Taking On Water
A Nazi U-boat commander, peering through a periscope, locks a merchant ship in his sights. After giving the order to fire, he studies the ship’s flaming wreckage and proclaims that the crew has succeeded in breaking her back.
It’s a modern dramatization of a scene that played out endlessly in the early days of World War II, when Nazi U-boats destroyed thousands of merchant ships supplying the allied war effort in the North Atlantic. With slight variations, though, this scene could be from either of two movies: Wolfgang Petersen’s classic World War II melodrama Das Boot (1984), or U-571, Jonathan Mostow’s fictional account of a U.S. submarine crew ordered to capture the “Enigma,” a Nazi military message encoder. In both movies, a Nazi sub commander refers to breaking the enemy’s back when destroying a merchant ship; in both, the same crew later kills a lifeboat full of sailors or leaves them to die.
The similarity is striking because, by and large, these films are complete opposites. Where Das Boot‘s account of the German war experience is laced with sadness and cynicism, U-571 celebrates its protagonists’ roles in the same conflict by trusting implicitly in chain-of-command structures and de-facto, God-given American moral righteousness. This resembles more the bulk of war movies before Vietnam than it does anything made in the last quarter-century. It paints mortal conflict the way many of these older films did, as the sort of exhilarating adventure children might imagine when they play at war.
In May of 1942 (well after history maintains the first Enigma machine had already been recovered by the British), U.S. Naval Intelligence sends a submarine crew headed by Lieutenant Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) to steal the Enigma from U-571, a disabled U-boat somewhere in the North Atlantic. They must recover the machine without being discovered, because otherwise the Germans will simply change the code; so they embark on a WWI-vintage American submarine (an S-33) disguised as a U-boat, and attack the U-571, killing much of its crew and capturing the survivors. But after the German prisoners are sent to the American sub, another U-boat whose crew is unaware that their own countrymen have been loaded onto the S-33 attacks and destroys the American submarine. The U.S. boarding crew must now operate the U-boat they had simply planned to scuttle, and navigate it safely through the gauntlet of the German Navy so that U.S. Naval Intelligence can exploit its secrets.
That the Germans are ruthless and murderous is made evident when the original Nazi captain of the U-571 fires on merchant ships and guns down castaways in cold blood. When the second German sub inadvertently kills a group of noncombatants the third time the movie shows Germans doing this, the victims now being their own troops this ruthlessness is combined with ineptitude. We see more German incompetence later on, when the Americans on the U-571 encounter a Nazi destroyer and blast its radio tower so that it can’t notify Nazi high command about the captured sub. In contrast with the Americans who first set the S-33 to sea with great expertise and a lyrical cascade of technical dialogue the Nazis gad about hysterically after the radio room is destroyed, restating the obvious facts that their ship is on fire and that therefore the crew of the U-571 is maybe less than friendly. Then, while the Nazis are collecting their wits, the U-571 dives. The destroyer lobs multiple shells at the sub when it resurfaces all of which miss but the first American torpedo fired naturally finds its mark.
This device, in which the “good guys” in a shootout never miss and the “bad guys” never hit, may sound familiar. Commonly found in war movies (though not so often recently), it usually indicates that the filmmakers have stacked the odds so thoroughly against their protagonists that they must then strain credibility to get the crew out of their dilemma. It also cleanly reveals where a movie’s priorities lie. In the case of U-571, what’s important is which side scores more hits, the Germans or the Americans. In such a narrative context, it’s hardly surprising that the characters are mostly stereotypes. Their role is not to illustrate or evoke war experiences so much as to play on a winning or losing team.
This war philosophy is initially, and most conspicuously, channeled through Cdr. Dahlgren, who interrogates his second’s, Lt. Andy Tyler’s (Matthew McConaughey), mettle for command by asking him whether he’s willing to put his men’s lives on the line “without pause, without reflection” to accomplish his mission. When Dahlgren drowns at sea getting the Enigma and Tyler takes the captured sub’s helm, we see how thoroughly Dahlgren eschews reflection. Facing mortality without personal concern and considering only the team’s greater welfare, Dahlgren dies ordering Tyler to submerge the U-boat.
Foreclosure on reflection is one of the film’s drumbeats, popping up again later in Tyler and Chief Klough’s (Harvey Keitel) frequent conversations about a ship commander’s duty. Klough, concerned when Tyler answers a crewmember’s question with “I don’t know,” scolds him that a ship commander must always appear confident and self-assured. He defines a skipper as “all knowing” and “all powerful” and finishes off by affirming to Tyler that “a skipper always knows what to do.” Granted, Klough is talking about image, not reality Tyler can certainly be plagued with doubt, so long as the crew doesn’t know it but Tyler takes the lesson to heart nonetheless, when he later commands his crew to hold their fire as they stand on the U-571’s deck being reconnoitered by a German scout plane. The panicky crew assumes that the pilot will see them as the enemy and strafe them, but Tyler reassures them that “as far as [the pilot] knows, we’re all on the same team.” The crew’s anxiety is not so easily assuaged, and they threaten to open fire despite Tyler’s orders. “This is not a democracy!” he yells, menacingly enough to stay his crew’s hand and preserve the mission’s integrity.
It’s an interesting scene mainly for the issues it doesn’t raise. In Das Boot, for instance, as well as more recent World War II movies like The Thin Red Line, “bravery” is just as often a reflexive reaction to fear as it is a conscious adherence to political imperatives or a dogged execution of orders. U-571 never wonders whether fear might be a military asset, nor does it investigate the problems it summarizes when the American crew, at its most fractious and disunited moment, refers to the opposing sides in the war as “teams.” The sports metaphor in war is used so often as to verge on cliche unless it is a means to make some other point, as in Don Delillo’s novel Endzone, Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H, or Sidney J. Furie’s 1978 The Boys in Company C. In U-571, though, the metaphor functions as an end in itself. Thus, the hunt for the Enigma is referred to as a “race,” the Enigma itself as a “trophy,” and no concern is ever voiced over the integrity of the American role in the war, even though such concerns beg to be addressed if the “team” combating fascism is, in fact, “not a democracy.”
The similar problem of a segregated American military combating a genocidally racist German one is also swept away. The American crew’s black cook, Eddie (T.C. Carson), accosts the soon-to-die German POWs that “This is your first time looking at a black man, isn’t it? Get used to it!” The moment reads as an overconvenient presaging of a civil rights movement that was probably too remote to foresee at the time, but Eddie’s experience as a black man in a discriminatory military establishment is overlooked in favor of making him conspicuously transparent. He repeatedly effaces himself to build up Lt. Tyler, once a bit amazingly explaining his keen observations about Tyler’s state of mind by saying that such capacity to observe is “one of the advantages of being seen and not being seen.”
Although U-571 is highly fictionalized, it does have some historical antecedents, described in a dedication given before the movie’s end credits: two incidents in which the British captured Enigma machines aboard crippled Nazi U-boats, and a later covert American mission sent specifically to recover a U-boat carrying this machine. To keep the Germans from learning that the Allies had the code, the crews of these submarines were secretly imprisoned for the rest of the war, a violation of the Geneva convention. Whether these acts were necessary is, in retrospect, immensely complicated, and they may have made for far more interesting stories than the highly fictionalized version of them in U-571. But it’s all too easy to fictionalize what the movie intimates in its first few moments, then doesn’t address again: war isn’t so much about racing as it is about breaking backs, and backs being broken.