War Movie Mondays: ‘The Enemy Below’

This week’s pick is the World War II submarine action thriller The Enemy Below (1957) directed by Dick Powell and stars Robert Mitchum (Cpt. Murrell) Kurt Jurgens (Cpt. von Stolberg), Theodore Bikel (‘Heinie’ Schwaffer), Russell Collins (Doc), and Al Hedison, (Lt. Ware, XO of the U.S.S. Haynes).

The Enemy Below is one of the greatest cat & mouse submarine films where a U.S. destroyer faces off against a German U-boat in the south Atlantic during World War II. Robert Mitchum stars as Cpt. Murrell, a former merchant marine captain who enlists in the U.S. Navy reserve in order to see some combat. Shortly after being torpedoed and adrift for several weeks, he takes command of  the Haynes which is on patrol in search of enemy vessels. Most of the Haynes crew refer to him as a ‘feather merchant’ a derogatory name for a civilian captain who is unfamiliar with naval combat tactics.

The crew of the Haynes are going about routine when radar picks up an echo believed to be the conning tower of a U-boat. The captain is summoned as he makes his way through a number of curious crew members who have massed at the radar operator’s station. The captain instructs the radar operator to inform him if the contact deviates from its present course and the crew quickly becomes amazed at the captain’s issue and execution of orders. The captain informs the crew that they will follow the contact and go to general quarters at dawn in preparation of an attack against the possible enemy blip.

Of the Haynes crew and officers, only the doc (Russell Collins) gets the full story from the captain and how he took command of the Haynes. Murrell tells the doc that he was running convoy duty from New York to England when his ship was torpedoed and sank in the north Atlantic. He also informs the doc that his English wife who was accompanying him home was killed in the attack. After being adrift for over a month, Murrell decided that he would be in a position to shoot first, and hopefully one day be able to sink the U-boat responsible for his wife’s death.

Kurt Jurgens (Cpt. von Stolberg) is in command of the U-boat and he too is as much of a tactician as his opponent Captain Murrell. Von Stolberg is tired of the war and does not share in the ideals of the Fuhrer and doesn’t believe in what they are fighting for. This is the “good German, bad German” formula that was common in many films from the 1940s through 1970s. One of Stolberg’s newly assigned officers reports to the bridge and is instructed by the captain to maintain contact with the newly discovered radar echo. The officer responds with a “Heil Hitler Kapitan”. Stolberg and the rest of the crew care nothing for party politics and are merely just serving their country in time of war.

In one scene, von Stolberg and his executive officer Schwaffer ‘Heinie’ (Bikel) converse with one another in the captain’s quarters. Von Stolberg reminisces about the old days during the first war when the U-boats were a new weapon of war and that you never knew whether or not you would resurface or successfully hit your target with a torpedo. That’s what made the service a thrill to be a part of. He hates the new U-boat service, newly appointed die hard party supporters like von Holem (Kurt Kreuger), and the technological advances that have been made over the past quarter century. Von Stolberg tells his adjutant that even if they win the war, there will be terrible memories for years to come. During the war, Jurgens was in fact imprisoned by order of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels for speaking out against the Nazi party. How ironic, that he would make a living as an actor who was so well known for his roles as the quintessential Nazi officer in so many World War II movies, despite being so anti-Nazi.

The film is wonderfully directed by Dick Powell and Mitchum and Jurgens are fantastic on screen as adversaries on the high seas. The film has so much star talent, that it would be impossible for both Mitchum and Jurgens to be on screen together without the film igniting. The scenes where the Haynes depth charges the U-boat are incredible. Each man tries to out maneuver the other in the ultimate test for survival and victory. Towards the end of the film, both men execute such daring plans in order to beat their opponent. The ending is one of the greatest upper hand scenarios that I can think of for any war picture. It’s certainly one of my favorite submarine movies next to Das Boot and Run Silent, Run Deep.

The film was based on the novel written by British naval officer Denys Rayner who served during the war on an escort destroyer. One of my major gripes concerning the authenticity about the film, is that the German U-boat looks very unrealistic in the film. It seems too polished and very roomy. It fails to have that cramped, claustrophobic and filthy crew member feel like Das Boot does. Despite that one flaw which has always bothered me about the film, the rest is amazing and it is brilliantly paced and executed by the cast and the action on screen.

The Enemy Below is available on DVD disc. through 20 Century Fox Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

 

 

 

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