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Film / U-571

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"They did get one thing right: there were U-boats in the North Atlantic during the war."
— A former German U-boat commander's reaction to the film

Released in 2000, directed by Jonathan Mostow and written by David Ayer, this World War II movie Very Loosely Based on a True Story is about a submarine crew who board a disabled German sub to steal an Enigma Machine, a secret German encryption device used to send coded messages. Caused a degree of controversy as the film places the Americans in center role as the heroes... except that in real life, the first to capture the submarine-based ENIGMA machine was the British. Although the film is also partly based on the American action that led to the capture of the U-Boat now on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, though by "partly," we mean "altered so much as to be unrecognizable."

The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Andrew Tyler, Bill Paxton as Mike Dahlgren, Harvey Keitel as Henry Klough, Jon Bon Jovi as Pete Emmett, Jake Weber as Michael Hirsch, Erik Palladino as Anthony Mazzola, Matthew Settle as Keith Larson, David Keith as Matthew Coonan and Thomas Kretschmann as Günther Wassner.

This film provides examples of:

  • America Won World War II: invoked Infamously so. In Real Life, the Enigma Machine was stolen from a German submarine... by the British.
    • Enigma machines were actually captured multiple times from U-Boats during the war, and one such action was accomplished by the US Navy, but the real event was nothing at all like the movie.
    • As can be expected, this did cause one hell of an uproar in the UK, to the point it was called "An Affront to British Sailors" during Prime Ministers Question Time upon release!
      • For what it's worth, American veterans of the Battle of the Atlantic who saw the movie generally agreed with the British.
    • An Enigma was cracked as early as 1928 by the Polish.
    • Germany exported civilian versions of the Enigma machine in 1930s. British government had a few of these even before the war began.
  • Anyone Can Die: And almost everybody does. Seven men survive to the end, that's it.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The real U-571 and S-33 didn't even operate in the same ocean as each other. In addition, the Germans never sent their destroyers that far west.
    • Most of the German surface fleet was destroyed early on, this was why the Germans sunk most of their naval resources into their U-Boats.
  • Artistic License – Military:
    • There's more examples of this than you can shake a stick at, but one stands out to those familiar with military history. The cook on board the sub is a black man. This would not have occurred during World War II, as the armed forces were not desegregated until 1947. However, the filmmakers may have been aware of this and simply chose to ignore it. Extra credit has to be given to them for portraying him as a intelligent and capable individual, who takes over the sub's helm when the regular helmsman is killed, and never gives in to panic or fear. Also, he's treated as an equal by everyone on board, with absolutely no hint of racism from anyone.
    • Messmen (later stewards) were the only black sailors allowed to serve on U.S. submarines during the war. Seventy-four black messmen/stewards went on "eternal patrol." Executive Order 9981, desegregating the U.S. military, was issued in 1948.
  • Artistic License – Ships:
    • The German destroyer hunts for U-571 with sonar pings, even though the Kriegsmarine never developed active sonar (the one with pings) and relied on passive sonar (very sensitive listening devices).
    • Anyone with even faint understanding of conditions on a submarine will find the entire scene with shootout aboard U-571 (with rapid fire weaponry!) downright cringeworthy. Submarines were (and still are) essentially enclosed, steel cylinders — which means that for starters, using firearms in such an environment would be extremely noisy and all participants of such shootout would get their eardrums blown very quickly. Secondly, being completely surrounded by steel walls means your bullets will ricochet frequently, giving you plenty of opportunities to hurt not only your intended target, but many other people, including your own teammates and even yourself. There are good reasons why in the real world, U-Boats carried little to no personal firearms aboard, and while the British actually did send an armed boarding party to capture U-110, no shots were fired (since U-110 was abandoned by its crew earlier).
    • The American submarine is supposedly sunk by German resupply sub... even though Type XIV "Milchkuh" ("milk cow") supply U-boats did not even have torpedo tubes.
