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Often overshadowed by more famous nuclear disaster films like Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe (both released in 1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) is a chillingly effective doomsday tale which plays out its "Cold War" scenario off the coast of Greenland. It is there that the captain (Richard Widmark) of the Bedford, a U. S. destroyer, patrols the icy waters and searches for any sign of enemy submarines. Against the captain's wishes, a reporter (Sidney Poitier) working for a national news service has been granted permission to join them on their routine mission, one that quickly develops into a deadly hunt once a Russian submarine is spotted. The tension between the captain, his crew members and the reporter reaches a breaking point when the destroyer stands poised to fire an atomic weapon at its Russian enemy. The expected confrontation is perfectly in keeping with the film's paranoid vision of global destruction and it's all the more effective for showing it on a small scale; the final shot takes on a symbolic significance with its grim prediction of mankind's future - or lack of one.
Nineteen sixty-five was a busy year for Sidney Poitier, who juggled his filmmaking schedule with weekly visits to a psychoanalyst, sessions which helped the actor deal with his rising success in the Hollywood film industry. According to Poitier in his autobiography, This Life, one major interruption in his therapy routine "sent me off to London for a co-starring role with Richard Widmark in producer/director James B. Harris's sea saga The Bedford Incident. Again, the part I played in that Columbia release was not specifically written for a black star. That happened through the good graces of Mike Frankovich, who as head of Columbia Pictures was determined to help bring about reasonable representation of America's minorities on the motion picture screen. With James Harris feeling the same way, there was no hesitation between them over my being hired to play the newspaper correspondent aboard the Navy submarine destroyer the Bedford. The reins of a major studio were seldom to be found in the hands of men with such a sense of fair play. That action by Frankovich and Harris again allowed America to see a black actor in a part that obviously could have been played by anybody. And at the same time, it caused people in the industry to ponder the nature of the move - some to raise their eyebrows in disapproval, others to vigorously applaud it as a step long overdue."
The Bedford Incident marked James B. Harris's directorial debut. He had previously served as producer on three of Stanley Kubrick's films (The Killing, 1956; Paths of Glory, 1957; and Lolita, 1962) before ending their partnership just prior to Kubrick's production of Dr. Strangelove. While The Bedford Incident can be seen as Harris's own response to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early sixties, it didn't generate the box-office buzz of Kubrick's film despite strong critical notices. Yet, it remains a devastatingly effective though modestly budgeted drama with excellent performances by Widmark, Poitier and especially James MacArthur as a highly nervous ensign who fatally misinterprets one of the captain's remarks. Harris would go on to direct three more features (Some Call It Loving, 1973; Fast-Walking, 1982; and Cop, 1987), but none were as effective as this, his debut film.
Producer: James B. Harris, Richard Widmark
Director: James B. Harris
Screenplay: James Poe
Art Direction: Lionel Couch, Arthur Lawson
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Film Editing: John Jympson
Original Music: Gerard SchurmannPrincipal Cast: Richard Widmark (Capt. Eric Findlander), Sidney Poitier (Ben Munceford), James MacArthur (Ensign Ralston), Martin Balsam (Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter), Wally Cox (Seaman Merlin Queffle), Eric Portman (Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke).
by Jeff Stafford