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Interlude: Where Are All The Good Submarine Movies?

Interlude: Where Are All The Good Submarine Movies?

As long as we’re on the topic of fiction and the military, let’s take a moment to discuss a question my old buddy Dave asked me recently: “why do you think we have so many good land-military cinematic productions, from all eras, and so few for the briny sea?”

It’s an interesting question, and I am not sure I have a satisfactory answer. To be sure, I can name a few movies that feature the Navy. Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Guns of Navarone, Top Gun (if you’re willing to stretch your imagination a little), The Caine Mutiny, and I gather that Dunkirk was pretty good, though I admit to not having seen it yet. However, for every Down Periscope out there, there are a dozen Pearl Harbor flops stinking up the joint like low tide at the pierside juke joint.

Submarine movies are particularly execrable. The only reason The Hunt for Red October wasn’t box office poison starts with Sean and rhymes with watery. Well, sort of rhymes, I guess. As close as a Glaswegian accent is to a Lithuanian grandson of a fisherman who grew up next to a river with no fish in it. The only tolerable submarine movie I can think of is the aforementioned Kelsey Grammer vehicle featuring Lauren Holly in her heyday and wearing a uniform two sizes too small. I include Das Boot in my dismissal because the run time feels like it exceeds an unabridged strategic deterrence patrol.

In contrast, good movies featuring the Army provide an embarrassment of riches. The Bridge on the River Kwai, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, the first half of Full Metal Jacket (yes, FMJ was about the USMC, but I’ll get to why it’s an Army movie in a bit, so please be patient), The Great Escape, The Big Red One, Saving Ryan’s Privates, The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds, and both Rescue Dawn and Little Dieter Needs to Fly (again, both films are about Dieter Dengler, a downed Navy pilot, but both are decidedly Army films) are but a small sample of what I can pick off the top of my head. I have to struggle twice as hard to come up with a list half as long for decent Navy movies. Even then, I’m squaring the circle to count something like Top Gun as a Navy flick.

So what gives? What counts as an Army movie? That’s a good question, imaginary reader. It’s also the question that has had me thinking about Dave’s inquiry so much. My initial reaction was something like: if the primary characters are Soldiers, it’s an Army movie. But that isn’t right. At least, it doesn’t feel right.

An old Army adage claims that every Soldier is an infantryman. Even a soft-handed 17C has to qualify on an M4 at some point. Everyone who has been through Basic (or, forgive me, OCS) has eaten a pound of mud. So to me, an Army movie is an infantry movie, regardless of the color of the principal characters’ uniforms. That’s why I can’t bring myself to include A Few Good Men in either an Army or a Navy list, despite the USN JAG taking up a whole load of screen time: its genre is courtroom drama. It has more in common with My Cousin Vinny than with (ha ha ha) Under Siege.

Come to think of it, more than half the run time of Apocalypse Now is cut from the same cloth as Cape Fear, and it was only happy accident that Conrad’s novel was suited to the madness of that particular war. Still, Duvall’s beachhead lament offers genre sanctuary, so I’ll allow it.

By the same token, Full Metal Jacket opens on Parris Island. But from the moment a streetwalker quoted 2 Live Crew lyrics, it continued as an Army film: grunts in the field.  A movie about Marines is a thing more rare than a decent Navy flick. It’s a subtle difference, mostly thematic. A Marine movie still has guns and explosions and whatnot, but themes of doom, overwhelming odds, and isolation from support are key elements. Aliens is a Marine movie. So is Evil Dead 2 after Ash replaces his hand with a chainsaw. Jarhead is borderline. Three Kings probably counts.

There are no Air Force movies, nor will there ever be.

Sailors don’t have anything like the rifleman’s creed, nor do we share a unifying theme (Village People songs notwithstanding). I suppose the equivalent of an infantryman might be a deck division striker, but some dude dragging a mop around the crew’s mess is hardly riveting drama.

