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Film / Gray Lady Down

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Gray Lady Down is a 1978 Disaster Movie directed by David Greene and starring Charlton Heston, David Carradine, and Stacy Keach, with Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, Stephen McHattie, and Rosemary Forsyth in supporting roles. Christopher Reeve has a small role in his film debut.

Heston is Captain Paul Blanchard, the commander of USS Neptune, a nuclear-powered U.S. Navy submarine, who's on his last trip before being promoted to squadron commander.

While surfaced and returning to base, Neptune picks up another ship on her radar off in the distance, on what would be a collision course. The ship, a Swedish freighter with a number of equipment failures, has no idea that Neptune is in their path and is quite likely violating the rules for traveling on the open sea. As the freighter gets too close, the watch officer orders that the collision alarm be sounded. The freighter operator then makes a mistake and turns the ship even more steeply into Neptune, resulting in a collision. The submarine sinks, landing below her rated crush depth on a ledge near a steep trench.

Captain Bennett (Stacy Keach), a rescue force commander, gets a call at home announcing that a submarine has been rammed, resulting in her sinking with survivors possibly trapped inside ("Gray Lady Down"). He calls up every resource he can get his hands on, including having a DSRV (Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle, a rescue minisub) brought in, and an experimental utility minisub called The Snark, whose captain, Gates (David Carradine) has his own ideas about how his boat is to be operated.

The rescue force must try to save the survivors before Neptune slips off the ledge, falling irretrievably into the trench and imploding.

Tropes Include:

  • A Father to His Men: Blanchard. Somewhat bitterly lampshaded by the XO, who calls him "Captain Friendly."
  • The Captain: While Gates is technically captain of the Snark, Captain Bennett is superior to him, and orders him to take one of his own men with him (instead of Gates' second in command) to do the search for the Neptune that Gates considers unqualified. After the man mistakes a sunken sonar target for the Neptune (a submarine about a hundred times the size of an automobile), Gates surfaces and demands Captain Bennett let him use his own man. Bennett asks if his guy making one error was sufficient reason to abandon the search:
    Gates: "When I'm steered to a '52 DeSoto? Yes, sir!"
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong: Mild example. The XO is extremely shaken and embittered by the accident, and takes it out on the Captain.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Gates out jogging at a beach, ignoring the man who try to get him to come back in, until they tell him that his sub is needed to save lives. He immediately hops into the jeep without a word.
  • Facial Horror: A Machinist's Mate's face is badly burned by steam in the initial collision. He collapses in agony and drowns as the engine room floods.
  • The Film of the Book: Adapted from the 1971 novel Event 1000 by David Lavallee.
  • Heroic BSoD: Blanchard after seeing his XO's drowned corpse in the Control Room.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Neptune's XO stays in the rapidly-flooding control room in order to close a watertight hatch and save the men on the other side, while one of the junior officers stays at the ballast control panel to hold the valves open and right the boat.
    • Gates later drives his minisub under Neptune's hull to buy the remaining survivors a few extra seconds to board the DSRV before she goes over the undersea cliff.
  • Insert Grenade Here: A gravity slide has knocked a large boulder into the boat, and shifted the position of the Neptune's emergency escape hatch so that it can no longer be reached from the DSRV. Captain Bennett has an idea. Have the Snark bring down a shape charge of C4 in its carrying arm so that the explosive will pulverize the boulder but not damage Neptune, allowing it to roll forward and right itself.
  • Lost in Transmission: Part way through the rescue, Neptune's underwater telephone ("Gertrude" in Navyspeak) fails. To signal to the men inside what is happening, the Snark goes to the crash site, lands on Neptune's outer hull casing, and Gates then uses a wrench to tap Morse Code through the hull.
  • Nerves of Steel: A prerequisite to being a Captain.
  • Military Maverick: Captain Gates. He designed and built a specialized mini-sub that can do a lot of useful functions with nothing but scrounged resources and the help of his second in command. He's damn good at what he does, and he knows it.
  • Pet the Dog: The Neptune's Communications officer freaks out over the surface not hearing his repeated signal attempts, and Captain Blanchard has him forcibly removed from the bridge. When the officer subsequently apologizes to Blanchard, the Captain kindly replies that he (the Comms officer) was only saying what everyone else was thinking. Blanchard later relies on him to decode the Snark's Morse Code communications.
    • Gates also gives one to Bloome after the first unsuccessful search attempt, pointing out that it's not Bloome's fault he's unfamiliar with the workings of a custom ship he's never seen before.
  • Race Against the Clock: While there's enough air and food for the surviving crew to last until rescue, the overloaded watertight hatch to the engineering spaces is leaking, and the place where the boat is resting is subject to severe gravity slides. They have perhaps 22 hours if everything holds. If anything goes wrong, the ship falls into the trench and it's a two-mile ride to the bottom. As the ship is already below its rated crush depth, any further sinking would cause it to implode, killing any survivors.
  • Oh, and there is exactly one watertight door between the sea and the rest of the ship. About half-way through the movie, it starts leaking...
  • Shout-Out: While the crew is waiting for rescue, they're watching Jaws.
  • Suicide Mission: Gates decided to take the Snark down alone to watch the explosion to blow up the boulder (see Insert Grenade Here) so they can know if it took. Gates refuses to let his second in command come along because of the danger. The explosion takes and the DSRV can rescue the remaining men. When a gravity slide causes the Neptune to start to slide into the trench during the rescue, Gates pushes the snark in the way, sacrificing himself to block the Neptune from sliding further, giving them the extra few seconds to escape, before Neptune and the Snark slip and fall into the trench.
  • Troubled Fetal Position: When The Captain has to resort to this, you know it's bad.