In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “I’m not saying that Run Silent Run Deep is the best submarine picture out there, but I am saying that it’s the one that made me realise what a unique and great part of cinema history the submarine picture is.”
“Mr. Cartwright, with all due respect to your rank, may I say I think you’re an ass?”
I used to make fun of my dad for once walking into a video shop and asking where the “submarine pictures” were. The idea of him thinking they were their own genre seemed so goofy to me. But the more I watch, the more I realise the “submarine picture” isn’t far from being its own genre. Separate from war movies, and even from navy specific war movies, they have their own filmic language, they have their own devices, rules and even clichés. And I started to really notice this while watching Run Silent Run Deep.
We’re balls’ deep in WWII, and an area known as the Bungo Straights has seen many a US ship and sub sunk by the enemy Japanese. At home in Pearl Harbour, Lt. Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) is on the verge of getting command of his own boat. Until an old seadog, Commander BJ ‘Rich’ Richardson (Clark Gable) decides he’d like a sub to command. Now he’s in charge, Bledsoe is his number two, and they’re shipping out with a disgruntled crew, heading towards the Bungo Straights.
Once at sea, their resentment only grows, as Rich has them complete drill after drill that they see as little more than pointless. Tensions only get worse when they finally make contact with an enemy sub, and Rich orders them to avoid conflict. Now, they think he’s a tyrant and a coward. The only person on board to trust Rich from the get go, is old friend, Yeoman 1st Class Mueller (Jack Warden). Between his loyalty to Rich and his German last name, he might be the only person on board less popular than the Commander.
If movies like Crimson Tide and Das Boot have taught me anything, it’s that the waiting and boredom on board a military submarine are just as dangerous an adversary as the enemy boats and subs. Movies like those, and Run Silent Run Deep, all find great drama in that waiting, as these volatile men in obscenely cramped quarters have nothing to distract them from their volatility and cramped quarters. In all of these movies, these moments are just as suspenseful as when a torpedo is launched and you wait it see if it finds its target.
That tension is also ramped up by a great use of repetitiveness in this movie. First, we have Rich’s endless drills and training. It works to show us how obsessive this character is, it works to show us why his crew resents him. And, it works to teach us, the audience, about the tactics of submarine warfare that will become important once the enemy is engaged. Because when those battles happen, all of that training means we and Rich’s crew know exactly what’s going on, without the need for clunky, exposition filled dialogue.
The other thing Run Silent Run Deep gets just right is its casting. When the opening credits started to appear, I knew the combo of Gable and Lancaster would be something worth seeing. But as the movie unfolded, I realised there was a whole extra dimension to this combo that hadn’t even crossed my mind. While both were immensely famous leading men of yesteryear, I’d never really thought about the fact that they were of different generations.
Gable was the suave dandy of the 30s and 40s, whereas Lancaster was more of a rugged tough guy of the 50s and 60s. So not only do you get the opposing philosophies of the characters within the story, you also get the opposing philosophies of their approaches to acting and performance. All of that goes to make their inevitable faceoff, and the tension of the lead up to that faceoff, all the more intense and effective.
I’m not saying that Run Silent Run Deep is the best submarine picture out there, but I am saying that it’s the one that made me realise what a unique and great part of cinema history the submarine picture is. Now that I realise they have such a consistent feel and their own rules, I’m looking forward to watching the next one, with all of that in mind. And if video shops were still a thing, I might even walk into my local asking where their submarine pictures are.