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Film / The Bedford Incident

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The Bedford Incident is a 1965 film directed by James B. Harris.

It's a Cold War thriller set on the high seas. The USS Bedford, a Navy destroyer, is patrolling in the strait between Greenland and Iceland. The Bedford detects a Russian submarine lurking in the strait, in Greenland's territorial waters. Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark), a devout anti-communist and Cold Warrior, is determined to force the Russian sub to surface and leave the strait. So determined that, when the Russian sub leaves Greenland's waters for the open sea, thus depriving Finlander of any justification for following it, Finlander follows it anyway.

Capt. Finlander is contrasted by two new arrivals on the Bedford. Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) is a newspaper journalist, ostensibly on the Bedford to write a story about anti-submarine warfare, but really there to profile Finlander. Munceford thinks little of Finlander's fanaticism. Also joining the ship is LCDR Chester Potter (Martin Balsam), a 20-year reservist who has come back to active duty and been assigned to the Bedford as the ship's doctor. Potter has ideas like improving the health and nutrition of the sailors, ideas that Finlander holds in contempt because he is not interested in anything other than intimidating the Russians.

James MacArthur plays Ensign Ralston, a newbie whom Finlander rides relentlessly. Donald Sutherland appears briefly in one of his first roles, as one of the lab techs specializing in analysis of Russian garbage.


