War Movie Mondays: ‘The Final Countdown’

This week’s pick is the 1980 military/science fiction classic The Final Countdown directed by Don Taylor, which stars Kirk Douglas (Capt. Matt Yelland), Martin Sheen (Warren Lasky), James Farentino (Air Wing Cmdr. Richard Owen/Richard Tideman), Katherine Ross (Laurel Scott), Ron O’ Neal (Cmdr. Dan Thurman), Charles Durning (Senator Samuel Chapman) and Co-Troma Films creator Lloyd Kaufman (Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Kaufman).

The film opens in 1980 where a civilian analyst Warren Lasky (Sheen) is sent aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz (America’s largest nuclear powered aircraft carrier) on a fact finding mission. The ship’s commanding officer, Capt Matt Yelland (Douglas) sees Lasky’s presence as a nuisance but tries to extend him as much courtesy as possible while he’s there to report for the Department of Defense.

Things appear to be running smoothly as the Nimitz and several other escort ships are on a routine training exercise in the Pacific Ocean when a fierce storm comes out of nowhere. The Nimitz passes through a storm unlike any ever recorded. A piercing sonic shrill throws the crew into disorientation and wreaks havoc on the ship as it passes through to calmer seas. At first the crew is dazed and unaware of what has happened to them. Capt. Yelland sounds general quarters and the ship goes to battle stations. Capt. Yelland, Lasky, Cmdr. Thurman (O’Neal) and Cmdr. Owen (Farentino) try to piece together just what has happened to the ship and to them.

The Captain calls for a meeting of all his department heads to find out why they are unable to contact their escorts, Pacific Command, or anyone for that matter. Capt. Yelland orders an F-8 Crusader photo reconnaissance flight to make a run over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to see if there was a possible nuclear strike.

He has also ordered F-14 Tomcat jet fighters and a Hawkeye radar plane into the air in order to establish a safe quadrant around the ship. Capt. Yelland, Lasky, and the rest of the crew are further puzzled as to why they are hearing news reports about the Russians and Germans fighting one another in combat, and that they’re picking up old radio programs like Jack Benny, and a Joe Louis boxing match.

One of the Captain’s aides brings him the recent photos of the recon flight over Pearl Harbor and a picture which shows “battleship row” (a series of old U.S. naval ships) docked at Pearl. Yelland realizes that one of the ships in question is the U.S.S. Arizona which was sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The Captain and Lasky are not entirely convinced and call upon the expertise of Cmdr. Owen who has been doing extensive research for a book about American naval history in World War II. The Captain asks Owen if these pictures really are battleship row before the Japanese attack? As the men are examining the photos, radar has picked up two contacts that are within two hundred miles of the Nimitz.

As the F-14s are dispatched to the location of the radar blip, the pilots and the Captain are shocked to discover that the contacts are in fact two Japanese Zero fighter planes which have targeted a yacht carrying an important American Senator and his party on board. To settle the question of what time they’re in, the Captain dispatches the Hawkeye plane northwest of the Nimitz’s position to find out whether or not the Japanese task force is in fact steaming towards Hawaii just twenty-four hours before Pearl Harbor is to be attacked.  They don’t know how, but the crew of the Nimitz realizes that the storm they passed through was a time portal into the past.

The dilemma throughout the rest of the film is whether or not Capt. Yelland, Lasky, Thurman, Owen and the rest of the crew should alter history and launch an attack using futuristic weapons in order to prevent the Japanese from destroying the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Lasky proposes that if they were able to change this moment in history, they could change the course of United States history up to 1980.

Others like Cmdr. Owen and Thurman believe that if they don’t allow Pearl Harbor to be bombed, they threaten the very fabric of space and time, possibly jeopardizing their own existence. Capt. Yelland decides to take everything slow and by the book. He feels that if the United States comes under attack, their job is to defend it whether it be the past, present, or future. If they are successful, they will then take their orders from the commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces, even if that man just happens to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Final Countdown has always been one of my favorite “what if” scenario films. The premise is fantastic and the idea of modern day weapons going up against World War II technology (e.g. Jet fighters dog fighting with Japanese Zeros) is a fantastic example of that formula. There are many great scenes in the film and the acting is top notch.

In an interview on the DVD/Blu-Ray extras, Lloyd Kaufman discusses his time on the film as a production manager while he was trying to make money in order to fund his movie production company known as Troma, which has prided itself on total Hollywood independence for over thirty years. Kaufman actually plays himself in the film as a radio/communications officer. He states that throughout the filming, he and Kirk Douglas became very good friends and still remained in contact after the film was completed.

One of my favorite scenes in the film besides the dog fight scene between the F-14s and Zeros, is when Senator Sam Chapman (Durning) and his assistant Laurel Scott (Ross) have been picked up out of the ocean by a helicopter and flown back to the Nimitz for medical attention and a debriefing. The Senator and his assistant were on a pleasure cruise when their ship was attacked and destroyed by the two Japanese fighters.

The Senator is the head of defense committee in Washington D.C. and is planning for a nomination as the next Vice President of the United States. Chapman and Laurel are very confused and puzzled about the ship and its technology. Chapman wonders who the crew are and how they have appropriated “rocket planes”, the helicopter, and why the ship is named after then active duty Admiral Chester Nimitz? It’s one of my favorite scenes and Durning outshines most others in the film due to his performance.

The Final Countdown was a huge hit in the summer of 1980 and went on to make a fortune in home video rental sales and has become a bonafide cult classic among fans the world over. The film also had the overwhelming support of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy which allowed filming aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz, and used real sailors as extras in the production. Check out the extras on the disc. There’s a great interview with Lloyd Kaufman, and a documentary about the actual navy pilots “The Jolly Rogers” Squadron who made cameos, and flew in the film’s action sequences.

The Final Countdown is available on 2 disc DVD & single disc Blu-Ray from Blue Underground Home Video, and can be rented through Netflix.

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