Submarine movies keep box offices afloat

One of Hollywood's better tricks is getting audiences to return to submarine movies again and again, even though by now we all know what happens when a sub dives too deep (think crumpled soda can).

Put a macho leading man and a periscope together in a film and the result is a box office draw that can ensure a studio executive will keep his job for another year.

Americans repeatedly plunk down millions of dollars to see their favorite actors dodge enemy attacks while standing under a leak. The genre is defined of late by flicks like "The Hunt for Red October," "Crimson Tide," and "U-571," which are only a few of the more than 100 sub movies made since 1915. Two more join their ranks this year – "K-19: The Widowmaker," opening this weekend, and "Below," a World War II story slated for the fall.

More tenacious than the trusty Western, the submarine movie even bounces back after easily forgotten entries like Kelsey Grammer's 1996 confection "Down Periscope."

Those familiar with Hollywood say the longevity is related to how much insiders like to make these movies.

"It's more that the filmmakers and the actors are drawn toward the genre than any compelling industry reason," says Frederick Wasser, author of a book on the rise of the home video, "Veni, Vidi, Video."

Directors get to focus on the relationships between people. Actors get to be in movies that focus on the relationships between people. And scriptwriters don't have to deal with characters leaving the scene all the time.

Author Clive Cussler says what makes the underwater setting a good one for storytelling is that it focuses on the human element. "It really relies on the characters more than just the action itself," he says.

Moviegoers return to familiar territory for the action and the unique setting. Ricky Lacy, senior editor at, sums up the appeal of sub movies in a word: "Tension."

"The setting of a submarine movie is a very close environment that is unforgiving," he says. "One mistake, and everyone dies."

Not to mention the escapism.

Sub movies take viewers into a world they wouldn't otherwise experience, he explains. "You can't just go buy a ride on a nuclear submarine."

No, but you can visit one at the Smithsonian. That's where Paul Johnston works as the co-curator of a submarine exhibit at the National Museum of American History. He agrees with Mr. Lacy that there's a vicarious pleasure derived from seeing a sub movie – one similar to watching James Bond play with all his fancy toys.

But it's not just a case of access; it's also an issue of comfort. "A lot of people would not like working within the confined nature of a submarine," he says, ticking off the unpleasantries of sub life, which can include claustrophobia and drowning.

And while he can't reveal top secret information – like how fast a torpedo from a US sub travels, – he will say that the boats on the big screen are the real deal.

"The submarines they show you are quite realistic," he says. "These movies do depict the environment quite accurately."

On film, that environment includes lots of running from one end of the sub to the other, and officers trying to eat together while their dishes slide off the table. It does not include women, however, who are generally not aboard subs – except in comedies like "Operation Petticoat" (Cary Grant, Tony Curtis), and "Down Periscope."

Famous sub flicks from the past include 1981's "Das Boot," about a World War II German U-boat crew, and 1958's "Run Silent, Run Deep" starring Clark Gable. " 'Das Boot' was a marvelous movie," says Mr. Cussler. "It really told the story of the U-boat the way it was."

Even with that movie and others paving the way, critics weren't sure how "The Hunt for Red October," based on Tom Clancy's novel, would fare when it debuted in 1990. The cold war was over, after all, and glasnost (remember that word?) was in full swing.

It turned out the politics of the day weren't an issue: The movie took in more than $120 million domestically and launched the modern crop of sub flicks.

"The time period doesn't really matter as long as the story is good and the characters are interesting," offers Lacy. But he admits that he and his fellow reviewers wouldn't mind seeing films with more modern boats. "As guys, we find technology and new toys interesting," he says.

His time-period theory will be tested this weekend with "K-19," based on a true story about a nuclear crisis a Russian sub faced during the cold war. It remains to be seen whether audiences will warm up to another sub movie featuring US-Soviet relations – this time a somber one told from the perspective of the Russians.

Still, "I'd bet on Harrison Ford in a submarine movie," says Richard Dubin, a screenwriter and professor of TV and film at Syracuse University.

Now, if only Hollywood could find a way to get Julia Roberts on a submarine, then they'd really have something.

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