John Farr

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The Best Navy Movies of All Time

Posted: 07/06/2012 10:29 am

No surprise: with great heat, I'm instinctively drawn to the water, and preferably the sea. Fueled by this seemingly ever-present longing these days, I decided to explore the rich sub-genre of Navy movies.

Throughout history, sea power has shaped the power of nations in wartime and in peace, with the Royal Navy's critical role in building the British Empire an obvious example.

Over the years, a slew of outstanding Navy-themed films have furnished us with a variety of salty celluloid adventures worth catching. The following dozen titles comprise my own personal favorites:

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) - In late 18th-century Great Britain, sadistic Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) commands the HMS Bounty on a long voyage to Tahiti to collect food supplies. When Bligh's cruelty towards his crew goes beyond reasonable limits, second-in-command Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) faces the fateful decision of whether to seize control of the ship. MGM's adaptation of the famous book by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall is given top shelf treatment here, with a sneering Laughton the definitive Bligh, and the studio's biggest star, Gable, playing Christian with gusto (and, notably, without either a British accent or his trademark mustache). But never mind -- this is still grand, sweeping entertainment, suitable for the whole family. And Laughton is truly brilliant in the most unsympathetic of roles.

In Which We Serve (1942) - With Britain in the pit of the Second War, playwright Noel Coward was desperate to develop a morale-boosting film, and this was the inspired result. Based on the wartime exploits of his friend Lord Mountbatten, co-director/writer Coward (in a most atypical role) plays Captain Edward Kinross, commander of the destroyer HMS Torrin, which is sunk by the Nazis. As Kinross and his small remaining crew cling to a small raft in hope of eventual rescue, we experience the recent lives of each survivor via flashback; notably, Kinross himself and one Seaman Shorty Blake (John Mills). The normally effete Coward is appropriately "stiff upper lip" as Kinross, and a young Mills stands out in a first-rate ensemble cast which also includes Bernard Miles and Celia Johnson as Coward's wife. (Also look fast for a young Richard Attenborough!) With Coward at the helm as writer, star, and even score composer, David Lean handling most of the direction (and editing), and future director Ronald Neame the cinematography, the result is one of Britain's very finest war films, which accomplished everything Coward set out to do.

Destination Tokyo (1943) - Still smarting from the Pearl Harbor attack and subsequent Japanese victories, seasoned submarine captain Cassidy (Cary Grant) helps the allies go on the offensive in the Pacific in the thick of the Second War. His daring mission: to plant his sub right smack in Tokyo Bay, get a landing party ashore, and bring back vital intelligence vital to the success of a major upcoming air engagement. Notwithstanding some explicit anti-Japanese sentiment, crew roughhousing and longings for home that feel a trifle sappy in today's more unsentimental world, Destination stands as a first rate propaganda picture, released at a time when we needed it most. (Cassidy's tender thoughts of his wife and son as he heads his sub towards Japan served then as a potent reminder of what we were fighting for -- always a good question to ask during wartime). Grant is fabulous playing against his usual well-tailored image in a modern war movie, one of his few. His Cassidy is steady but human -- a born leader. His crew is also tops, with young star-to-be John Garfield a standout as a female-crazed sailor aptly dubbed "Wolf." And the movie only improves the closer we get to Japan, and the outcome of the sub's perilous assignment.

They Were Expendable (1945) - This is the story of the PT boats in the tough, early days of World War II in the Pacific. Skipper John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and his right hand man, Rusty Ryan (John Wayne), have difficulty convincing the navy brass of the PT boats' value to the war effort. They must work to prove it, and do. Eventually, these nimble craft will play a vital role in turning the tide in the Pacific, allowing General MacArthur to fulfill his famous promise to return there in glory. Director John Ford delivers a powerful human tale of faith and hope sustained during the darkest days of the war for the Allies. Montgomery (father of Elizabeth from TV's Bewitched, and an actual decorated PT boat captain during the conflict) is superb as the embattled but stoic Brickley, and the Duke is also in fine form as Ryan. Donna Reed makes for a bewitching love interest as the nurse who falls for Rusty. One of Ford's more under-exposed gems.

The Caine Mutiny (1954) - Based on Herman Wouk's sprawling novel, this film centers on the neurotic, inflexible Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), a career naval officer whose men relieve him of command when Queeg supposedly falters in guiding his ship through a perilous typhoon. Once on terra firma, Queeg ensures the men get court-martialed for mutiny, and as the trial progresses, the sad truth is gradually revealed. But is justice really done? Edward Dmytryk's stunning production remains one of our best war films -- and (incidentally) courtroom dramas. A trio of outstanding performances distinguish it: an Oscar-nominated Bogart in one of his best turns as the embattled Queeg; Jose Ferrer, who almost steals the picture as whip-smart defense lawyer Barney Greenwald; and finally, Fred MacMurray, poignant in the unsympathetic part of a cowardly lieutenant. All hands on deck for this one.

Mister Roberts (1955) - Adapted from Joshua Logan's Broadway hit, this service drama tells of Lt. Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda), an officer on a WWII cargo ship, desperate to see action, who instead has to cope with irascible, by-the-book Captain Morton (James Cagney). Roberts is frustrated by life aboard the S.S. Reluctant, but thankfully Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) -- "in charge of laundry and morale" -- is on board to provide him and the crew with much-needed laughs and sympathy. Returning to the big screen after an eight-year absence, Fonda successfully recreated his indelible stage role in Mister Roberts under the initial direction of John Ford, replaced by Mervyn LeRoy when Ford and Fonda literally came to blows just weeks into shooting! Young Lemmon must have been humbled by the cast line-up for this film: Fonda, Cagney, and the legendary William Powell (as a philosophical ship doctor) all on the same boat! Yet his manic energy was ideal for Pulver, winning Lemmon that year's Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Also notable as Powell's last screen appearance.

