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Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Atomic Submarine

There was more to 50s science fiction than just rockets and outer space. The nuclear powered submarine was also a hot new technology. The deep sea was mysterious too. Irving Block and Jack Rabin's short story focused on the nuclear sub. The screenplay for Atomic Submarine (AS) turned out to be more of hybrid between horror, sci-fi invasion tale, and the traditional submarine movie genres. Having the effects men from Forbidden Planet, Block and Rabin, helped, but could not completely compensate for the low budget. It seems fitting that the last sci-fi movie of the 1950s was an alien invasion tale. The plot had become stereotypic. A flying saucer and monster-like alien plot the invasion of Earth (surrogates for the earthly enemy Americans already feared).

Quick Plot Synopsis
Ships are being lost, mysteriously, all around the arctic. The US Navy sends its most advanced nuclear sub, the Tigershark, to investigate. Tensions mount as an outspoken anti-war scientist is assigned to the mission. Dr. Nielson is the expert handler for the small experiment explorer sub "Lungfish," for examining seabed evidence. More ships are lost. The crew figure out that the sinkings happen within 1000 miles of the pole. They wait at a gap in the line. They get high energy readings and see a lone light moving underwater. They can see that it is a saucer craft, but are never able catch it. More ships lost. Nielson theorizes that the saucer must return to the pole after each attack to recharge its batteries from the Earth's magnetic field. They position themselves between the last sinking and the pole. when the saucer comes, they try to torpedo it, but this fails. Desperate not to have the saucer outrun them again, they ram it. The bow of Tigershark gets stuck in the saucer's hull. The saucer appears damaged, but is still able to move slowly towards the pole. Nielson thinks it will recharge and escape. With little time left, a crew of five man Lungfish to attempt to cut Tigershark free. At the saucer, they find it has air inside. In the dark and spooky interior, the two frogmen work to free the sub, but die of melting. Commander Holloway hears a voice calling him on. He comes to a dome structure with a tentacled cycloptic alien inside. The alien is studying earth for possible invasion. Holloway shoots the alien in its big eye and runs. He and Nielson return in Lungfish. The alien heals himself. Tigershark pulls free. They pursue the saucer and arm an missile. The saucer breaks free of the ice and zooms toward space. The missile follows, finally finding its target. Earth is saved. Light banter ensues. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
There is a charm in the old fashioned invading-alien-monster-in-a-saucer story. The mixture with the war-movie flavor (submarine setting) is different. Rabin and Block's models add some interest. The minimalist interior of the saucer (pitch black except for lit ramps and catwalks) has a German impressionist feel to it.

Cold War Angle
Aside from the mere presence of a nuclear powered and nuclear armed submarine billed as the "deadliest in the fleet," there is the subdued "moral" to the tale. In the end, even the anti-war advocate has his eyes opened to the very real menace "out there." In the end, it is American military weaponry that nips the threat in the bud. Even the pacifist concedes the value in having brave men with strong weapons to deal with the threat. In the 50s sci-fi tradition, the alien is a stand-in for the feared communist hoards plotting to invade our Eden. Our troops and our nukes will protect us. Rest assured.

Inspired by the Headlines -- In July 1958, America's first atomic submarine, USS Nautilus, made the first ever transit under the North Pole's arctic ice. This accomplishment was a two-edged sword. If WE could send a sub under the arctic ice, then so could THEY. While the topic was still hot, Allied Artists wanted to push out a quick atomic submarine movie. Shooting took less than two weeks.

Proto-Voyage -- Two years before Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, AS featured a very advanced nuclear sub, equipped with a mini-sub, and scientists aboard, all engaged in the wonders (and dangers) of the deep. Toho Studios would put out Kaitei Gunkan (Undersea Warship) in 1963 as a third super-sub movie (AIP releasing it in America in 1965 under the title of Atragon). Atragon was more fantastic. Voyage had a much bigger budget and is much better remembered, but AS was the first of the super-subs.

Cargo Subs -- A fascinating detail, easily lost in the action, was the notion of cargo-carrying submarines. In the 50s, nuclear power was imagined to be so cheap as to make the idea seem economically feasible. Trade routes under the polar ice could open markets and reduce costs. The idea was new. In 1916, the Germans dabbled with cargo submarines to evade the British blockade during WWI. The Deutschland was one of two built. Since America was the big customer for German goods, the entry of the US into the war in 1917 put an end to submarine cargo runs.

Ship, Heal Thyself -- The notion of a ship as a semi-lving thing, which can heal itself, was unusual, but entirely new. The Devil Girl from Mars (1953) had a ship that could repair itself, given enough time and raw material. Still, self-healing ships were fairly rare yet.

Hawk vs. Dove -- Dr. Nielson Jr. (played by Brett Halsey) is portrayed as the anti-war idealist. Commander Holloway (Arthur Franz), a proud military man. Nielson and Holloway have running debates over the need for nukes. There was a nascent anti-nuclear sentiment, even in the 50s. AS is a sort of rebuttal.. Nielson is a straw man for the pro-nuke faction. The obvious moral to the story is that in the face of an unarguably hostile threat (the alien, and by analogy, the communists), nuclear weapons are necessary.

Bottom line? AS is a B movie in the classic pattern. It has stern narration, ample stock footage and inexpensive sets. it's unusual venue lends interest. For fans of aliens in saucers, threatening to invade Earth, it is a fun variation on the theme. That said, folks who are not fans of 50s B sci-fi, will likely be unimpressed.


Anonymous said...

I saw this at the movies when I was probably only 5 years old. Why they took me to see it I don't know. I can tell you it scared the hell out of me at that time. Seeing the guys being burned up really frightened me. I guess a little child can be impressed by b movies.

Unknown said...

Howdy Folks,

As obscure and low budget as this film is, it is one of my favorites.

As a kid, the scene that bothered me most was not the radiation burning scenes but the sailor trapped in the closing "iris" in the saucer's dome. It gave me the willies.

Well Commander Holloway, you will just have to start a new "black book" to replace the one you lost on the saucer. I hope you still have Joi Lansing's phone number.

Have fun watching this one and remember, the "Eyes" have it.


thingmaker said...

I've always loved this film. I think it's the non-humanoid alien that pushes it over the top for me.
Cargo Subs: It can not be a coincidence that the January 1959 issue of National Geographic had an article titled "The Arctic as a Sea Route of the Future", depicting gigantic nuclear-powered cargo subs like the one shown in the opening sequence of this movie. Article was by the captain of Nautilus.
My only quibble with the movie (I can be pretty easy going about films I love) is that if they knew they were going to use stock footage of real submarines for surface shots - why couldn't they have made the model of the Tiger Shark look like those vessels, at least above the water line?