Submarine Attack (1954)

Hi all, Nate here for a quickie review of something that's been rattling around my movie box for years. Some of you might know that I have a bit of a thing for undersea warfare in general, submarines in particular, and WWII submarine operations in detail, and I surely do enjoy any movie that features any of those things in any combination. While there are some real stinkers in this genre out there, yes I'm looking at you U-571, there have been a bulky handful of really topnotch films about the Silent Service. Das Boot is an obvious one for its great mix of tension and realism, The Enemy Below and Torpedo Run also do a masterful job at showing just how dangerous it was to sail the unforgiving seas in a metal tube while everyone was trying to kill you. There are many others of varying degrees of chest-thumping patriotism and pants-shitting submerged terror. Having never heard of the 1954 Italian production of Submarine Attack before today, I was actually pretty excited to see what an Axis submarine movie made in the early '50s, at a time when WWII ended less than a decade before, could do differently. And Submarine Attack is pretty unique in a couple of opposing ways. To describe it in a sentence, it's a movie almost entirely about how the crew of an Italian sub in the brutal days of WWII tried their best to retain their humanity by rescuing the survivors of the ships they sank at sea.

I loves me some subs.

The bad (or just "less positive") comes with the movie's desire to be as realistic as possible, to the point of employing an actual Italian Navy submarine out at sea and making a good portion of the crew extras in the movie. The result is a fascinating study on the technical ins-and-outs of such mundane tasks as how to submerge under depth charge attack, how to surface in rough weather, how to track and torpedo merchant ships, and how to calculate weight distribution changes and buoyancy ratios on the fly. Extremely interesting nuts-and-bolts stuff for beret-wearing snooty history buffs like me, but dreadfully boring for the average movie watcher. I dare say that fully 80% of this movie is of this sort of dry, monotonous technical stuff, competently preformed by well-coached actors and filmed with excruciating devotion to the tiniest details (yawn).

Nice mix of external and internal scenes.

The other 20% of the movie contains some pretty intense personal drama, clearly the movie's strongest moments for those that can't tell their amidships ballast tanks from a tub of fried chicken. The sub's stalwart captain, who is never named, has all the best lines, including several really deeply philosophical discussions with his crew about the nature of humanity and mercy. While he's a loyal soldier in Il Duce's empire, he's also fully aware of the stupidity of grown men killing each other over pointless political dick-wagging. It's an interesting sentiment in a movie so soon after the end of WWII, though not unexpected from a country that lost the war and was thoroughly wrecked in the process.

Odd that he's never given an actual name.

There's also the personal stories of the Allied sailors which the Italians have taken onboard after sinking their ships. These include a cultured English playright, a wise old merchanman, a overly-happy black American porter, an angry Royal Navy commander, a cheese-eating Frenchie, and a pretty blonde Canadian nurse. The appearance of this attractive woman has a predictable, if restrained, effect on the all-male crew of grungy submariners, all of whom are respectful and polite to her in a way that would seem out of place in a "modern" movie full of sexist military man pigs. The captain in particular treats the lady like an honored guest and by the third act it's clear that a budding relationship is developing between the two, even though not much can actually be done about it on a cramped sub hundreds of feet beneath the waves. I was quite pleasantly surprised at the near complete lack of sexism and chauvinistic tropes, coming from a history of 1950's b-movies made in the West were women are rarely treated with anything but leers and jeers.

Bond's Miss Moneypenny, btw.

There's also some good moments with the British RN commander, who alone amongst the rescued seaman just cannot bare the thought of being amongst "the enemy". While the other people are warming up to the Italians, even celebrating Christmas with them and singing carols, the Brit is plotting ways to sabotage the sub. The Italian captain, commendably, continues to treat the Englishman with dignity, even though he has to clock him when he's caught trying to monkey with the controls. In the movie's ending scene, he alone is kept aboard to return to Italy as a Prisoner of War while the others are let go. And the British commander wouldn't have it any other way, seeing it as a way to keep his honor intact, even though he's looking at years in a labor camp back in Italy (well, until 1943...).

Probably the most intense of characters.

The actual plot of Submarine Attack is pretty straightforward. The sub sinks a few ships, collects a number of survivors, endures some air attacks and depth bombing, and in the end the captain decides to venture far from his patrol area to assure his captives are safely ashore. There's some drama, some confusion, a lot of shots of spinning dials and bubbling vents, and at the end of the day everyone shakes hands and agrees that war is hell and people can choose how hellish they can be. Recommended, especially to history nuts.

Like these guys.

The End.

Written in August 2013 by Nathan Decker.

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