Mitchum’s forte was noir and Western—and war. Though his best-known role in war films is probably that of Brigadier General Norman Cota in The Longest Day, this one’s good too. The Enemy Below doesn’t give Mitchum too much scope to exhibit his acting skills, but it is, overall, a very good war film, suspenseful and with an aura of authenticity that makes it easy to believe all of this action’s actually happening.
The USS Haynes is a Buckley Class destroyer escort, making its way through the South Atlantic during World War II. Ever since they’ve left port, the new captain, Captain Murrell (Mitchum) has been inside his cabin. Everybody on board is beginning to have serious doubts about the skipper’s competence. The sailors curse their luck at being saddled with a captain who looks like he’ll spend the rest of what promises to be an uneventful voyage locked up in his cabin.
The officers have just as little confidence in Murrell. They grumble that the Navy could at least have given them a captain who’d got his sea legs.
The doctor (Russell Collins), however, knows some of Murrell’s history, and tells his colleagues that by all accounts, Murrell shouldn’t even be at sea. It turns out Murrell’s previous ship was torpedoed. He spent 25 days on a raft, and was in hospital just a couple of weeks—not long enough to recover before being given command of the USS Haynes.
Murrell, as it transpires, isn’t going to get much breathing space now either. That night, the radar operator sees something unusual, which just may be the conning tower of a U-boat:
He immediately reports it to the Executive Officer, Lt. Ware (David Hedison) on the bridge. Ware alerts the captain, and Murrell emerges from his cabin to find his men highly excited at the thought of finally getting to see some action. Murrell takes charge swiftly and gives orders for the ship to slow down and try to get a closer look at their quarry.
Underwater and just a few thousand yards from the USS Haynes, a U-boat captained by Kapitän von Stolberg (Curt Jürgens, in his first Hollywood film) is heading for a rendezvous with a German raider. After they’ve met up with the raider and exchanged some valuable information, they’ll go home. For von Stolberg, a seasoned sailor of the old school, going back home is the ultimate goal: he’s seen enough battle, lost both his sons to the war, and is heartily sick of a war that he thinks will bring honour to nobody, not even the victor.
Von Stolberg confides in his old friend and first officer ‘Heinie’ Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel), whom he’s known since Schwaffer was a cadet. Like von Stolberg, Schwaffer is a sailor first and last. Both men are equally disdainful of the second officer, Kunz (Arthur La Ral), a devoted Nazi who still salutes his boss with a fervent “Heil Hitler!” even though he’s been told that saluting isn’t required on a submarine underwater. To the (unspoken) disgust of von Stolberg and Schwaffer, Kunz spends his spare time avidly reading Mein Kampf.
Up above, Murrell has realised that the German submarine is on a course that will enable her to rendezvous with the German raider in less than 24 hours. If by then the USS Haynes hasn’t got the better of the U-boat, the Americans will be in deep trouble: combating both the raider and the sub will be impossible. After reporting to headquarters with a request for support, Murrell goes back to tailing the U-boat.
The doctor, chatting with Murrell, also learns of the personal tragedy of the captain’s life. Before joining the Navy, Murrell had been the captain of a freighter. Shortly after his marriage, he, along with his new bride, had been on the freighter when it was hit by a U-boat. The freighter split in half before Murrell’s eyes, and his wife went down with the other half, dead before Murrell knew it.
The doctor’s opinion is that Murrell has therefore a personal reason for getting at this U-boat; but Murrell disillusions him. It’s a job, no more.
And so they make their way across the Atlantic, wary and always alert.
What follows is a game of cat and mouse—though one can never be sure of who the cat is, and who the mouse: they switch places with startling frequency. Murrell and von Stolberg go neck and neck in their efforts to outwit each other, while also dealing with their responsibilities as not just captains of their vessels, but the leaders of their men. Murrell, for instance, has to find words to console a young sailor whose fingers have to be amputated after an accident:
And von Stolberg has to deal with another young sailor who cracks under pressure:
Both men are highly experienced and intelligent adversaries. They constantly try to outguess each other; they are good at predicting each other’s strategy; and they also have a grudging respect for the other man. But who will win? Will von Stolberg, the German warrior who deplores the lost humanity of this war, finally be able to go home? Or will Murrell be able to stop him?
What I liked about this film:
The sheer authenticity of it all. The Enemy Below was based on a book written by a man who had spent part of World War II fighting at sea in the Atlantic, and both the US Department of Defense and the US Navy helped in the making of the film. Everything about it, therefore, is very real. At only a couple of places did I find myself thinking, “This is a set.” The action, especially—the USS Haynes dropping depth charges that heave fountains of seawater, the U-boat diving, the torpedoes streaking across the sea—all very real.
The screenplay. I haven’t given away much of the story—it’s a series of interactions, with destroyer and U-boat trying to outwit the other—but there’s much more here than the mere thudding of guns and the launching of torpedoes. There’s plenty of intelligent manoeuvring that lifts The Enemy Below from being simply an action-packed war film to one that is gripping and suspenseful.
And yes, I liked the fact that the film moved away from the conventional anti-German mode to one that showed the other side of the coin: that there were German soldiers who fought because they were soldiers, not because they were rabid Nazis. Von Stolberg, Schwaffer and their crew are shown as humans, men whom I began to like so much during the course of the story that by the time the end was approaching I wasn’t sure whom I wanted to win the battle.
What I didn’t like:
Murrell’s character, as a man and not merely a soldier, isn’t defined well enough. True, we know his history, but he isn’t as interesting a character as von Stolberg: we just don’t see or hear enough of him as anything other than an officer. For example, his sudden emergence from his cabin is followed too quickly by his complete command over the situation. A man whom the doctor described initially as being “weak as a kitten” should’ve shown signs (even if only in private) of weakness, at least physical if not psychological. Also, Murrell’s progression from a captain whom his men aren’t confident about, to a man they look up to, is too sudden to be believable.
Still, if you like war films, put this on your list as a must, must watch. Of all the ‘war at sea’ films I’ve seen, I’d rate this one as the best. The story is gripping, the action in controlled doses, and the execution very believable. The film, by the way, won a well-deserved Oscar for special effects.