Sunday, January 19, 2014

MM Movie Review: Submarine Attack

“La Grande Speranza” (‘The Great Hope’) or in the English dubbed version, “Submarine Attack” or “Torpedo Zone” is a 1955 World War II naval drama about an Italian submarine in the North Atlantic on a standard war patrol but which, in the course of sinking Allied ships, collects a diverse group of survivors. It is a simple tale, well told (though the English dubbing leaves much to be desired and is best in the original Italian) with a very straightforward story. That is, if one can call it a “story” at all. There is not much to it really, however, it means to convey a simple message in a more subtle fashion, a message about war and peace and, as the original title indicates, a message of hope for the world that the problems between nations can be overcome. It was directed by Duilio Coletti and stars Lois Maxwell as British Lt. Lily Donald (the only woman in the film) who would go on to play Miss Moneypenny in fourteen 007 films, Renato Baldini as the Italian submarine captain (we are never told his name) and Folco Lulli as Nostromo, the First Mate. The film opens with a dedication to the men who lost their lives in the 91 Italian submarines that went to sea in World War II and never returned. We are also told at the outset that what follows is a true story, which it is, however not exactly. The events portrayed did occur but happened on various Italian subs at various times.
The submarine where our film takes place
We start with a submarine making an underwater attack on a freighter and then surfacing to pick up survivors. One man is injured, another is a very bellicose French resistance fighter and the other is a British woman, Lt. Lily Donald who, we learn later, is a war widow, having lost her fiancé at Tobruk at the hands of the Italians of course. Frenchie would be happy to get tossed back in the ocean and die for his country, but they are taken below and added to the collection of survivors the sub has already accumulated in the course of their war patrol. There is a British author of some note named Mr. Steiner who acts as spokesman, a Black American named Johnny Brown from Texas, a Dutch merchant captain and a rather odd, mercenary type fellow from South America. Everyone seems fine with their presence, though at least one Italian sailor notes that for every survivor taken on, the amount of breathable air decreases when the boat is forced to remain submerged due to enemy attack. Still, they all make the best of it and the survivors are not very restricted at all, conversing with the crew and being allowed to come up on deck for fresh air when on the surface.
The captain of the sub
Next night, the captain spots a ship, a large, armed, troop transport and the sub dives to make an underwater attack. However, when the torpedoes miss the captain decides to surface and take on the enemy vessel in an old-fashioned gunfight. They about have the ship finished off when aircraft appear and join in attacking the submarine. One of the Italians is hit by machinegun fire from an airplane but rather than being taken below, he insists on staying on deck to watch the captain sink the enemy vessel which is finally mortally wounded. As soon as he hears this, the wounded sailor passes away and as the captain gives the order to dive to safety, his body must be left behind. However, their diving planes have been damaged and are jammed in diving position, causing the sub to plunge deeper and deeper toward the limit when the water pressure will crush the hull like an empty tin can. Internal communications fail and all the while the Allied aircraft are continued to drop bombs on their position. They plummet deeper and deeper and blowing all ballast tanks and all auxiliary tanks has no effect. However, at the last minute, the diving planes are repaired and the boat is able to come to the surface.
Ready for surface action
We take some time out for some mundane activities, the crew missing home, the survivors dwelling on their state, a man getting a shave and so on. But, the next crisis breaks out when Frenchie attacks one of the Italian sailors and starts messing with the diving equipment in an effort to sink the sub. He is stopped of course and all is put back in order but some, like Lt. Donald asks the captain why the Frenchman was not punished. The captain only says that it is because he would have done the same if the roles had been reversed. After some more quiet time, the crew prepares special decorations and refreshments for Christmas, as a surprise for the captain. There is even a makeshift Christmas tree and some scarce champagne. The captain invites the enemy survivors to join the festivities, feasting, singing Christmas carols and even placing a tiny baby Jesus in a crèche. It is remarked upon, how the war seemed to have stopped and how this assortment of people, British, Italians, Americans and so on, can all get along despite their countries being at war (the Frenchman refuses to participate). This make it seem all the more bewildering when an Allied freighter is spotted and the Italian sailors swing into action to sink it.
Survivors on deck
The singing and dancing come to end as battle stations are manned and torpedoes are prepared. The sub races through the black, stormy night toward the target as the captain says if they can’t sink her before dawn, she will get away. They close in, fire two torpedoes and send the freighter to the bottom. A boat full of survivors finds the sub the next morning, the Italians being alerted to the new arrivals by the barking of a dog that was brought along. The survivors are Danish merchant sailors but the Italian sub has no more room for any more passengers and their lifeboat cannot make the 700 miles to the nearest port. The captain decides to shelter them in the conning tower on deck but warns them that, as unfortunate as it would be, if his submarine is attacked, he will have to submerge and the Danish survivors will be left to their fate. At one point, it looks as though this will happen, but, luckily for the Danes, the Allied warship turns away and the sub can remain on the surface. They make their way across the North Atlantic to the Azores, what the captain calls the “last hope” for the survivors who are exposed to the elements and suffer terribly from the wind and water. The other survivors below have pity on them and volunteer to take their place, rotating in turns below and on deck.
The Captain and Lt. Donald
At last, the submarine arrives at the Azores and the survivors are all put ashore, save for the Frenchman who must be taken back to base as a prisoner of war and the little dog who was given to the Italians by the Danes as a mascot. The Danish captain asks the Italian captain his name so that he can pray for him when he gets home. The Italian captain only replies, “pray for a sailor”. Donald has softened by this time and there is a short, touching moment as she leaves on the last boat to the shore while the Italian sailors stand on the deck of their submarine and wave goodbye before setting out to return to their patrol area and hunt for more Allied ships. Bring up “The End” title card and fade to black
Sailing toward neutral shores
“Submarine Attack” is a pretty humble, little movie. There is not much to it and we never get to know too much about any of the characters really. Again, it is meant to be a simple tale, well told, about humanity coming together in wartime and suggesting that if individuals can get along and remain compassionate even while their countries are at war, then, perhaps, there is hope for humanity after all. The transfer to DVD is not terribly good but it seems unlikely it will get better treatment in the future, being a mostly unknown film. It probably would not appeal to your average viewer and there are the occasional mistakes here and there, however, if one is a submarine enthusiast it is worth seeing simply for the setting. The movie was filmed on an actual Italian submarine of World War II vintage and so, seeing one in action was worth the ‘price of admission’ for me at least. There is probably not enough of a narrative and character work to interest most people, but it was worth it for me since films about the submarines of the Regia Marina are so rare and since the contribution of the Italian submarine force (which took a heavy toll on Allied shipping) is so often forgotten.
Resuming the hunt...

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