Not that I’m complaining, of course. Naval warfare is fundamentally different from an infantry skirmish. Even something as simple as launching a torpedo requires the cooperation and coordination of a team. Including action movie elements like the idiotic small arms firefight in Hunt for Red October grafts an awkward foreign genre onto an unwilling host. Maybe civilian audiences won’t balk at the dissonance, but I assure you that every single submarine veteran who saw it was either laughing or cringing at the parade of bad screenwriting contained in Crimson Tide. Heck it was bad enough that it put me off Gene Hackman for nearly a decade.

Lest you accuse me of being a Surly Sam, let me suggest an alternative. If you want to make a sweeping war epic, include naval elements by all means. But do yourself a favor and leave out the melodrama. If you want to make a military-themed melodrama, please do so. But do us a favor and set it in a training command where it belongs. Think of stories set among the waves as sharing a common ancestor with The Odyssey. Comedy works well (if you think Homer isn’t funny, I urge you to give it another read), as does tragedy: why no one has made a feature film about the sinking of the Kursk is beyond me. Supernatural horror is a natural fit as well. Imagine WWII-era ghost battleships. Instead we get either Bruckheimer-soaked Pentagon propaganda or a poorly-reskinned spy thriller.

I think my point is that while it’s okay to think of Army movies as a genre unto themselves, it’s more proper to think of the Navy as a setting. Weave a yarn of betrayal, or hubris, or coming of age. Set King Lear in the seafoam, or visit the USS Heorot. Cut back on the gimmicks. You might think it’s colorful to have a Sailor bring his pet fish complete with a fifty gallon tank along with him underway, or to have a no-nonsense commissioned officer order a salty first class petty officer to do pushups over a personal slight, but let me assure you that there is no quicker way to break immersion than to indulge weird civilian fantasies of what life afloat must be.

Then again, maybe I’ve got a wicked case of Gell-Mann amnesia, and the reason Navy movies give me the heebie-jeebies is the same reason that utterly ignorant discussions of game theory IN A MOVIE ABOUT JOHN NASH make my skin crawl. It is entirely possible that your mileage may vary.

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83 thoughts on “Interlude: Where Are All The Good Submarine Movies?

  1. Did you really mean to write Saving Ryan’s Privates? (I always call it that and have accidentally a few times so thought I better ask) Either way, great piece! Really enjoyed it. Awesome take on the difference between Army and Marine movies.

    I do personally think that there is a Navy genre, though. It’s more like watching a game of chess than watching grunts on a field. Each side tries to outmaneuver the other side. There’s also an element of “we’ve got to keep the ship running” with mechanics and physics involved that I really enjoy. Army and Marine movies don’t have that.

    And the sea is always present, as kind of a Big Bad that can claim either side at either time. Always man vs. nature in addition to whatever else the plot has going on.

    I think a case could be made that a lot of sci-fi movies really are Navy movies. Star Trek first and foremost.

    What do you think of the “Master and Commander” genre? quite a few of those type of movies. If you like that kind of thing check out a S. Korean movie called “The Admiral: Roaring Currents”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Admiral:_Roaring_Currents and a Dutch movie called Michiel de Ruyter (this was released in the US as The Admiral) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michiel_de_Ruyter_(film)

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  2. Making a good submarine movie is hard for the same reason that realistic depictions of Manhattan apartment life on film is hard. Cameras do better in bigger quarters than smaller quarters. Submarines like Manhattan apartments are tiny. The audience will just feel claustrophobic. Army movies work because the field or land warfare more closely resembles the ample space of the suburban home that Americans are used to.

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  3. This is definitely my jam.

    The three best submarine movies, in order, are Das Boot, Down Periscope (Kelsey Grammer one) and Hunt for Red October. That list is also in the order of realism.

    Star Trek movies are Navy movies.

    (Star Wars movies are Air Force movies.)

