of them are big fans of Adolf Hitler, and they are never seen wearing a Nazi insignia on their uniforms while at sea. But regardless of this, take away the politics of what’s going on and you will realize just how universal this movie is in what it portrays. Had it been the “good guys” instead, they would have endured the same crippling terror and fatigue so this crew could have been of any nationality.

It is also a powerful anti-war movie as well in showing not just the horrors and destruction of war, but also of the victories which become empty ones when soldiers see what is left behind. This is especially the case in one scene when the crew members are on the surface and surveying a freighter they successfully destroyed. They revel in their victory, but then they see survivors jumping off the ship into the ocean. They swim to the submarine pleading for help, but while the German crew members want to assist them, the Captain concedes there is no room for them onboard, and they are left to drown. It’s an emotionally devastating moment which captures the senselessness and the price of war.

“Das Boot” is based on the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim which was inspired by his own wartime experiences as a war correspondent onboard submarines. The character most resembling him here is Lieutenant Werner, and he is our guide through the chaos as his lack of experience aboard a submarine mirrors our own. What he discovers about life at sea, viewers discover along with him. Playing him is German singer Herbert Grönemeyer, and he does great work in conveying his naivety while covering the goings on of a German crew.

The best performance, however, comes from the great Jürgen Prochnow who plays Commander Willenbrock, the hardened sea veteran who looks like he’s seen everything war has to offer. The other officers freak out easily during an attack, but he keeps his cool because he needs everyone to do their jobs. It’s when he starts losing it, however, when things get really bad, and then the audience has a reason to freak out. Prochnow creates a multi-dimensional character which feels very much lived in, and he gives the Commander a subtle vulnerability which looks and feels effortless.

Petersen has been known best for making movies about people who are stuck in small places where there’s not much room to hide. He enthralled us when the American President’s plane was hijacked in “Air Force One,” he had Clint Eastwood chasing after John Malkovich during “In the Line of Fire,” and he has George Clooney and company trapped in the rocky sea in “The Perfect Storm.” “Das Boot” is where it all started for him, and it is a seriously intense and emotionally exhausting experience which thrills and terrifies you in equal measure. The accuracy to detail is never in doubt, and the audience will come up gasping for air once the credits roll.

There may be another submarine movie or two coming to movie theaters in the future, but after watching “Das Boot,” you can bet they won’t come close to topping it. Movies don’t get much more thrilling than this one, and it is a must see for those who are fans of Petersen’s work or war movies in general. It is also more preferable to some of the director’s more recent work like “Poseidon” and “Troy.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Note: There are currently many different versions of “Das Boot” available. The original theatrical cut lasts about two and a half hours. The director’s cut of it added an hour of footage which gave more depth to each character. And before it made its way onto Blu-ray, there was the uncut miniseries version which runs for almost five hours. You may want to start off with the director’s cut and then move on to the miniseries which perfectly captures the infinite tedium of the crew that feels endless.

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The Hunt For Red October

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My dad just watched John McTiernan’s “The Hunt for Red October” for what seems like the 600th time. After all these years since it remains one of the few movies he never gets sick of watching. While I was at first annoyed with him wanting to watch it instead of something he hadn’t seen before, it didn’t take long for me to be reminded why this movie is so compulsively watchable. The cast is excellent, the direction is taut, and it is far more thrilling than the average PG-rated movie. I remember my friends not taking this movie very seriously when it came out as they were more interested in sneaking into the latest R-rated movie, but they didn’t know what they were missing.

This was the first cinematic adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel and, as a result, the first instance of him getting pissed at Hollywood for not faithfully adapting his work. I still have not read the book, so I have no idea how it differs from the movie. At this point, I’m not really sure if I care because book to film adaptations are not going to work if you’re going to be 100% faithful to the source material. Not everything transfers over to the big screen for a number of reasons, and if Clancy were still alive I’d tell him he should be happy this movie helped sell more copies of his books.

