In my younger days, I used to watch a lot of war films: not the newer, more gory and violent ones, but the older, not so graphic type. My favourites were adventure films like Where Eagles Dare, though somewhere down the line I also developed a liking for more nuanced films, films like Battleground or Paths of Glory or La Grande Guerra, which showed the harsh reality of war, of the horror it is to go into battle, to fight a war plotted out by people sitting in a conference room far away…
The Bedford Incident is different. The people sitting in a distant conference room are there all right, but the real problem here seems to be not them, but the man who commands the USS Bedford. Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a hard, embittered man who gives no quarter.
The Bedford is a destroyer making its way up north near Greenland, shadowing a Russian submarine that has been named Big Red by those aboard the Bedford. The NATO and the Eastern Bloc are at daggers drawn—this is deep in the Cold War, after all—and the Bedford is keeping a very close and very suspicious watch on Big Red, which is a nuclear sub.
The story begins when a new medical officer, Dr Potter (Martin Balsam) arrives by helicopter on board the Bedford. Also hitching a ride on the same helicopter is another newcomer: a journalist named Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) who’s been cleared by the Pentagon to seek out a story here.
From the very beginning, Finlander makes it clear that neither of these two people is welcome. Captain Potter, meeting the medical staff on board ship, discovers at the outset that these men aren’t busy looking after the health of the sailors, but doing scientific experiments: they dredge up the kitchen garbage thrown overboard by Big Red and analyze it to figure out how far the Russians far, where they were a day ago, and so on. Useful information, no doubt, but as a sceptical Potter can tell, not what these men are supposed to be here for.
It doesn’t take long for Potter to realize that matters of health and medical welfare on the Bedford are far from what he’s used to. When he turns up, bright and enthusiastic and eager to get to work, the medical staff are amused and tell him that nobody ever comes to the sick bay. That’s like no ship Potter’s been on before; in his experience, sailors line up at the sick bay every morning.
But the staff are right; nobody comes to sick bay except Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman). During World War II, Schrepke used to be a U-Boat commander; now he’s helping NATO with his expertise: he’s the advisor to Finlander here, and Finlander’s opinion is that the commodore “runs with the hounds, but his heart is with the foxes”. That may be Finlander’s opinion, but he’s allowed Schrepke to, as and when needed, top up his hip flask of schnapps from the sick bay’s stock of brandy.That is the only visitor Potter has in the sick bay.
This is not just surprising and frustrating, but alarming too. Potter can tell things are not well on board the Bedford: the men are tense, keyed up so that the stress will sooner or later begin to break them.
Captain Finlander does nothing to reassure Potter; on the contrary, he is openly critical of Potter, wondering why a man who has been in the reserves these last twenty years has suddenly felt fit to come back on active service. Potter, though embarrassed, tries to convince the captain of his desire to do his job—and ends up being given a large pile of books to read, in order to truly understand the Bedford and what they’re trying to achieve out here, amid the ice floes of the North Pole.
Munceford is not managing much better. His very first encounter with Finlander gives Munceford a good idea of the harshly uncompromising nature of the Captain: although the man deputed to receive Potter and Munceford, Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur) had made it clear that Finlander would send for Munceford when he was ready for a meeting, Munceford manages to bulldoze a sailor into taking him to meet the captain. Not only does Finlander chew out the sailor for having gone against orders, he also decides to take disciplinary action—even though Munceford tries to intervene, saying that he was the one to blame, he bullied the sailor…
But no, the Bedford is Finlander’s ship, and Finlander will run the way he wants to. Ralston gets severely reprimanded in front of everybody, and for Munceford, it’s an uphill task to get Finlander to sit with him for an interview. At the brief interview that he does manage, Finlander is openly suspicious of Munceford’s motives. And, as a frustrated Munceford later remarks while using a Dictaphone to make his notes, he doesn’t tell him anything.
While Munceford is trying to figure out Finlander’s agenda, things are happening: Big Red is moving northwards, and soon, it’s in the territorial waters of Greenland, openly flouting the law. Anybody who takes action now against the Russian sub cannot be blamed.
This is what Finlander has been waiting for, the opportunity to pounce on his enemy. But will he succeed?
The Bedford Incident, while it does get all tense and full of suspense in the second half—that last half-hour, especially—was not, for me, primarily a plot-driven story. This was not adventure, this was about characters. About how people behave, about blind ambition and power and more.
What I liked about this film:
The way the characterization is done. The character of Finlander, in particular. This is a complex character, a hard man, who has his own ideas about the navy, about war, about everything. We see this revealed, of course, in his interactions with various people, his dialogues. The cynicism, the suspicion, the unrelenting attitude that makes Finlander such a very difficult man to be with. Whether it’s the frustrated new medical officer, Potter, or Munceford, or Ralston, Schrepke (who tries, at times, to be the voice of conscience to Finlander): all of them, in their differing ways in which they come into contact with Finlander, show a side of him.
And yet, Finlander is not all the heartless, hard taskmaster. There are moments when he comes across as rather more human. More importantly, perhaps (especially in his conversation with Munceford), there are moments when you catch a glimpse of why this man may be the way he is.
While mentioning all of these, I must also make special mention of the acting, which is uniformly good. Richard Widmark, though, as Captain Finlander, I found particularly good: there is so much this man manages to convey through just his expressions.
Sidney Poitier is also excellent; the ease and malleability of Munceford, combined with the somewhat obstinate, hide-like-a-rhinoceros behaviour (he pulls out his camera and starts taking photos anywhere, anytime, even though it always draws reprimands from Finlander), does a good job of portraying the hard-nosed journalist who’ll charm or needle, as the situation demands, to get a good story. Yet, when he’s by himself, you get an idea of the other Munceford: rather less thick-skinned, rather more human in his frustration, his mounting anxiety over what he’s seeing.
Lastly, the atmosphere. True, given that this is long before the days of CGI, the ice berg and floe-strewn Arctic doesn’t look as real as a similar depiction today might, but still: it’s not jarringly artificial. And inside the ship, the way director James B Harris builds up the tension, within the close confines of the hub of the ship: it’s superb. The pulsating beep of the sonar forms the main background ‘music’, and it’s very effective in conveying an impression of nail-biting tension.
What I didn’t like:
Not much, really. Overall, I found this an interesting and well-made story about characters, about human dynamics, and the futility of extreme ambition. The last five minutes are something I will remember for a long, long time.