    Hunt for Red October is awesome because its basically a good (i.e. even numbered) stand alone Star Trek movie (an observation I stole from a movie review at the time Red October came out)

    The Abyss is somewhat underrated as a ‘Navy’ movie (though the director’s cut is terrible. Yes, it explains what’s actually going on and fills in some plot holes, but it’s preachy as all heck)

    It is almost certainly the case that Navy movies are made as much because they are so much more expensive to make than Army movies. (Just like the real Navy is more expensive than the real Army, pound for pound). This is why they’ve never made another Jack Aubrey movie. (They’ve made a gazillion Carribean Pirates movies because you can CGI fantasy sea monsters in a way you can’t CGI the French – or the Americans. And Johnny Depp is terrible with money)

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    • Agree.

      The thing that irks me about most sub movies is they aren’t really about the sub or the crew, but about a couple of Egos doing battle in a metal tube. They don’t really even try to capture what it means to crew or fight a sub. Hell, most surface Navy movies have the same problem.

      Best scene in Red October is the final fight. “You arrogant ass. You’ve killed us!”

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      • Star Trek has the same conceit – a ship is the material extension of the captain’s temperment and will.

        Though that’s not inconsistent with how real world US Navy culture operates. Which is a key, and perhaps, the primary difference between its culture and the other service branches.

        Eta – that is to say, command of a ship at sea is a unique responsibility that really has no equivalent in any other service* because of everyone else has a different organizational fractal pattern.

        *except, like, the Coast Guard and NOAA

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        • The Navy movies I enjoy are the ones were the director doesn’t treat the ship as little more than an armed boat with a bridge crew and everything else is treated as automated (except when an explosion throws random crew across the room).

          The ship may be an extension of the captains ego & will, but without the hundreds of men & women crewing the ship, bridge commands will do very little, especially once battle damage starts happening.

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          • But isn’t this just another genre convention/limitation of the medium?

            Most ‘epics’ are top-down affairs, with the mass of folks making everything work relegated to extras and/or redshirts.

            It’s common enough to make a land-combat movie from the O-3 and bellow / E-6 and below point of view, but that’s very limiting for sea combat. As mentioned elsewhere, U-571 does this, but pretty much by killing everyone else off at the begining. Jaws does this by telling the story of the Indianapolis from an E-4(?) point of view – but again, that’s because a lot of everyone else is dead. (And it isn’t the main tale – which is all about the will of the captain). (See also, Moby Dick)

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  4. Das Boot is amazing. I didn’t hate U-571.

    I’d like to see more naval movies, although to be fair Master & Commander is a naval movie and excellent. I would also make my pitch for Black Sails if you like pirate-era naval battles. The later seasons are very, very good and beautifully shot.

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  5. Every movie about the War in the Pacific is a Navy movie. The Navy isn’t just surface warfare.

    Unbroken is the quintessential Navy movie. I mean, they have to FIGHT SHARKS. What is more Navy than having to fight sharks?

    Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Sands of Iwo Jima, Midway, Tora Tora Tora, Against the Sun, Empire of the Sun, the Curious Case of Benjamin Button – these are all Navy movies. Don’t forget movies specifically about the SEALs like Lone Survivor, American Sniper, Tears of the Sun, and Zero Dark Thirty.

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  6. At least there are some good sub movies. Where are all the good surface warfare movies? This is obviously mostly at ww2 phenomenon but where are they. It’s not like we don’t have the FX now for it and there were plenty of exciting and dramatic battles to makes movies of. A book like Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors is begging to be a movie.

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    • Somewhat at a historical loss here (not having been there), but as far as WWII goes, weren’t most surface warfare incidents actually airplanes versus ships? So would WWII surface engagements actually be “air force” (uncapitalized) movies?

      My dad flew Wildcats off a Jeep carrier and a good many of his stories (aside from dogfights) were about providing what was essentially artillery support for land troops on Okinawa, etc. So, several air-to-air encounters, and a lot of “artillery movie” action.

      And let me put in a vote for “Below,” definitely a horror film, but nicely adapted to a submarine setting.

