• German U-boat captain Werner Hartenstein (Ken Duken) gets ready for some submarining. (BBC)Source: BBC
As 'The Sinking Of The Laconia' sets sail on SBS On Demand, we try to fathom out why submarine movies always float to the top.
10 Apr 2017 - 10:32 AM  UPDATED 12 Apr 2017 - 2:58 PM

When Sean Connery was nominated for a best actor BAFTA award for The Hunt for Red October, many were aghast. Granted, he may have been nominated for being Sean Connery, but his lack of effort in conquering the Russian accent is still made fun of to this day. Yet he was still nominated. Why? Because he was in a submarine movie! And people love submarine movies!

But what is it about the action flick sub-genre that puts sets pulses racing? Why should everyone watch The Sinking of the Laconia, now streaming on SBS On Demand? Sweaty men, often covered in oil, fighting for their lives at the depths of the ocean within the confines of an aquatic death machine? That would do it. It’s the claustrophobia that drives the tension.

Submarines are not a pleasant place to be. Cramped, hot and dirty; the unpleasant environs are made worse by the fact that the enemy is often attacking from the surface. Add a rough and ready crew led by a gruff, but caring, commander who will use fox-like cunning to save the day. The template for submerged movie success is becoming clear through the murky depths. It’s man against the elements in a submerged metal coffin!

The Citizen Kane of claustrophobic WWII submarine-based action movies is Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. The epic adaptation from 1981 of Lothar-Günther Buchheim's German novel of the same name perfectly explores the excitement and tedium of life in a submarine.

The director called on consultants, who had served in submarines in conflict, to produce an authentic depiction of the horrors of aquatic war. One of Petersen's aims was to guide the audience through "a journey to the edge of the mind" and depict "what war is all about". He succeeded. Starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer and Klaus Wennemann, Das Boot is an exhilarating example of tension-building and a brutal condemnation of war.

Crimson Tide, directed by the late great Tony Scott, stars Gene Hackman as Captain Frank Ramsey, commander of the US Navy nuclear submarine USS Alabama. His executive officer Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) is trained in military tactics but has no experience in action.

When the captain is ordered to fire nuclear missiles at a Russian nuclear facility during a failed radio transmission, he decides to press the button. EO Hunter does not agree, believing the message also included a retraction of the order.

Cue a battle of wits as beads of sweat trickle down foreheads. Should they launch or not? The mounting tension between Ramsey and Hunter is thrilling. Raging passions pent up within the confines of the submarine are ready to explode - there is no escape. Everyone is affected.

These firecracker acting scenes are exactly why Hollywood’s A-listers have happily dipped their toe into the ocean. U-571 starred Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi; the ridiculously named K-19: The Widowmaker attracted Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson; Black Sea boasted Jude Law in its cast and Alec Baldwin, James Earl Jones and Sam Neill joined the aforementioned Scot in The Hunt for Red October.

Pitch Black director David Twohy’s Below took the submarine actioner and gave it a horror twist. As scary as life in a submarine is already, especially when the Germans are above dropping depth charges and fishing for you with giant hooks, the filmmakers threw in a ghost to haunt the shadowy confines of the US submarine. The creaks and groans of the walls of the submarine fighting against the ocean pressure only add to the scary fun.

Disney’s 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea had a scary sea monster that turned out to be a submarine helmed by James Mason’s Captain Nemo. The art-deco submarine, the Nautilus, rammed ships to wreak revenge upon a cruel unforgiving world.

The last time Nemo and his ship appeared on the silver screen was Stephen Norrington’s much-maligned The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel. That film was headlined by a certain Sean Connery as Allan Quatermain - the very actor who butchered the Russian accent in The Hunt for Red October.

That adaptation of Tom Clancy’s best-seller is one of the quintessential submarine movies. Set during the late Cold War, Connery played a rogue Soviet naval captain who wished to defect to the United States with his crew and the Soviet Navy's newest Typhoon series submarine.

Baldwin played Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who must broker the deal and avoid WWIII. It’s tense, action-packed and gripping, everything you want from a submarine movie, and Connery revelled in the conflict.

Maybe he deserved that nomination after all.

Submarine drama The Sinking of Laconia is streaming now on SBS On Demand:

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