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Film / The Enemy Below

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Captain on the bridge!

"I should have died many times, Captain, but I continue to survive somehow. This time it was your fault."

The Enemy Below is a 1957 war film directed and produced by Dick Powell, which shows the battle between the captain of an American destroyer escort and the commander of a German U-boat during World War II. It stars Robert Mitchum and Curd Jürgens. The film was based on a novel by Denys Rayner, a British naval officer involved in anti-submarine warfare throughout the Battle of the Atlantic.

Walter Rossi received the 1958 Academy Award for best special effects. The script was Recycled In Space as the classic Star Trek episode "Balance of Terror".

This film provides examples of

  • Adaptational Heroism: The final scenes of mutual respect and potential friendship between the protagonists are not present in the original book, where the Allied ship is British instead of American and the destroyer escort captain loathes his German counterpart and they both engage in fisticuffs.
  • Adaptational Nationality: In the book, the Allied ship is British. In the film, it's American.
  • A Father to His Men: Von Stolberg is very protective and compassionate towards his crew, and they are unflinchingly loyal to him in return. Murrell is also shown to care deeply for his men, but they haven't gotten to know him yet and have their doubts.
  • Burial at Sea: 'Heinie' Schwaffer dies of his injuries and is buried at sea in the final act of the film.
  • The Captain: Murrell and von Stolberg.
  • Chromosome Casting: The only characters in the film are the all-male crews of a U.S. Navy ship and a German U-boat.
  • Cool Boat: A German U-boat vs an American Buckley-class destroyer escort. Bonus points for filming on a real Buckley-class DE.
  • Doomed Hurt Guy: Heinie.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: The destroyer escort and the U-boat play cat and mouse throughout the film, but the submarine is extremely bold and dangerous as its role is not merely defensive.
  • Music for Courage: During a series of depth charge attacks, von Stolberg plays music (an 18th century march called "Der Dessauer Marsch") over the ship's PA system and has the crew sing along to boost morale. Murrell -who recognizes the trope- orders another depth charge attack.
    Murrell: [Our psychology] is working all right. All ahead for attack, Mr. Ware. Maybe we can rip him open in the middle of a waltz.
  • Mutual Kill: Both the destroyer and the submarine are sunk at the end, though the majority of both crews survive and are rescued.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Captain von Stolberg, in an early and notable aversion of All Germans Are Nazis, as Jürgens would recall in 1977.
    "The first film after the war in which a German officer was not interpreted as a freak."
    • Von Stolberg's Establishing Character Moment shows him entering the control room soaking wet after standing watch on the bridge during a rain squall and becoming visibly annoyed when he sees that his newest officer has painted a Nazi propaganda slogan on one of the overhead pipes. He pointedly tosses his towel over it as he walks by.
  • Ramming Always Works: The destroyer escort rams the U-boat as a last resort option. Truth in Television, this was a common tactic during WWII. The climactic battle even plays out with many similarities to the real-life duel between USS Buckley and U-66, though in the real incident only the U-boat was sunk.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Most of the time the crew of the German U-boat speak in English to each other for the audience's benefit, but a few times they speak in untranslated German. In the Burial at Sea scene at the end, the sub's captain speaks entirely in German.
  • Sensor Suspense: ASDIC/SONAR pings.
  • Shown Their Work: The movie displays a high level of technical accuracy on the destroyer escort and the U-boat. Uniforms, procedures, sensors, and weapons are all accurately depicted. Hollywood Tactics is completely averted.
  • Stern Chase: A destroyer escort vs submarine duel.
  • Sub Story
  • Third Act Stupidity: Throughout almost the entire film, the German U-boat captain acts in a professional and competent manner. Just before the end, he makes several blatant mistakes (that no officer of his experience should have made) because the script needs him to do so.
    • The German U-boat captain falls for one of the oldest tricks in the book - the American ship pretending that after being torpedoed, it's helpless and can't move or attack - and decides to surface. Under the laws of war, the American captain would have been completely justified in immediately opening fire on the U-boat with his deck guns and trying to ram it. The American captain even lampshades how stupid the U-boat captain's action is: "I'm half surprised he took the bait. That's the first foolish thing he's done."
    • After warning the American ship that he would fire a second torpedo in ten minutes, the U-boat captain decides to wait on the surface for the entire ten minutes. Unfortunately, the American ship is still capable of movement and manages to ram the U-boat, leading to their mutual sinking. If the U-boat captain had just submerged after giving the American ship the warning and fired the torpedo while underwater, he could have avoided this.
    • The U-boat captain had to know that other American warships were on the way. By sticking around, even for only ten minutes, he took the risk that American ships could arrive, detect him, and continue the attack upon his vessel. If he had to make sure of the American ship's sinking, he should have fired the second torpedo immediately. If he couldn't ethically do that, he could have just slipped away quietly and continued on his way.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Captain Murrell was a Merchant Marine officer and later an active duty lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve. He's still recovering from the sinking of his previous ship and the death of his wife and his ability is questioned by his underlings, but he shows his competency as a destroyer escort commander early on.
  • The Von Trope Family: Von Stolberg has an aristocratic background and is not enamoured with the Nazi regime.
  • War Is Hell: While the film is a straight war-adventure-suspense story, it does touch on the aspects: Captain Murrell lost his British wife to a U-boat when he was trying to evacuate her from Britain on his ship when he was a merchant mariner. Von Stolberg has lost his sons in battle ("one is at the bottom of the sea, and this one is a cinder in a burned airplane"), and doubts he's on the right side of the war. The two of them—honorable, intelligent, and compassionate men who respect each other's abilities—spend most of the film trying to kill each other.
  • Worthy Opponent: U-boat captain von Stolberg is a honourable antagonist of destroyer escort captain Murrell. The two share a mutual respect for the other.