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      • There were many surface engagements with no planes involved. Most of them happened in the area around Guadalcanal over a period of several months in 43. There were some terrible defeats for us. Nobody is going to want to make a movie of the battle of Savo Island. But they were actions worthy of movie especially the one i noted above which did have planes involved but was mostly a surface action.

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        • Savo Island would be a touch sell because it was a night action.

          One of the problems with naval movies set in the 20th century is that everybody just stand or sits, unlike movies about the Marines or Army where you can show physical action. Sure, Das Boot had the crew run back and forth a few times (Finally, some action scenes!), but that’s about as good as it gets.

          On a related note, I once thought of creating a Cold War re-enactment group. The idea is that instead of running around on a Civil War battlefield waving a sword or firing a rifled musket, everybody would just sit in their office cubicles pretending to work. Occasionally they’d call another re-enactor and say something like “This is a secure line. Did you see the latest satellite images of Zenititsya B? What do you think they’re up to?” or “You need to fill out the proper requisition forms before we’re shipping those pallets to Germany.” Heck, coworkers might not even realize that you’re taking part in a war re-enactment.

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      • The thing is, if we are talking War in the Pacific, most naval combat was absurdly one sided. There are the handful of notable exceptions that are widely, well, noted. But once you get past Midway and the Guadalcanal campaign, (which is the say after the first year) the war was essentially a slog toward the home islands. The only question was how high the casualty count would be. Had, say, the Japanese battleships broke though and slaughtered the transports at Leyte Gulf, the end of the war would have been the same. Add in nukes and the timing of the end of the war would likely have been about the same, too.

        War games, of the old Avalon Hill hex map sort, always had this problem. There just aren’t that many campaigns that game well, in the sense that both sides had a legitimate shot at winning. You end up either fudging the history or setting up unsatisfying victory conditions where the losing side wins if it can slightly delay the inevitable.

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    • Along the lines of Mike Dwyer’s comment above, there are lots of surface warfare movies, they’re just mostly set in the Age of Sail. That’s not surprising — coal/oil-fired battleships quickly outgrew a bunch of the things that make Age of Sail naval battles fascinating*. Too few ships, too maneuverable, too much range on the big guns; a handful of battleships hammering at each other from several miles apart, independent of the wind, doesn’t leave a lot of room for interesting story lines. And then, of course, abruptly — by historical standards — carriers made the big battleships obsolete.

      * Consider how much “Napoleonic fleet actions in space” science fiction has been written. Authors twist themselves into pretzels limiting their space technology to set that up.

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  7. Here is the things about Navy movies, and submarine movies specifically: You have to capture the tight spaces, and as Lee said up thread, tight spaces do not lend themselves to blockbuster cinematography.

    Surface Navy movies can at least do the dramatic shots and big explosions, but submarines are flying ‘blind’ (they aren’t even remotely blind, but how the crew sees the battle space doesn’t translate well to camera).

    So you can’t have big, dramatic camera shots, and you can’t really show what the crew ‘sees’, so all you can show is the very human drama in the incredibly tight spaces (that will freak the audience out, but which Bubbleheads seem just fine with, which I think makes the audience even more uncomfortable). Also, sub combat is very slow. Even against surface ships, it’s a whole lot of careful sneaking into range, firing off a couple of slow, but very powerful torpedoes, and carefully sneaking away again before the destroyers have a chance to find you. And finally, when submarines die, there is very rarely any kind of escape. No pods carrying you to the surface, no jumping overboard. Depending on the depth it happens at, the surface of the water may not even ripple, because the sub just implodes.

    Ergo, not something the Michael Bays of the world know how to do right.

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  8. Fantastic Voyage is a good submarine movie. Innerspace, despite being a remake of it, and very good in its own right, is not a submarine movie. It’s an air force movie.