  • Actor Allusion: Eric Portman is once again a Kreigsmarine U-boat officer.
  • Audience Surrogate: Munceford represents the audience. He is the sane civilian shocked by Finlander's aggression and recklessness.
  • Binocular Shot: Seen every time Finlander looks through his binoculars, trying to see the enemy sub.
  • Born in the Theater: The startling last shot has the images of the various main cast members melt, like film melting in a projector. This symbolizes their deaths in a nuclear explosion.
  • The Captain: A negative example. Finlander is definitely the man in charge. He has molded a crew so devoted to him that Lt. Commander Potter has nothing to do in sickbay because no one ever reports sick. But his relentless fanaticism pushes the men past their limits. Seaman Queffle, the sonar man, is worked so hard at his post that he has a physical breakdown. And Finlander's relentless bullying of Ensign Ralston leads to catastrophe when Ralston, broken down by Finlander's bullying, mistakes a comment for an order.
  • Determinator: Finlander will not let that Russian sub get away. He will pursue it into international waters. He'll even cruise so close to it that the Bedford bumps into the sub's snorkel. This fanaticism leads to disaster.
    Schrepke: You will only find trouble in this obsession.
  • Downer Ending: Ralston, misunderstanding a comment by Finlander as an order to fire, shoots off a torpedo that sinks the Russian sub. Before it was destroyed, the Russian sub fired off four torpedoes that destroy the Bedford. Everyone dies.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In his first appearance Finlander screams at Ralston for letting the helicopter circle around the Bedford, even though Ralston exclaims that the waters were rough and it was getting dark. Finlander is established as an abrasive Jerkass martinet.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: The film ends with the Bedford being blown up by a Russian nuclear torpedo, killing everybody in the movie.
  • The Ghost: Not only are there no scenes on the Russian sub, Finlander and the Bedford never even get a good look at it, other than its snorkel poking out above the waves.
  • Good Counterpart: Meta-wise, Eric Portman's Kreigsmarine U-boat officer character Schrepke can be seen as this to his previous Kreigsmarine U-boat officer character Hirth from Propaganda Machine flick 49th Parallel, who unlike Schrepke was a despicable and blinkered Those Wacky Nazis type Foil to Schrepke's sympathetic Older and Wiser ex-Punch-Clock Villain Old Soldier demeanor that averts All Germans Are Nazis. The irony of Portman's German naval roles is that while Hirth was a typical fanatical Nazi as a result of the Propaganda Machine, Schrepke was against Finlander's own fanaticism.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Munceford, who is helicoptered onto the deck of the Bedford at sea in pursuit of his story, and keeps pursuing it, surreptitiously recording conversations and infuriating Finlander by taking pictures on the bridge.
  • Lecture as Exposition: Finlander uses a map to explain to Munceford, and the audience, where the Bedford is and what its mission is, namely, submarine hunting.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Finlander decides to force the Russian sub to surface even after he's ordered by Washington merely to observe. Later, after he does get permission to force the sub to surface but at a time the sub has left for international waters, Finlander keeps up the chase.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": We get a rapid montage of everyone's horrified reactions when Ralston accidentally launches a torpedo.
  • Mutual Kill: The Bedford and the Russian sub destroy each other in an exchange of torpedoes.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Munceford the civilian reporter, who as the Audience Surrogate asks a lot of questions about what's going on.
  • New Meat: Ensign Ralston. Finlander takes an irrational dislike to Ralston, and decides he needs to take the handsome young officer straight out of the Naval Academy down a few pegs. He goes way overboard, rendering Ralston into something like a whipped dog, which leads to total destruction.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Finlander is symbolic of Barry Goldwater, the bellicose Senator who ran for president on 1964 on a platform of confronting the Soviets, and was seen by many as being dangerously aggressive. This is underlined in one scene where Finlander, who sort of looks like Goldwater to begin with, puts on reading glasses that are identical to the thick-framed glasses Goldwater always wore.
  • "Not So Different" Remark:
    • It's commented that Schrepke, a former U-Boat commander, has more sympathy with the Soviet submarine crew than the Americans he's working with.
    • After Finlander gives a Rousing Speech, Munceford tries to suggest that he's A Nazi by Any Other Name, but Schrepke doesn't rise to the bait.
  • Off the Record: Munceford uses this exact phrase when trying to get Schrepke to say what he really thinks about Finlander. It doesn't work.
  • Ominous Fog: The dangerous, slow-speed chase through the iceberg field is made even more tense by the Ominous Fog impairing visibility.
  • Pet the Dog: Finlander is a pretty nuanced character, even if he's ultimately a fanatical bully who gets his ship destroyed. He earnestly likes Queffle the radarman and Commander Allison, even if the latter doesn't reciprocate. He also backs down somewhat during the final confrontation, assuring Munceford that he won't attack the Russian sub unless it attacks first.
  • Repeat to Confirm: Finlander, who is arguing with Schrepke in a super-tense moment, says he won't back down even if the Russian shoots, screaming "If he fires one, then I'll fire one!". A jittery Ensign Ralston, by this point terrified of questioning Finlander in any way, mishears "Fire one!" as an order. He repeats "Fire one!" and fires off a torpedo. This results in both ships being destroyed and everybody being killed.
  • Setting Update: It's a loose adaptation of Moby-Dick, except that instead of chasing a whale, Finlander is chasing a Russian submarine.
  • Silent Running Mode: Finlander gives the "Rig for silent ship" order when chasing the submarine into the iceberg field, after the submarine itself has gone quiet.
  • Spiritual Successor: This film would be the closest thing to a spiritual sequel to 49th Parallel which also featured Portman playing a Kreigsmarine U-boat officer, but was a typical Those Wacky Nazis type named Ernst Hirth who tried to Run for the Border out of Canada only to fail at the end and gets arrested, while this film set during the Cold War, with Portman's character Schrepke to be a former Kreigsmarine officer-turned-NATO adviser. It is as though Portman's character in this film can be perceived as Hirth, after getting captured and imprisoned by the Allies at the end of previous film, gets pardoned after the war, only to be Demoted to Extra in contrast to his leading Nazi Protagonist role in the last movie, but pulled a Heel–Face Turn (which can double as Redemption Demotion) following the fall of the Third Reich, helping the government that was once his enemy and having become Older and Wiser unlike before when he was rash and blindly fanatical.

  • Stealth Insult: Finlander's XO, Commander Allison, isn't that stealthy about it, after criticizing Finlander for riding Ralston too hard.
    Finlander: Yeah, it's a lot of work being a mean bastard.
    Allison: Hmm. Sometimes I can't help admiring how effortlessly you do it, captain. Almost as if it came naturally.
  • Suicidal Overconfidence: Finlander doesn't take his Russian opponent seriously, chasing it through the iceberg field, sideswiping its snorkel, backing the Russian captain into a corner even as Schrepke warns that a cornered animal will fight back. It leads to the destruction of his ship.
  • Vehicle Title: The Bedford Incident
  • Villainous Breakdown: Finlander gives the standard evasive orders ("Right full rudder!") after the report of incoming torpedoes, but after that walks off the bridge in a daze. Munceford chases after him and is still screaming at Finlander to do something to save them when the torpedoes hit and the Bedford is vaporized in a nuclear blast.