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) - In veteran director Robert Wise's tense, trim Run, an aging but vigorous Clark Gable plays Commander Richardson, a career Navy officer who wrangles one last submarine command a year after his last sub was torpedoed in Japan's perilous Bungo Straits. His second in command is Lt. Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who'd been in line to helm the sub. Crew unrest grows as Richardson drills the crew mercilessly on maneuvers ("Dive! Dive!"), and it dawns on Bledsoe that Richardson intends to bend his orders to pursue the infamous Japanese destroyer that slammed him before, taking the vessel right into the Bungo Straits, which orders specify they're meant to avoid. Wise creates just the right mood of simmering hostility via some pointed Gable/Lancaster by-play, and various telling incidents with the crew, including a young Jack Warden and Brad Dexter. Produced by Lancaster's own production company, Run remains not only a riveting war film, but one of mega-star Gable's last shining moments. (Also look for a future comic in the crew -- the inimitable Don Rickles!)

Damn the Defiant (1962) - Lewis Gilbert's overlooked British entry fires on all cylinders. Set during the Napoleonic Wars at the end of the eighteenth century, Captain Crawford (Alec Guinness) runs a tight ship, the H.M.S Defiant, even bringing on his young son as apprentice crewman in his pursuit of the French at sea. What the fair-minded Crawford doesn't count on in his latest voyage is his new second-in-command, First Lieutenant Scott-Padget (Dirk Bogarde), a young martinet in the making with friends in high places back at the admiralty. The cruel Padget undermines Crawford's more humane instincts at every turn, turning a crew already disgruntled at deplorable conditions and treatment on-board into a mutinous horde. Meanwhile, there's a war on, and French ships to sink. Director Gilbert (who'd go on to direct the original Alfie and three Bond entries) shows a sure hand here, with first-class actors Guinness and Bogarde crossing verbal swords with gusto, while the always-reliable Anthony Quayle organizes the men below. The denouement is worth waiting for, with stunning color footage recreating these beautiful ships in full battle mode. As period war movies go, you'll find this Defiant ship-shape indeed.

The Last Detail (1973) - Hal Ashby's seminal '70s film has career sailors Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) escorting a younger, convicted enlistee named Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to New Hampshire for an eight-year sentence in the stockade. Taking pity on the naïve, benumbed young man, the two older men resolve to show Meadows a wild time en-route, to make his upcoming incarceration more bearable. But are they really doing it for Meadows, or to ward off their own feelings of imprisonment? This gritty, wildly profane movie is equal parts funny and tragic, a tricky balance director Ashby sustains throughout. Quaid is wonderfully dim and pathetic as perennial loser Meadows, but Nicholson's Oscar-nominated performance as Buddusky is a revelation, easily up to his more widely recognized work in Carnal Knowledge and Chinatown. This Detail is definitely worth enlisting for.

Das Boot (1981) - Chronicling one German U-Boat's perilous search-and-destroy mission as the tide has turned toward the Allied cause in the Second War, Wolfgang Peterson's brilliant Das Boot has a claustrophobic immediacy. We observe the tense faces of young, inexperienced men doing their duty, most of whom realize that even if they cheat death, Germany's defeat is inevitable. Originally a 210-minute German mini-series edited down to feature length, Boot is haunting and works as an anti-war piece precisely because it is seen from the losing side. German actor Jurgen Prochnow turns in an intense portrayal of the boat's desperate captain. The film's other star -- director Peterson's camera -- roves through the sub fluidly, never allowing the viewer a breath of escape or boredom.

The Hunt for Red October (1990) - When a Russian nuclear sub goes off its intended course and heads directly for the United States, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) must decipher whether its crew's intention is to attack America or stage a mass defection. With only Soviet captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) knowing the answer, tension mounts on both sides until the nail-biting finish. The first and best of the Tom Clancy film adaptations, Hunt is a sharp, nerve-jangling doomsday thriller. With the peerless Connery joined by Baldwin, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, and Sam Neill (particularly good here as Ramius's loyal second-in-command), and directed by John McTiernan (fresh off his classic actioner Die Hard), Red October delivers high-octane, high testosterone adventure, packed with stars we know and love. How can you lose?

Master and Commander (2001) - During the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century, Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) commands the British frigate, HMS Surprise. Aubrey's mission is to track down, engage and sink the Acheron, a much larger and better-equipped French ship. Even as ship and crew endure the destruction of an enemy sneak attack and the ravages of inclement weather, Aubrey is unwavering in his duty. Based on Patrick O'Brian's renowned seafaring adventure novels, Peter Weir's Master delivers an intimate, seemingly accurate portrayal of rugged life on the high seas, limited in creature comforts but rich in camaraderie. You can practically smell the salt air and taste the rum. Crowe makes an assured, compassionate hero, and his friendship with ship doctor and scientist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who'd like Aubrey to slow down so he can collect samples of unknown species, provides some interesting character by-play between the full-bore battle sequences. In all, a flavorful, bracing adventure, suitable for family viewing.


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