War Movie Mondays (Tuesday Edition): ‘U-571’

Happy belated 4th of July to all you War Movie Mondays fans. In celebration of our nation’s 235th anniversary, this week’s pick salutes American submariners of World War II with U-571 (2000) directed by Jonathan Mostow.

The film stars Matthew McConaughey (Lt. Andrew Tyler) Bill Paxton (Capt. Mike Dahlgren), Harvey Keitel (Chief Gunner’s Mate Henry Klough), Jon Bon Jovi (Lt. Peter Emmet), and David Keith (Maj. Matthew Coonan).

U-571 is a fictional account about a U.S. Navy submarine crew which boards, and captures a German U-boat in the Spring of 1942 in order to seize the German’s secret cipher machine code named: Enigma. The device allowed the German high command to transmit radio messages to their U-boat fleet which were destroying the vital convoy lines from America to Britain. The code was unique and made it impossible for the allies to determine the German’s plans in the early stages of the war.

The film is superbly acted and won an Academy Award for Best Sound, but the film was not very well received in both England and Germany. The film was bashed in Britain due to the fact that the British were the first to ever capture an Enigma coding device in the war courtesy of the HMS Bulldog and HMS Aubretia of the 3rd Escort Group in the North Atlantic on May 9th 1941, seven months before the U.S. entered the war. Critics in Germany were none to thrilled of the way U-boat crewmen were portrayed.

In one scene the captain of the U-571 (Kretschmann) orders one of his men to open fire on a British life boat full of survivors from their previous attack. The captain refuses to take any survivors (as per the Fuhrer’s orders) and fears that if they are left alive, they will report their position to the Royal Navy. One of the crewmen reluctantly open fires with an MG-34 machine gun as a long shot shows the life boat being torn apart by gunfire.

There was only one actual documented account of a German U-boat ever open firing on survivors at sea. The boat responsible was U-852 which attacked the Greek ship Peleus. The film made it seem that this was very common of German U-boat crews during World War II. Despite this and other flaws, it’s a very entertaining thrill ride of a film.

The film opens with the U-571 as its attacking a Royal Navy convoy. The U-boat is spotted by a British destroyer and quick dives to avoid being depth charged. Thomas Kretschmann (Capt. of U-571) braces his men for the inevitable onslaught of British depth chargers. The scene is fantastic as the men listen to the ping of sonar which is trying to spot their position. Explosions grow ever more close as the charges begin to rain down on the German U-boat which sustains heavy damage and is forced to surface. The boat’s engines are out of commission and their batteries are dangerously low as the ship is now stranded in the middle of the North Atlantic. The Captain radios their position to Berlin which will send a re-supply sub full of parts and mechanics to repair U-571.

U.S. naval intelligence along with allied directional finders pinpoint the exact location of U-571 and plan to dispatch an American sub to capture the Enigma device on board. The crew of the S-33 are enjoying a 48 hour liberty pass in celebration of a crewman’s marriage. The party is broken up by Marine MPs who inform the crew that they are to report back to the Portsmouth, NH naval yards and prepare underway for a secret mission. Lt Tyler (McConaughey) is upset with his commanding officer who has denied his request to take command of his own ship. The Captain (Paxton) knows Tyler to be a top notch XO, but he believes that he is not ready to take command due to his unorthodox methods and inability to make hard, command decisions under fire.

Back at the naval base, the crew is informed that they are about to ship out on a top secret mission of the utmost importance. Two members from naval intelligence are brought on board for the mission, Lt. Hirsch (Webber) speaks fluent German and is responsible for securing the Enigma. The second is Maj. Coonan (Keith) who will help train the crew of the S-33 in order to seize U-571 successfully.

The scene in which the crew of the S-33 boards U-571 disguised as German sailors is very well done and very suspenseful. Quickly the American raiding party storms the sub before it can dive with what little power it still has left. The Americans overpower the unsuspecting Germans and successfully capture the Enigma and its important documents which the Germans attempted to destroy. As the prisoners are transported from their boat to the American sub, the German resupply sub torpedoes and sinks the S-33. A handful of Americans are still aboard the U-571 which is ready to explode any minute due to explosive charges that were placed in order to make it look like it sunk due to its battle damage. Tyler and the rest of the crew dive the boat and prepare to attack the other German sub.

The men can’t read any of the controls which are in German and both Hirsch and Wentz (Noseworthy) are the only two who can translate. The sub fires a salvo of torpedoes and successfully destroys the German resupply sub. The rest of the film is a decent, well paced execution of cat & mouse. Hirsch stresses the fact that if they are unsuccessful in the execution of their mission, the Germans may change their coding system and torture the crew to extract vital information such as American radar capabilities and their new found knowledge of German encryption.

My favorite part of the film is towards the end when the crew encounter a German destroyer which makes contact with them as they are trying to make for England. Lt. Tyler has his men take out the German ship’s radio tower in order for them to not alert the fact that the Enigma has been compromised. The German destroyer begins to depth charge the boat as they try to repair the stern torpedo tube’s pressure valve which has been damaged. If the tube is repaired, the sub can destroy the German ship.

U-571 had an exceptional run at the box office in the spring of 2000. The film was made for a cost of sixty-two million, and grossed over one hundred and twenty seven million dollars. Due to some of its historical inaccuracies, the film is very well done and boasts an impressive cast including Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and even Jon Bon Jovi is quite good even with very little screen time in the film. Despite most of the backlash from angry British veterans 0f World War II one British naval officer David Balme, called U-571 “a great film” and understood why the film was Americanized in order to have a huge box office draw.

U-571 is available on both Blu-Ray and DVD disc from Universal Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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