  • Banging for Help: A captured prisoner uses a wrench to knock out a message in Morse Code for other German ships to hear on Sonar: I am U-571... destroy me!
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Rather early in the film, Lieutenant Tyler gets this from Chief Gunner Klough, for admitting to his crew that he didn't know what to do next, thus undermining his own crew's confidence in his leadership.
    • Also, the beginning of the film: Tyler is itching for a command of his own, and knows that the only thing that could stop him from being promoted and getting it is if his current CO doesn't recommend him. When he is passed over he seeks his CO out and demands to know why.
  • Captain Obvious: "Everything's in German!"
  • The Chains of Commanding: The reason Lt. Tyler doesn't get his first command is that his commander doesn't think he's ready for the burdens of that responsibility. Of course, Tyler ends up bearing that responsibility unexpectedly.
  • Closest Thing We Got: After a depth charge kills the U-boat's engineering department, the captain is seen badgering the only man he could find with any mechanical experience to fix the engines, with no success, as the poor guy protests that he only has a summer's worth of experience fixing motorscooters.
  • Cunning Linguist: Two of them in this film, including a professional linguist and a sailor who is half German.
  • Dark Secret: Mild example. One of the American sailors doesn't want his crewmates to know he's half German.
  • Dead Star Walking: A number of American submariners, including Bill Paxton (who's set up to be one of the main characters) and Jon Bon Jovi, are killed a quarter of the way through the film during a disastrous escape from a German U-boat.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: How the crew gets aboard the U-571.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: Justified. On a WWII warship, everyone did.
  • False Flag Operation: In addition to boarding the ship, they have to pretend to be Germans in order to avoid being attacked by German forces in the area. At one point this involves cheerfully waving at a Messerschmitt fighter that spots them and makes a low pass.
  • A Father to His Men: Tyler who's good buddies with his fellow officers, an older brother figure to the enlisted, has a good respected advisor in the Chief's and in an era when the military was still heavily segregated even the black mess workers are comfortable enough around to have a smoke with. He says he'd give his life for anyone on the sub and is notably crushed when they take their first casualty. This is actually why he's turned down from command at first as that kind of mentality is great for an XO who's the bridge between the Captain and the rest of the crew but not necessarily for a Captain who has to remain detached enough to order the crew into potential situations where they might lose their lives.
  • Hollywood History: Even if we forget about the fact that it was British sailors — not American — who captured an Enigma from German submarine, this film is totally fictitious and gets the whole story absolutely one-hundred-percent, completely wrong. Pretty much nothing what happens in the movie reflects the actual historical events.
    • The real U-boat which got captured (which was designated U-110, not U-571) was merely forced to resurface after being attacked by two British destroyers — HMS Bulldog and HMS Broadway — and then hastily abandoned by the crew after her captain Fritz Lemp saw incoming Broadway, thought she is going to ram his ship (her captain actually did intend to do so, but was stopped in time by Bulldog's commander) and yelled at his men to get out of there. The Germans were then picked up by British ships and imprisoned, while a boarding party safely captured the abandoned U-110 and found Enigma left there. End of the story.
    • Apparently, this was not flashy enough for Hollywood standards, so they decided to come up with imaginary tale about capturing the German submarine after violent shootout, and then evading long and persistent pursuit. Both scenarios are completely ludicrous, since — see above — the U-110 was abandoned by its crew, so British boarding party had absolutely nobody to shoot at, and such prevalent presence of German destroyers and aircraft is quite implausible, given the fact that activity of both Kriegsmarine (outside U-boats) and Luftwaffe in Atlantic was virtually nil and the whole area was completely dominated by Allied navy and air force.
    • In fact, by the time U-110 was captured, the Germans had only four remaining destroyers totally, which were (like the rest of Kriegsmarine surface ships) moreover confined to continental waters, making their sudden presence somewhere in North Atlantic even more nonsensical.
