The true story of 'K-19: The Widowmaker'

The facts, ma'am. Just the facts.

July 19 marked the first major motion picture release by the National Geographic Society. K-19: The Widowmaker is based on the true story of a near-disaster aboard the Soviet Union's first nuclear ballistic submarine. But while National Geographic is involved, this Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson film is not a documentary – not by a long shot – so those who would like to learn the real story should visit the National Geographic site.

While the film doesn't claim to be historically accurate, "inspired by real events" is often interpreted as the same thing, so this website plays an important role in providing some factual damage control.

The site's main section is K-19: The History, available in both Flash and "Printable" (read, HTML) versions. It divides the submarine's career into 10 chapters –from its rushed development and sloppy construction in 1958 to its decommissioning in 1991 and final destruction in 2002. If you've got the patience or the bandwidth for the Flash version, it's worth loading, not only for its elegant interface and appropriately ominous background music, but for such extras as 3-D animations of the boat. (While some illustrations seem to be included simply to give each chapter an animated component, others are quite effective in giving the boat a sense of substance lacking in still images.)

Other sections of the site look at Major Sub Disasters in both the Soviet/Russian and American fleets, and the Evolution of Subs during the Cold War, from 1954's Nautilus to 1982's Oscar Class of Russian submarines, which included the Kursk, the star of the movie. Finally, the site briefly investigates the radiation risk posed by the various nuclear subs currently resting at the bottom of the world's oceans. (Though it doesn't give an estimate as to how many such derelicts are down there.)

K-19 also includes a collection of Resources and Links, to which I would add the new home of the biggest star in the film – the submarine itself. Though the Hotelclass K-19 wasn't actually scrapped until this past spring, it was unavailable for filming, so the role of the sub was played in the film by the heavily made-up Juliettclass K-81, which has unique history of its own.

Of roughly the same vintage as K-19, K-81 was a diesel-powered sub designed to launched cruise, rather than ballistic missiles, though its later life included serving (under the alias of U484) as a floating restaurant in Finland and a tourist attraction in Florida. After spending the year following filming as an unwanted dockside fixture in Halifax, Nova Scotia, K-81 was bought by the USS Saratoga Museum Foundation in Providence, R.I. You can follow the continuing story of K-81 (including a photo gallery and virtual tour) at

Viewing the National Geographic site and the movie's site provides an opportunity for a comparison of history versus the artistic license exercised in making the film. For instance, the event was moved from the Norwegian Sea to off the American East Coast. It was also a purely Soviet event. And personally, even if I leave the theater convinced that this was one of the great films in motion picture history, I'll still be glad that I also had a chance to learn about the real crisis faced by the real crew.

National Geographic's K-19: The Widowmaker can be found at

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