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  9. Army movies and Marine movies aren’t the same. Screw anyone who says they are. Sands of Iwo Jima wasn’t a Navy movie; they were just the Uber for the Marines. Aliens isn’t a Marine movie; it’s James Cameron’s idiotic version of space marines. Jarhead IS a Marine movie; it’s painfully accurate to corps life at that time.

    I know the OP has specific definitions for the types of movies, but they’re wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Forgive my tone, but this old jarhead can’t take such heresy less than a week before the Corps’ birthday.

    (and you forgot that Battleship is a Navy movie)

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      • Marines aren’t soldiers. Marines are Marines. Full Metal Jacket BOTH halves is a Marine movie because it’s about Marines. A Marine movie is a movie with Marines doing Marine shit. That’s all. I realize that the OP’s qualification is infantry=Army, and I’m saying that’s wrong.
        If his classification was naval combat movies and ground combat movies, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. But don’t label Marine movies as Army. If it feels true to you, it’s because you’re a civilian (there’s nothing wrong with that). If I seem a bit fanatical, it’s because jarheads tend to be fanatical about being jarheads.

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        • FWIW, my dad was a career US Navy chaplain, spending about half his career with the Marines. This is to say, I grew up around Marines, including my high school years. A agree with Jason. Marines and Army are not the same. Obviously they do a lot of the same things, but the attitude is different.

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        • I’m asking because as a civilian I would like to understand the differentiation. Not because you seemed fanatical.

          I guess I read the OP as more about the genre of movie that we might call “Army” vs. “Marine” since the idea that there really are different genres of military movies. But you’re saying that no matter what, if it’s Marines, it’s Marines, and that transcends genre I can completely understand that.

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  10. This is a pretty astonishingly narrow and, well, flat out ignorant survey of war films. Moreover, despite beginning with “all eras”, it seems limited to about 40 years.

    Red October and Down Periscope? Unreal. There are more submarine genre films than almost any other type of war film. Sure, just ignore entries #1 and #2 in any serious critical examination: Run Silent, Run Deep, and The Enemy Below. You mention Down Periscope, a submarine comedy that was a critical bomb and barely better than that financially, but somehow forget to mention the #2 hit of 1959, which was a far better (if silly) comedy that also involved some warfare around the edges. Even if you limit yourself to new movies, there’s no mention of the all-star (and decent, if not great) Crimson Tide and U-571. If you couldn’t think of any of those movies, while offering up Down Periscope as the only tolerable offering, I’m not sure you’re qualified to be writing on this topic.

    Air Force Movies: don’t interest me as much, but certainly Twelve O’clock High and The Dam-Busters are excellent combat films about essential air force strategy during WWII.

    Honestly, anyone looking for advice would be better served by the Internet Movie DB than this piece.

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    • Crimson Tide is unmitigated dreck.

      The classic films of WW2 era (and more or less immediately after, like Run Silent Run Deep) are serviceable, but not great, and suffer the limitations of their time (i.e. both the genre conventions and last gasp of the studio system)

      U-571 is basically all made up, but is not terrible. (But it’s not great either).

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      • This purports to be an actual survey of American films of a particular genre. If the author didn’t like those movies, then he’s welcome to state his opinion, but it’s undisputed that Run Silent, Run Deep and The Enemy Below have far higher status than any movie he mentioned, and he clearly doesn’t know or doesn’t mention these older, better films.

        As for you, who like the author mentions Down Periscope as a good sub movie, while thinking the older movies serviceable but not great, well, please don’t advise anyone on movies without saying “Look, it must be said that I have absolutely no discernable critical expertise and very little understanding of what makes a good movie and no critics agree with me–so now that I think of it, don’t take my advice, go look up reviews on IMDB.”

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  11. They could make a movie about my cousin, Heinz Eck, who commanded U-852. A book was written about his trial and another book was based on what happened to his boat.

    Of course I think the fault for his fate lies entirely with the Kriegsmarine for not training U-boat crews in desert cavalry tactics, which turned out to be a catastrophic oversight. In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious that German submariners trying to stop the Allied war effort would at some point be up against screaming Somalis on camels.

