Sunday, September 25, 2011
The Bedford Incident
Quick Plot Synopsis
Journalist Ben Munceford (Poitier) and Dr. Chester Potter (Martin Balsam) are dropped aboard a US Navy destroyer on patrol in the arctic. As they both go about their different tasks, they both discover that something is oddly different about Captain Finlander (Widmark) and his crew. Finlander is certain there is a Russian submarine sneaking around the waters off Greenland, scouting for nuclear missile launching positions. Eventually, they detect the unseen sub and follow it amid the ice floes, far inside Greenland's territorial waters. Finlander forces the sub to stay submerged, using up its air and batteries. He wants to force it to the surface, as he had to a sub off Cuba years ago. He wants to "catch" the commies red handed. His superiors, however, order him to only watch and wait. This infuriates Finlander. The sub makes a break for the open ocean and slips back into international waters. While all this cat-and-mouse action is going on, Ben slowly exposes Finlander as a driven and somewhat unstable mix of Ahab's obsessiveness and Queeg's paranoia. Potter comes to see the crew as over-stressed and Finlander as an heartless authoritarian. Out in the ocean, Finlander still manages to keep the sub submerged, making the sub commander increasingly desperate. Finlander demands it surface "and be recognized." The sub radios to its mother ship. No answer comes, so the Russian commander is on his own. The sub rises enough to put its air vent up. Finlander has the Bedford charge it and force him back under. The Bedford's crew are on edge, having been at battle stations far too long. At one point, asked why he has his weapons systems armed if he doesn't plan to fire the first shot, Finlander replies, "If he fires one, I'll fire one." Ensign Ralston, often castigated for hesitating, hears "fire one" and pushes the button. The rocket propelled nuclear-warhead torpedo flies off the ship. People scramble to try and send disarm signals, but it's too late. The torpedo finds its mark. Four sonar blips indicate that the Russian commander fired his torpedos too, before he was destroyed. The Bedford cannot evade all four. Still photos of the significant actors each get a melted-film effect. A mushroom cloud rises into the sky. The End.
Where the well-known films in the doom genre dealt with armageddon on a global scale, TBI plays out the same scenario, but in microcosm. The American destroyer Bedford and the Russian sub, nicknamed "Big Red," serve as proxies for the two super powers. The two jockey and maneuver, each armed with nuclear weapons. In a blend of the tropes of the doom genre, both a madman and a mistake cause the mutual doom. The ending, in which the still images of the key players degrade with a melting-film effect, is similar to the ending in Fail Safe. Brinksmaship goes bad. Everyone dies.
Cold War Spotlight
The scenario in TBI is pure Cold War. At the margins of the globe, isolated elements of both sides' military play games of cat and mouse. Yet, it is not mere play. Even small "gains" in the game are seen as national victories. Any loss, no matter how small, is seen as the first domino in the chain to national ruin. Such inflated stakes infuse any loss with a flavor of disaster. Ensign Ralston, then, personified the average soldier. In their microcosm, the Bedford and Big Red play out the doctrine of "Mutually Assured Destruction", and nightmare everyone feared. Somehow, someone would launch the first rocket -- even if by mistake. From there, all hell would break loose. Everyone would die.
Moby Dick II -- TBI is based on a 1963 novel by Mark Rascovich. His story was a Cold War recast of Melville's "Moby Dick". Knowing the classic tale, it's easy to see how Captain Finlander fits the role of Ahab. Journalist Ben Munceford assumes somewhat the role of Ishmael as the audience gets, essentially, his outsider look at everything. The submarine, "Big Red" takes on the role of the white whale, though with none of the destructiveness that the whale was given. In Melville's tale, the whale smashes some ships and kills some men -- almost more out of anger at being hunted than simple malice. In both Rascovich's novel and the screenplay, the Russian sub much more benign than the white whale.
Faceless Foe -- Interesting for a Cold War doom film, the "enemy" remains nameless and faceless. Finlander talks of untrustworthy "commies" and implies the terrible things they would do, but the lone representative of the Evil Empire is almost always unseen. For most of the movie, a sonar ping is the only evidence that there even is a foe. Towards the end, we hear some intercepted Russian radio and see the tip of the periscope. The Russian crew, relentlessly hunted into desperation are cast in an almost sympathetic light. This is unusual for a Cold War doom film.
Wolf On Deck -- Enhancing the sympathetic tone (mentioned above), but complicating things a bit, is the presence of Commodore Schrepke, a German naval officer who had commanded a U-Boat in WWII. We're quickly told that he was not a Nazi, but an officer in Doenitz's navy. (Doenitz being the originator of the "wolf pack" tactic) As the veteran submarine commander, he was Finlander's "native guide" for the hunt. As much as Schrepke might dislike the Russians and be dutiful to his job as a guide, he was clearly torn. His heart was quietly rooting for "Big Red". On several occasions (such as when they almost lost the sub at the iceberg) it was subtly shown that Schrepke wanted the Russians to escape Finlander's relentless (and remorseless) pursuit.
The Button -- TBI plays out one of the scenarios feared during the Cold War. A lower officer, somewhere, would get jittery and by mistake, "push the button." In TBI, this is played out by Ensign Ralston. He is constantly chided by Finlander for not acting quickly enough or obeying orders without question, etc. Near the end of the movie, Ralston is a hair-trigger. When he overhears Finlander say, "…I'll fire one…" he doesn't hesitate. He pushes the button, unleashing the doom of "Big Red" and the Bedford.
Star Gazing -- Look for a young James MacArthur as the stressed-out Ensign Ralston. MacArthur would go on to become the famous Danny, in the TV series Hawaii-5-0, hence the immortal line: "Book 'em Danno." Martin Balsam plays the misfit doctor. Watch for Wally Cox (the voice of Underdog) as the "Radar O'Reiliy"-like sonar man, Merlin Queffle.
Models Ahoy! -- A minor, but notable concession to budget, is that most of the shots of the Bedford as a whole ship, are models in tanks. The icebergs are foam or paper mache. Some actual footage aboard a British destroyer are used, but they're tight shots that mask (pretty much) the differences.
Bottom line? TBI is a well made thriller with great acting too. For some of its tension, it relies on audiences already knowing and fearing a global nuclear war. Viewers without that fear (or understanding of it) could find themselves asking "what's all the fuss over?" Yet, TBI can be a good lesson in Atomic Angst for those trying to understand the zeitgeist of the era. This fear of total destruction underlies many Golden Era sci-fi.