Friday, March 13, 2015

Above Us the Waves (1955)

Above Us the Waves was made in 1955 and it’s typical of the British war movies of its era - young men doing terribly brave things in a very understated sort of way.

The movie is based on a real-life 1943 naval operation in which British midget submarines tried to sink the German battleship Tirpitz, hiding out in a Norwegian fjord. Access to the fjord seemed just about impossible and the battleship was protected by formidable anti-aircraft defences so any conventional attack would have been difficult.

In the movie version Commander Fraser (John Mills) comes up with the daring plan but his superior Admiral Ryder (James Robertson Justice) thinks it’s a lot of nonsense. Fraser decides there’s only one way to convince the admiral - he carries out a daring raid on the admiral’s own flagship, having his men place dummy charges on the hull of the British battleship. It certainly gets the admiral’s attention and Fraser gets the go-ahead.

The first attempt against the Tirpitz ends in dismal failure when the two-man human torpedoes sink before getting anywhere near the target. The failure does offer the movie the chance to add a fairly exciting sequence as the men have to escape across the mountains into neutral Sweden.

This failure convinces Fraser that the human torpedoes are unworkable but now he has a much better plan - they will attack the Tirpitz with four-man “X-craft” midget submarines. The three X-craft (including X-1 commanded by Fraser himself) will be towed across the North Sea by ordinary submarines and will then have to work their way through the numerous obstacles to reach the German battleship and place their charges. There’s plenty of suspense as lots of things go wrong but Fraser and his men are determined to press their attack.

The miniatures work is quite good and the action sequences, while not offering the kind of adrenalin-charged excitement that would become standard in 1960s movies in this genre, are fairly convincing.

It seemed to be a rule that if you were going to make a British submarine adventure film at that time you had to have John Mills as the star. Which is no problem because he was exceptionally good at these types of roles. He was a long way from being what modern audiences would think of as an action hero but he managed to convey quiet determination and understated courage extremely well and makes a convincing leader of the type who leads by example and by understanding the frailties of human nature.

There’s a fine supporting cast of the kinds of reliable British character actors who abounded in those days. Donald Sinden and John Gregson play the commanders of X-2 and X-3. James Robertson Justice of course has no difficulty whatsoever playing the crusty but sympathetic Admiral Ryder.

One nice feature is the avoidance of the usual evil Nazi stereotypes. The captain of the Tirpitz, played by O. E. Hasse, is a decent man who regards his British adversaries as brave men who are doing their duty.

The DVD from ITV Studios Home Entertainment is barebones but offers a good transfer. And it’s ridiculously cheap!

Above Us the Waves has plucky British lads doing things that are not only terribly dangerous but terribly top-secret and hush-hush as well. The whole concept is the sort of hare-brained scheme that appealed to the British, and sometimes even worked.

If you enjoy the low-key style of British war movies of the 50s and 50s then you’re practically certain to enjoy this one. Highly recommended.

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