Monday, December 25, 2017

Duel in the South Atlantic

I am no expert on war movies, but it has always seemed to me that "The Enemy Below," which premiered on Christmas Day 60 years ago, was the first war movie that really portrayed the opposing combatants equally.

Well, maybe someone told me that way back when, and I just think that I have always thought that.

And maybe it wasn't the first war movie to be sympathetic to both sides — just the first to be that way about World War II.

It didn't draw any conclusions — except that there really was no difference between Robert Mitchum, who played the commander of an American destroyer, and Curt Jurgens, who played the commander of a German U–boat. Their characters were men who were defending their homelands.

They didn't start the war. It wasn't personal. In civilian life, they may or may not have held strong political views. As civilians, they might have liked each other, might have been friends. In war, they had jobs to do, and they did them.

Mitchum's character was newer to the job than Jurgens' was. It was a new command for Mitchum, and he was about as new to the Navy as most of his crew. The destroyer was on patrol but did not anticipate any action.

Jurgens, on the other hand, was a career Navy man whose sacrifices for Germany — two sons — had been considerable over the years. The U–boat was on courier duty and was likewise not expecting any combat.

Nevertheless on the silver screen, the captains and their crews were engaged in a taut thriller in the South Atlantic in which a mistake could be fatal.

They didn't want to think about what they had in common. That would get in the way of what had to be done.

At one point Mitchum remarked, "I have no idea what he is, what he thinks. I don't want to know the man I'm ... trying to destroy."

That's about as blunt as it gets.

(Incidentally, the slogan seen in the submarine — "Führer befiehl, wir folgen" — means "The leader commands, we follow.")

It's become a cliche to label something a cat–and–mouse game, but that is what this was. The analogy is apt.

In "The Enemy Below," both sides kept maneuvering until the final showdown. When the duel had been decided and the two captains caught a glimpse of one another, they exchanged silent salutes. Gestures of mutual respect.

It was that respect, perhaps, that led Mitchum to save the U–boat commander. Later, with the battle behind them, Mitchum's character offered a cigarette to his former adversary, who took it and remarked, "I should have died many times, Captain. But I continue to survive somehow."

Maybe that is what the art of warfare really is — the art of survival.