Sunday, June 11, 2017

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

I have a considerable fondness for submarine movies. We Dive at Dawn is a very decent example of the breed. It was a wartime production, released in 1943, and so there’s an obvious propaganda element (all of the British sailors are incredibly brave) but it has some definite compensating strengths. 

The submarine HMS Sea Tiger, commanded by Lieutenant Taylor (John Mills) has just returned from an unsuccessful cruise and her crew are looking forward to seven days’ leave. They’re not going to get it. They get a single day and then they’re immediately sent off on a highly dangerous and super-secret mission - to intercept and sink the brand new German battleship Brandenburg.

The film gets off to a slow start. The first twenty minutes or so follows the various crew members ashore on their very truncated leave. One is supposed to be getting married. One is trying to put his broken marriage back together. As for the captain, he’s hoping to get to see as many of his numerous girlfriends as he possibly can. This introductory materials serves its purpose of giving us an insight into the various characters even if it drags just a little.

Things pick up once they’re at sea and on the trail of the Brandenburg. The plan goes awry but rather than giving up Lieutenant Taylor comes up with an even more daring and dangerous plan - to break through into the Baltic, running the gauntlet of anti-submarine nets, minefields, the Luftwaffe and most of the German Navy. They do catch up to the German battleship, but whether they can succeed in sinking it or not is another matter.

Things gets even better in the final half-hour. The Sea Tiger’s fuel is exhausted and surrender seems to be the only option but instead a much bolder and much crazier idea occurs to our submariners - why not raid a port in German-occupied Denmark and steal the fuel they need? The movie now becomes an action-packed shoot ’em up extravaganza as they end up taking on half the German Army. The whole film is well made but this final segment is particularly well done.

The Royal Navy, seeing the obvious propaganda potential, lent its enthusiastic support and as a result this is a film that looks and feels surprisingly realistic with a lot of emphasis on how a submarine works and how submarine attacks are carried out.

Of course there are all the usual things you expect in a submarine movie - the tense moments under depth charge attack, the efforts to save the damaged submarine, the cunning plan adopted by her skipper to fool the Germans, etc. These are standard elements in a submarine movie but they’re handled skillfully. 

The tone is of course hyper-heroic. Nobody cracks up under pressure because these are British sailors and Britannia rules the waves. The Germans, perhaps surprisingly, are not portrayed as monsters but as fairly ordinary guys doing their job even if they’re no match for our British heroes.

You can’t go wrong casting John Mills as a British officer. Eric Portman (who shares top billing with Mills) is excellent as the hydrophone operator whose personal life is collapsing about his ears.

It looks pretty good on DVD. The image quality might not be be dazzling but it’s more than acceptable. The Region 2 DVD lacks extras but is fairly inexpensive. 

We Dive at Dawn is perhaps just a bit too heroic and just a bit too sentimental but it’s well-crafted and has some genuinely exciting moments. Recommended, and for submarine movie fans it’s a must-see.

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