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For all the restrictions they pose in terms of setting, submarine films have long been a popular sub-genre of the war movie. Their success continues to this day with such films as U-571 (2000) and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002). The confined space actually helps to heighten the sense of danger and tension, while the vessel's mission makes for exciting action sequences. And both of these aspects are exploited to great effect in Run Silent, Run Deep (1958).
In a story that has echoes of Moby Dick, Clark Gable plays the captain of a submarine sunk by the Japanese during World War II who is given a chance to command another one after a year at a desk job. Focused almost entirely on revenge against the destroyer that sunk his previous vessel, he finds himself pitted against his second-in-command (Burt Lancaster) and facing a mutiny for putting his new crew in unnecessary danger.
Lancaster's rise to the highest pinnacle of Hollywood fame enabled him to find projects and produce the films he wanted to make under the banner of his HHL production company. Typically, HHL would find the material and convince United Artists to finance and distribute the movies, but in this case, it was the studio that bought the property, a novel by 30-year naval officer Capt. Edward L. Beach. HHL was asked to develop it. Lancaster saw himself in the role of the daring executive officer who bucks the more conservative and hard-nosed commander. For that role, the company struck a one-picture deal with Clark Gable, who was no longer top box office but still one of the most enduring and popular stars of Hollywood.
The relationship with Gable started out on rocky ground. Lancaster was younger and at the height of his critical and commercial powers. Gable, however, felt his less sympathetic role might be seen as secondary to his co-star, especially when he caught wind that Lancaster was doing some rewrites behind the back of the screenwriter HHL hired, John Gay. To make matters worse, Gable was put off by the chaos that typically attended HHL productions. Shortly before the start of production, Gable showed up for a 7:00 am meeting at the HHL offices and found the place locked up. He and his wife sat on the steps outside for ten minutes before Gay showed up. When Gay phoned Lancaster's producing partner Harold Hecht, he was told the meeting had been changed to 8:00 am. But no one had informed him or the star. "What kind of cheesy, crummy outfit is this?" Gable fumed.
Gable needn't have worried. Run Silent, Run Deep turned out to be far more his picture than Lancaster's, with the driven, vengeful captain the more dramatically interesting character. As production began, he grew more congenial and relaxed, although he did throw a fit over the scene in which Lancaster wrests control of the ship away from him. Gable flat out refused to do it, and production was halted for two days. Finally Gay hit on the idea of having Gable's character receive a severe injury, requiring his second-in-command to take control without having to resort to mutiny. Satisfied with that solution, Gable returned to work and production proceeded smoothly.
The producers took great pains to make everything about the story and setting authentic down to the last detail, including efforts to make the dialogue "real submarine talk," according to Lancaster. Even the combat incidents, Lancaster insisted, were taken from Navy archives. The comedian Don Rickles, cast as a crewmember, recalled that Lancaster took the technical aspects of the film very seriously, constantly asking questions about pieces of equipment and the sub's operation.
The official premiere of the film was held April 1, 1958, aboard the submarine USS Perch for an invited audience of senior Navy officers. Critics praised the work of director Robert Wise, Oscar®-nominated for another picture that year, I Want to Live! (1958), and later a winner for West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Even The New York Times's Bosley Crowther, who trashed the previous HHL productions Vera Cruz (1954) and Trapeze (1956), praised the performances here and said, "A better film about war beneath the ocean and about guys in the 'silent service' has not been made."
Yet, despite its skill at weaving action with an intense personal drama and the audience appeal of its two stars, the picture was not a commercial smash and was overshadowed at the box office by another submarine movie that followed shortly after, Operation Petticoat (1959), a comedy teaming another established star, Cary Grant, with a younger actor on the rise, Tony Curtis. Run Silent, Run Deep cinematographer Russell Harlan also shot Petticoat, and editor George Boemler went on to cut a later submarine adventure, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961).
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Harold Hecht
Screenplay: John Gay, based on the novel by Edward L. Beach
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editing: George Boemler
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Clark Gable (Commander Richardson), Burt Lancaster (Lieutenant Bledsoe), Jack Warden (Yeoman Mueller), Brad Dexter (Cartwright), Don Rickles (Ruby).
by Rob Nixon