I’m not going to bore you with all the plot details. All you need to know is that it involves a new Russian submarine called the Red October which contains a propulsion system which allows it to run silently to where it cannot be detected by sonar. It is commanded by Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) who lives a lonely life now that his wife has passed away, and many soon become convinced he is out to attack the United States before the country can even realize it’s under attack. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), however, becomes convinced Ramius is actually trying to defect and becomes obsessed with proving his theory to where he’s willing to put himself in harm’s way.

On top of this being the first Clancy novel brought to the silver screen, it also served as an introduction to the hero of many of his books, Jack Ryan. Of all the actors who have played this CIA analyst to date, Baldwin remains my favorite as he makes Ryan into an accidental action hero, not a man out to save the day. But Ryan’s brilliantly analytic mind allows himself to see and understand things others cannot due to their mistrust and their Cold War obsessions, and this makes him a necessary part of the action whether he likes it or not. Unlike all the other military generals, Ryan has met Ramius and knows how his mind works.

Sean Connery is as legendary as his character of Marko Ramius is to the Russian military in this movie, and it should go without saying he is perfectly cast here. Seeing those eyes of his on the big screen at the start gives us an idea of how human Ramius is, and Connery renders him a fascinating individual whose life cannot be boiled down to one sentence. The former James Bond actor could have given a ridiculously over the top performance, but he instead underplays his role to where we truly accept him as a submarine commander and that there is more to him than we can see at first.

Seriously, McTiernan got the perfect cast for “The Hunt for Red October.” Back in the 1990’s when this movie came out, it was hard to think of another actor other than James Earl Jones who could play Ryan’s superior Vice Admiral James Greer. Jones gives each scene he’s in an immense gravity, and he makes it look like he doesn’t even have to try. Scott Glenn is coolness personified as Captain of the U.S.S. Dallas, Bart Mancuso, and watching him keep his emotions in check throughout the is fascinating. When Mancuso does lose his cool, you want to make sure you’re not the reason why he is.

Next, you have Sam Neil who plays Vasily Borodin, Ramius’ second in command. Neil has the captain’s back when others begin to doubt him, and I love the scene where he talks to Connery about the possibility of living in Montana. Neil is sublime in this role, and his last scene is a real heartbreaker.

Then you have actors like Tim Curry, Fred Dalton Thompson, Richard Jordan, Joss Ackland, Stellan Skarsgård and Jeffrey Jones inhabiting their roles to where you feel like you’re watching actual Washington officials and military personnel instead of just a bunch of performers. It’s impossible to imagine “The Hunt for Red October” without any of these actors in it. Furthermore, they are each blessed with a number of classic one-liners provided to them by screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald B. Stewart.

One actor I want to point out in particular is Courtney Vance who plays Sonar Technician Ronald “Jonesy” Jones. His performance ended up being this movie’s most underrated as we watch him listen to the noises he heard to where you cannot doubt the conclusion he comes to. While the computer tells Jonesy he’s listening to a “magma displacement,” he knows he really heard something which has got to be man-made. Watching Vance as Jonesy is a joy because he makes this character much more than the average petty officer aboard a ship.

McTiernan’s genius in directing “The Hunt for Red October” is in keeping things down to earth and not bombastic like you would expect to see in a Michael Bay movie. Right from the start, he’s intent on bringing us into these characters’ lives to where we don’t feel like we’re watching some ordinary film. Unlike “Die Hard” which he made before this, it is not an action-packed movie until the very end, and he has us getting far more invested in what the characters are up to. As a result, it seems unlikely this movie could be made in the same way today as studio heads would most likely expect something far more formulaic.

If there are any flaws to be found in “The Hunt for Red October,” it is with some of the special effects as the torpedoes look kind of fake. While McTiernan and his crew appear to have all the other details down perfectly, this one doesn’t work the way it should. Still, that’s just a minor thing that doesn’t do much to take away from one’s pleasure in watching this submarine classic. It really is one of those movies which is impossible to get sick of watching, and it holds up more than twenty years after its release. Outside of “Das Boot,” this remains one of the greatest submarine movies ever made.

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