#25 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
John Ford had little good to say about this movie decades after the fact, and I think he simply hadn’t seen it or even thought of it for years. His experience was colored by one particular and unprofessional actress that was forced upon him, and he couldn’t see anything else. I’ll grant him that the actress in question (Marion Lessing) is quite simply not very good on screen (I, of course, can’t comment on her professionalism on set), but there so much more around her within the film that’s worthwhile. There’s a visual sophistication, narrative completeness, and thematic interest that comes together to make a surprisingly good film.
It’s The Great War and the American navy has developed a plan to counter the dangerous German U-boat off the Spanish coast, U-172 captained by the notorious commander Baron Ernst von Steuben (Henry Victor). The navy sends a three-master schooner with an American submarine alongside to act as bait for the German sub. Captained by Commander Bob Kingsley (George O’Brien), they have a hidden series of guns on ship, and they’re off to attract some attention.
They arrive in port in Spain, a port well-known as a haven for U-172, and dock. With instructions to avoid hard liquor and fraternizing with women, Bob sends his men out to make themselves known. He quickly meets Anna Marie (Lessing), and he begins to fall for her. She has a secret, though. She’s German by birth and engaged to a German naval lieutenant, sent to investigate the Americans as a spy. She’s also sister to Ernst von Steuben. At the same time, the young officer Dick Cabot (Steve Pendleton) who had previously proved his mettle by saving the sailing master after he had fallen into the water, becomes enamored with another woman, Lolita (Mona Maris). She’s also a spy (this time of Spanish origin, but working for the Germans), and she gets Cabot drunk in order to figure out who these Americans actually are. Time becomes a factor, and Bob needs to get the ship out of dock and back into the water, but Cabot is missing. With promises that he’ll come back for Cabot, Bob heads out with the rest of his crew.
I’ve really gotten to know Ford for three major things. The first was his ability to build a sequence, the second was his affinity for interesting side characters, and the third was for his focus on communities of men. All end up playing out really well in this film’s final half hour.
Cabot sneaks onto a German sailing ship that goes out to refuel the U-boat, sabotaging the sailing vessel as best he can, eventually causing enough damage to sink her. Anna Marie is on the vessel as well, and the Americans pick her up as well as Cabot’s dead body floating in the water. The Americans, with grim dedication because of the loss of their compatriot, lay their trap and wait for the U-boat to surface and attempt to take the ship, creating a scene of chaos on deck as though they were just a merchant marine vessel, all setup for the final confrontation between the American submarine hiding and prepping for a torpedo strike on the unsuspecting U-boat.
It’s one of Ford’s better endings. There’s a lot going on, though I feel like the submarine crew in general gets shortchanged. We see them really only once near the beginning, being more of a MacGuffin than another crew. Still, the focus is on the men facing danger in the service together on Bob’s ship, and the camaraderie is strongly presented. Bob is like a father figure over the men, looking up to him and his leadership with complete trust. The men feel real loss at the news of Cabot’s death and sacrifice, and they face battle together as men, as a group of individuals all fighting for the same cause.
On top of the narrative strengths, there are surprisingly strong visual elements. There’s a great shot that introduces the large gun hidden on the deck of the ship near the beginning. The façade of a shed falls down, revealing the large gun, and the men crowd around it, automatically beginning to paw at it. The camera remains stationary as one turns the gun with the wheel, eventually getting the gun to point directly, and in focus, at the camera. There are also a couple of shots done by cameras tied down to the hulls of submarines as they raise out of the water. The limitations on sound design of the early talkie era were still evident, but editing and sound on set created a much more cohesive sound scape across scenes.
In terms of performances, O’Brien carries the film. An old hat of John Ford productions, having starred in several including The Iron Horse, Ford’s first real epic film, he’s confident and strong. He delivers a naturalistic performance that avoids any kind of fake posturing. However, it’s very true that Marion Lessing is pretty bad. Her German sounds good, but ultimately she’s stilted and simply outclassed by the actual actors around her. She may have been pretty, but it’s no real surprise that her career ended up going nowhere.
This is a strong film, a story of men at war and their loyalty to each other. Ford uses his established working relationship with O’Brien to come up with a solid emotional anchor point while finding ways to make the interesting side characters help in good support instead of stealing the spotlight. The lack of focus on the submarine crew and the unfortunate performance by Lessing drag it down a bit, but not enough to completely undermine the film.