Recently I had the opportunity to watch an old movie that I had not seen in a number of years but remembered it as a great film.
The movie is the 1957 release of the The Enemy Below. The story line is a cat and mouse game between a German U-boat captained by Curt Jurgens and an American Destroyer Escort captained by Robert Mitchum. Both Captains are experienced in sub warfare. Mitchum’s character, Captain Murrell experienced a sinking earlier in the war while in the Merchant Marine losing a fiance in the process. Yet, he is not bitter as he attempts to hunt the U-boat. Murrell surprises his crew with some unorthodox tactics and at first the crew does not trust him. Murrell stays on the U-boat and the crew comes to realize he knows what he is doing.
Jurgens is Captain Von Stolberg and his experience on a U-boat goes back to World War 1 and the old Imperial German Navy. Jurgen, as opposed to Murrell is a bit bitter having lost two sons on the Eastern Front. Von Stolberg’s bitterness is not directed at the Allies but at Hitler for destroying his country. Yet, Von Stolberg sails on, doing his duty although his war weariness is increasingly apparent.
Although the cat and mouse game dominates the plot line a number of sub-themes emerge.
For example, how Captain Murrell wins the confidence of his crew with his patient leadership. He knows his business and is never a Captain Bligh type who needs to brow beat his crew into doing their duty. At one point a sailor loses his fingers to the rack that launches the depth charges. Murrell visits the young man in the ship’s medical room and takes responsibility for the accident by telling the sailor it was his fault for not giving ample warning that the ship would make a sharp evasive turn. The sailor will have none of it saying he should not have had his hand on the rack in the first place. This of course is true but the incident illustrates that the Captain is responsible for everything that occurs on the ship even while he may not be guilty of every offense or accident. Great example of leadership in my opinion.
The Von Stolberg character shows the same kind of leadership when he refuses to leave his dying first officer on the sinking U-boat. At the end of the movie both ships are sinking and it is Captain Murrell who sends a life-line to Captain Von Stolberg and his dying first officer. By this point in the movie it’s clear that both captains have learned respect for one another and have learned to see one another not so much as enemies but simply men serving their respective countries.
The movie was made in 1957 only twelve years after the end of the war and if memory serves me it was one of the first movies to not show the Germans as the stereotypical Nazis of the war years.
Perhaps this was done because by 1957 the West Germans were our allies and the Russians were the big threat. Whatever the reason it was nice to see that wars are not usually fought by fanatics but by ordinary men trying to do their duty even though they have no love for the regime ruining their country.
The movie came to mind this morning as I read in the UK’s Daily Mail that a sunken U-boat has been found off the coast of Massachusetts. Largely forgotten now, the US and Great Britain fought a long campaign against the U-boats in the Atlantic- a campaign that went on favor of the U-boats until mid-1943 and the Allies were able to supplement their destroyers and destroyer escorts with air cover patrols. From that point on it was the death knell of the U-boats. The U-550 was depth charged by the US Destroyer Escort Joyce in April of 1944 and has rested off the coast of Nantucket Island for almost 70 years. Below is an interview with the crew of the USS Joyce (DE-317).<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/37325432″>”Eye Witnesses of World War II, U-550″</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user1489984″>Mark Munro</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
- The Enemy Below (1957) (timneath.wordpress.com)
- U-boat Sunk by Coast Guard Escort Division Found off Nantucket (chuckhillscgblog.net)