    • The events in the movie are only slightly more similar to the story of U-505's capture. It was indeed taken by Americans, after they intercepted and decrypted German transmission indicating that there is a U-boat near Cape Verde. But even there, the submarine in question was attacked, forced to resurface and then abandoned by her crew. There was no convoluted plan about posing as German sailors, no shootout aboard, nor evading any pursuit. There was, however, a desperate effort to keep the U-boat from sinking after her crew opened valves and sabotaged fittings, and then the arduous voyage under tow back to Bermuda, while trying to keep the capture a secret from the Germans — events which of course were not depicted in the movie.
  • Hot Sub-on-Sub Action: The German boat that sinks the American sub is stated as being a resupply boat. The Type XIV "Milchkuh" (or "milk cow") did not even have torpedo tubes. In addition, during the entire war, there is exactly one recorded instance of a submarine being sunk by another with torpedoes, and this was done by the British HMS Venturer.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Generally, a submarine could not be within short range of a destroyer without getting ripped to shreds.
  • Infinite Ammo: The German destroyer drops at least eighty depth charges. The average destroyer of World War II had no more than thirty.
  • It Has Been an Honor: Inverted; Chief Klough does say, "Well, Mister Tyler, if you ever need a chief, I'll go to sea with you anytime," but after the danger is over.
  • Just Plane Wrong: The German fighter appears to be a Messerschmidt Bf 109, which had nowhere near the range to patrol the middle of the Atlantic, and the Germans never constructed any aircraft carriers.
  • Oh, Crap!: Emmett has a moment of slack-jawed horror when the German resupply submarine launches a torpedo at the S-33.
  • Old Soldier: Chief Gunner Klough, who served on submarines during World War I.
  • Reading The Enemy's Mail: The main objective is to capture a German Enigma coding machine and the associated codebooks, allowing the Allies to decode and read German transmissions.
  • Refuge in Audacity: When the captured U-571 is spotted by a German patrol plane, the Americans wave at it, just as German sailors would to friendly flyers. Since the Germans don't know the sub has been captured yet, it works.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Dahlgren.
  • Semper Fi: Coonan, a Marine officer, is an expert in demolitions and commando raids and is brought onboard to give the submariners a crash course in boarding actions they would otherwise be unprepared for.
  • Sink The Life Boats: To prove how evil the German U-boat crew is. In reality, out of the tens of thousands of hours logged by the U-boat Force, there is only one recorded incident of a crew attacking survivors, and this was never an official policy of any sort whatsoever (because, like with a number of war crimes, there was the fear that it would provoke the enemy to respond in kind). It was much more common for German submariners to provide aid to the crews they sank.
  • Someone Has to Die: The climax of the film and the moment Tyler's development comes to a head. The Sub can't fire it's torpedo unless a critical repair is made in an area that's underwater and filled with debris, so attempt to repair it will almost certainly mean the crewman's death. Worse the "someone" is already selected by necessity. Tank, the guy who's job it should be to fix it can't fit through all the debris and of the rest of the crew only Rabbit and Trigger are small enough to fit and Rabbit is their torpedo guy and needed at his post which means Trigger is the only option and Tyler needs to order him to certain death despite Trigger's terror and reluctance. Trigger pulls it off but drowns in the hold as everyone expected.
  • The Chains of Commanding / "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Tyler gets no less than two speeches about being unfit for command:
    Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren: [at the beginning of the film, to Tyler] You have to be able to make hard decisions based on imperfect information. Asking men to carry out orders that may result in their deaths. And if you're wrong, you suffer the consequences. If you're not prepared to make those decisions, without pause, without reflection, then you've got no business being a submarine captain.

    Chief Klough: [halfway through the film, to Tyler] Don't you dare say what you said to the boys back there again, 'I don't know.' Those three words will kill a crew, dead as a depth charge. You're the skipper now, and the skipper always knows what to do whether he does or not.
  • You Are in Command Now: Lieutenant Tyler, when his submarine is torpedoed and sunk, while he is leading a boarding party on the U-571.