1930s, 4/4, John Ford, Review, War

Submarine Patrol

Submarine Patrol (1938) - IMDb

#7 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.

I’ve found the Today We Live of John Ford’s body of work. Mired with a 5.9 out of 10 rating at the IMDb, the last little movie Ford made before the public is really cognizant of his work with Stagecoach, it’s a hidden gem, a wonderful film of love in the time of war while also a surprisingly cohesive ensemble piece at the same time. This is a complete package of a film, exciting, moving, and really quite endearing. That it’s forgotten and diminished status is a small travesty of justice. Submarine Patrol is a great film.

Perry Townsend (Richard Greene) is a rich playboy who decides that he’s going to join up with the navy during World War I in order to do his civic duty. He’s beset with dreams of high command out of the gate because of his connections through his father, and he gets what he wants in becoming Chief Engineer (he does have a mechanical background as shown in a very small early moment) of a submarine chaser, SC 599, a wooden vessel designed to hunt German U-boats. This particular vessel is the exact kind of motely crew of interesting side characters that Ford loved to include so much, and they don’t have a captain. It’s a disaster of a ship, and in walks Captain John Drake (Preston Foster), disgraced for having run his previous command aground and effectively demoted at his court martial. Drake is determined to turn his career back around by proving himself worthy of the navy once again, walking on deck of SC 599 and immediately whipping it into shape.

At the same time, Perry has met Susan Leeds (Nancy Kelly), daughter of the captain (George Bancroft) of the Maria Ann, a merchant vessel transporting munitions across the Atlantic. Perry falls for Susan, markedly different from the socialites he often spends his time with (one of which accompanies him to the naval yard when he first signs up and quickly goes on a date with a security guard), and yet Captain Leeds is decided against it. Perry is a playboy who tries to ply young girls with champagne, desiring to take advantage of them at the first opportunity in Leeds’ eyes, and Perry cannot convince him otherwise.

Both SC 599 and the Maria Ann are sent in the same convoy from America to Europe where, in the middle of the Atlantic, the motely crew just beginning to understand martial discipline under Drake encounter their first submarine, and this sequence was where I realized I was watching something special, not just good. The hunt for the submarine that launches a torpedo at them is tense, done at night, and the sort of quasi-German expressionistic visually, the style that had begun to influence Ford’s work a few years earlier. And then, when the crew succeeds and sinks the German U-boat, the crew is quiet. One leans over to another and asks, “Shouldn’t we be cheering?” And the other replies, “No.” The crew then somberly salutes their captain who made their survival possible. This isn’t a gung ho celebration of war. This is a movie that understands the human aspect of war in a mature way that it refuses to beat the audience over the head with the idea at the same time.

Of course, in a Ford film there can’t be constant somber reflections on things. His bevy of side characters are designed to lighten moods, and that’s just what they do. This crew of misfits, all decidedly third level players in this drama, have good times on and off the boat that allow for a full feeling of life on the chaser as well as allowing a lighter tone at important points. There are other small characters, like the waiter in an Italian hotel who cries at both being very happy and very sad, providing some nice levity in the scene where Perry proposes to Susan, a scene torn apart by Captain Leeds barging in and breaking up the happy affair, still convinced that Perry is just out for a quick good time with his daughter.

The finale of the film has SC 599 going on a voluntary mission to find the port of a notorious U-boat that’s sunk dozens of Allied ships. It’s the kind of wonderful coming together of so many plot threads that Ford pulled off so often with Captain Leeds, having found out that Perry really did intend to marry Susan, rushing to SC 599 to let Perry know he’d been wrong, Perry reacting badly just at the sight of the man and knocking him out to the point where the ship accidentally takes him along. The civilian captain joins the crew with little choice other than jumping off and swimming back to shore, joining Perry in the engine room, and this is where the movie kind of kicked into high gear for me.

The tension of SC 599 working through the fog, navigating the mine field at night, is marvelously tense as characters we’ve grown to know and like risk themselves for a greater cause. At the same time, Leeds is standing next to Perry, helping with the engines, and realizing the character of the man who wishes to marry his daughter, mostly done with no dialogue, the sea change in Leeds’ outlook being apparent just at how he holds himself. And then the action starts, and it’s quick, fierce, and clear, using a mixture of techniques to tell the story of the attack. Afterwards, the movie moves towards the obvious conclusion but sidesteps it slightly into something even sweeter.

Now, I’m kind of picky about ensemble pieces, feeling that those who just decide to have a whole bunch of characters without anything to really bring them together save for basic plot mechanics are frustrating experiences. The cast of Submarine Patrol is so large with such a bevy of side characters, that I feel like it does qualify, especially when considering the character of Drake. The main character of this film is definitely Perry, but Drake provides a really important framing element. His efforts to prove himself worthy of command again create, essentially, the plot of the film. He leads the men into battle. He leads them into the secret, voluntary mission to destroy the terror sub. And what makes him so satisfying to me, beyond Foster’s performance, is that his efforts to prove himself mirror Perry’s efforts to prove himself to his proposed bride, potential father-in-law, and to the navy as a whole. They compliment each other, creating a satisfying cohesion among elements that elevates what’s going on.

I absolutely love this movie. It’s a bit of a travesty that it seems to have been completely forgotten. The actors are uniformly professional and good, with Greene carrying himself well as he navigates the move from flippant playboy to quality sailor. Nancy Kelly is pretty but also strong and convincing as Susan, fighting for what she wants in the face of her father’s obstinance. Foster is the rock on which the overall plot is built, and he carries himself really well.

This is really something special, and I highly encourage others to discover it for themselves.

Rating: 4/4

5 thoughts on “Submarine Patrol”

  1. “Perry is a playboy who tries to ply young girls with champagne, desiring to take advantage of them at the first opportunity in Leeds’ eyes, and Perry cannot convince him otherwise.”

    I see Leeds knows Navy men…

    Jah, I gotta check this one out too. Where is it available at? Amazon doesn’t seem to have it.


    1. I’m finding a shocking amount of these on YouTube despite them being under copyright.

      I think it’s because Disney really doesn’t care at all about the Fox library they spent billions of dollars on.


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