While the best submarine movies span several decades, there's definitely a trend with many of them being produced during the Cold War, when the USSR was seen as more of an enemy. People were building bomb shelters and watching movies in the theaters that fed their fears.
A Typical Submarine Movie
The typical submarine movie is more like a disaster film than a war film. There is always some type of catastrophic event, and many times the Russians feature prominently in this, if not the Germans. They are almost always dramas, if not science fiction, save for a few comedies along the way, such as Operation Petticoat.
The Best Submarine Movies
The following is a list of the best submarine movies, the ones that always come to mind when this specific film genre is mentioned:
- Operation Pacific (1951) - Submarine Forces Commander, Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, was a technical adviser to this film. in the film, after the skipper of the USS Thunderfish is killed, Lieutenant Commander Duke Gifford (John Wayne) takes over command of the submarine.
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) - Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre star in this classic story originally told by Jules Verne. This is the only science fiction film to be produced by Walt Disney himself. They're on a search for a sea monster.
- The Enemy Below (1957) - The captain of an American destroyer escort and the commander of a German U-boat are locked in a battle. Robert Mitchum stars in this film that won an Oscar for special effects.
- Operation Petticoat (1959) - Blake Edwards directed this comedy that uses flashbacks to show the troubles a fictional American submarine, the USS Sea Tiger, faced. Cary Grant and Tony Curtis starred in this film that was turned into a series in 1977. The series starred John Astin.
- Up Periscope (1959) - This drama is based on the Robb White novel, and focused on a Navy frogman who has to report to duty without being able to tell his new girlfriend he's leaving. James Garner starred, with Alan Hale, Jr. (Gilligan's Island) co-starring.
- Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) - A science fiction film, the story follows a nuclear submarine, Seaview, in the Arctic Ocean. While the submarine is under the Arctic ice cap, the ice starts to melt and huge pieces begin crashing around the underwater craft. Frankie Avalon sang the theme song.
- The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) - James Bond is sent to investigate when British and Soviet ballistic missile submarines disappear. Roger Moore stars in his third turn as Bond, and Barbara Bach co-stars as Anya Amasova.
- 1941 (1979) - Steven Spielberg directed this comedy that's loosely based on real incidents that occurred just after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd star in their first movie together, one year before The Blues Brothers.
- Das Boot (1981) - The title means "The Boat" in German, and was made in Germany, although originally it was shopped around to American actors. Robert Redford was originally set to star until it was shelved because of disagreements, and later it was to star Paul Newman, but was shelved again, this time because of technical difficulties.
- The Abyss (1989) - James Cameron wrote and directed this science fiction film about an American ballistic missile submarine that sinks after it crashes into a submerged object. Soviet ships arrive and try to salvage it. Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn star.
- The Hunt for Red October (1990) - Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin star in this film version of the Tom Clancy novel by the same name. Baldwin stars as the popular Jack Ryan character, and Connery's character is the commanding officer of a new Soviet submarine, Red October.
- Crimson Tide (1995) - As with many of the submarine films, this takes place during a time of political turmoil in the Russian Federation, with a threat of a launch of missiles aimed at the United States and Japan. Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman star.
- U-571 (2000) - The winner of a sound editing Academy Award, this film had an all-star cast including Matthew McConaughey and Jon Bon Jovi. The US Navy, disguising themselves, boards a World War II submarine with intentions of capturing a machine used for secret messages.
An End to Submarine Movies?
While submarine movies are still being produced, they don't seem to do as well in the theater. This post-Cold War period, one without the Communist paranoia, just doesn't feed as well on submarine movies as they did during the Cold War.