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  12. Has anyone here seen The Last Ship? I’d consider it a Navy TV show. Not a realistic one, for sure, but a lot of detail about the ship. It’s more a Navy / sci-fi / post-apocalyptic / zombie / spy thriller. I could probably add a few more genres if I thought about it.

    The Hunt for Red October was a Navy movie, in that Tom Clancy respected the whole crew in their specialties and their ability to work together, which is a Navy way of thinking. The Last Ship does the same thing.

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  13. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea wasn’t a very good movie, but the TV series based on it worked fairly well if you ignore the St. Patrick’s Day episode where the boat gets taken over by a leprechaun. It was set in the future, the 1970s or 1980s. I think it had a successful sequel, Star Trek. I can only think of a few other submarine movies, mostly from World War II, like We Dive at Dawn and Destination Tokyo.

    There are many good navy movies like The Cruel Sea, Sink the Bismark, Convoy, and In Which We Serve. Can we throw in Master and Commander or Horatio Hornblower, and, if we can, what about all those pirate / privateer movies not starring Johnny Depp?

    One reason for a modern dearth of movies in other branches is that the infantry is perhaps the last military branch where soldiers get close enough to even see other soldiers. A modern air battle consists of a pilot noticing something on a display, adjusting course, pressing a button, then adjusting course again. The target is way too far to be seen with the naked eye. Top Gun was fantasy.

    A modern sea battle is similar. I knew a guy in the Navy ROTC back in the 1970s. He said that all the action was hundreds of miles away and thank goodness for it. Look at the Falklands. Either it’s hundreds of miles away or it takes a fraction of a second and you don’t get to see it.

    Submarines are worse. No one sees anything.

    There are no great artillery movies either for the same obvious reason. It’s reload, dial in some coordinates, protect your ears, fire, then do it again.You could make a movie about an artillery spotter. Of course, in Vietnam, you quickly learned not to look like an artillery spotter lest some Vietcong saw you with a radio and a map at the same time. That’s how you got your name on that wall.

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      • Over a decade ago I wrote a long series of articles on the physics of space combat, starting with the basics of whether ships will try to outmaneuver each other, or whether they’ll just slug it out. That really boils down to whether dodging incoming shots, or denying an opportunity for a good shot, is an effective strategy. Then it went on into the physics of projectiles, missiles, and beam weapons, and concluded that beam weapons will win once the primary lens or mirror of the weapon gets several feet in diameter.

        After that, the ships with the biggest primary mirrors win because they can focus enough laser energy to almost fry their own reflective coating on a spot that’s smaller than their primary diameter, specifically the reflective coatings on the enemy’s beam weapons. The ranges get absurdly large and no projectile (missile or space fighter) has a prayer of survival within those ranges without some clever tricks involving grazing angles, where they’d reflect 100% of the light that’s incoming along a line (needle pointed ships) or a plane (knife pointed ships). Having counter-rotating nested hulls also helped with burn-through.

        It was a fun series to write, and as I checked my blog visitor stats and IP traces, I saw that for weeks I was having a half dozen simultaneous reads from the US Air Force Academy. I guess that makes sense because I did cover missile and beam combat pretty thoroughly and very clearly, from first principles.

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  14. I can’t remember the name of the movie and can’t spare the time to look it up, but there was a pretty good movie with Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens as a U.S. destroyer captain and a German sub commander, and the chess game they played stalking each other.

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    • “The Enemy Below,” which has a lot in common with “The Bedford Incident” (Richard Widmark vs. Soviet sub). Destroyer versus sub and more drama than action in both, but if memory serves, both were pretty good.

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    • Yes, I mentioned The Enemy Below in my comment. It’s low budget, but considered excellent. It’s also the basic plot of one of the best original Star Trek episodes, Balance of Terror. The Bedford Incident isn’t terrible, but it’s not in the class of Enemy Below and Run Silent, Run Deep.

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