Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Morning Departure (1950)

The 1950 British production Morning Departure (released in the US under the excruciating title Operation Disaster) is a  submarine movie but it’s not a war movie. It all takes place during peacetime but it is in my humble opinion the best submarine movie ever made.

The submarine HMS Trojan leaves port early in the morning to take part in a routine exercise. The crew know that they will be home in time for tea. Or at least that’s what they think. What they haven’t counted on is an old wartime mine. The mine explodes and the Trojan sinks in 90 feet of water.

Twelve men survive, trapped in the stricken submarine. There are ways of escaping from a submarine in such circumstances but this turns out to be not so easy as might have been hoped. The submarine has been located and a full-scale rescue operation is mounted. The prospects for the survivors are by no means hopeless, as long as the weather holds and as long as nothing goes wrong with the rescue operation. The weather however may not hold. This will be a race against time.

This is a very British movie. It’s certainly not an action movie. What it lacks in action it more than makes up for in suspense and human drama.

John Mills plays the Trojan’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Armstrong. John Mills seemed to pop up in most British submarine movies, possibly because he was simply so good at playing brave but sympathetic officers.

Richard Attenborough shares top billing, playing Stoker Snipe. Snipe is a submariner who suffers from claustrophobia. It’s the sort of part Attenborough was particularly good at - playing a man who must confront his fears. Nigel Patrick is the Trojan’s First Lieutenant, Lieutenant Manson, a man whose naval career once seemed very bright but has now turned to a kind of melancholy disappointment. James Hayter as Able Seaman Higgins provides some comic relief (which is luckily handled well and not overdone). Bernard Lee (another specialist in naval officer and similar roles) is Commander Gates, in charge of the rescue operation. Look out for Kenneth More in a small part.

While this is not a war movie it did require some moderately ambitious underwater sequences and while it’s not a lavish production it certainly never looks cheap.

While there’s plenty of suspense this is really a character-driven movie. The survivors discover things about themselves, both good and bad. Some react surprisingly well to the crisis while others find that the situation pushes them to the limits and possibly beyond. They are brave men but even the bravest of men can only stand so much.

The always reliable Roy Ward Baker does a fine job as director. The movie was based on a stage play and this combined with the confined setting could have resulted in an excessively talky and static film. It is of course intentionally and necessarily claustrophobic but it never becomes dull.

Shortly before the movie was released there was a real-life British submarine disaster, the loss of HMS Truculent. Consideration was given to withdrawing the movie but it was decided (rightly) to release it as a tribute to the submariners of the Royal Navy.

VCI’s Region 1 DVD offers a very pleasing transfer, with no extras. There is a Region 2 DVD, which I haven’t seen.

Morning Departure is typically low-key in a typically British sort of way. Men do heroic things but they don’t make a song and dance about it. They deal with a terrifying situation as best they can. They are frightened but they do their best to face their fears. Some succeed better than others. There are times when it looks like someone is going to let the side down. They are men, not machines. They struggle to overcome their fears but the actors don’t have to emote all over the decks to convey these inner struggles. Richard Attenborough gets a bit edgy, as he usually did, but he doesn’t overdo it. He knows how far to go. This is a well-made well-written film about men who may be facing death and it makes its points quietly and effectively. Highly recommended.

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