The Bedford Incident (1965)

Remember the Cold War? Diplomatic and political tensions along with surreptitious military maneuverings that fell just short of open hostilities or “hot war”? The Bedford Incident takes as its premise the folly of military aggression within the Cold War context of the mid-’60s. This anti-cold war film, made at the height of the cold war, received mixed reviews on its release. The script in particular was singled out as weak, due to sketchy characterizations and the general implausibility of events. However, Richard Widmark’s performance garnered praise, winning him the Best Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle in 1965. Conversely, Poitier’s role was conspicuously neglected, either mentioned in passing or not at all.

Columbia’s DVD includes theatrical trailers for not only The Bedford Incident, but also films thematically similar, like The Caine Mutiny (1954), Fail-Safe (1964), and even Tears of the Sun (2003). The trailers demonstrate the value of a critical film like The Bedford Incident. Specifically, the inclusion of the recent title (though involving a fictional conflict) strongly suggests a connection to current policies in force that attempt to police other nations in the service of the new cold war, the “war on terror.”

Widmark stars as Captain Eric Finlander, commander of the American destroyer, the USS Bedford. Sidney Poitier (who previously co-starred with Widmark in the 1950 film, No Way Out) plays Ben Munceford, a journalist with experience and clearance as a military observer, assigned to profile the Captain during a routine patrol. He gets more than he bargained for on the Bedford, however, as he is an unwelcome guest on a ship that functions as if in wartime. Captain and crew, including former German U-Boat officer Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman), now acting as a NATO representative, soon discover a Soviet submarine traversing the depths nearby in the Denmark Strait (midway between Greenland and Iceland), and a relentless pursuit begins.

Though the film is obviously a vehicle for Widmark, the casting of Poitier as the reporter and his characterization deserve some attention. If one contends that Poitier’s film portrayals at the time were of the gritty, working class mold, i.e., juvenile delinquent (Blackboard Jungle [1955]), convict (The Defiant Ones [1958]), day laborer (Edge of the City [1957]), and chauffeur (A Raisin in the Sun [1961]), then a shift to more affluent or socially prominent roles must be recognized in the mid-’60s, as evidenced in his role here.

A number of these roles (including his Oscar-winning portrayal of a construction worker in Lilies of the Field [1963]) exclude race as a dramatic focus. At the time (and more recently, as in Louis Gossett, Jr.’s Oscar-winning role in An Officer and a Gentleman) this fact was seen as politically and culturally progressive. The ideal result of colorblind casting would mean more diversity in film, tv, and theatrical productions and wider job opportunities for actors of color.

In the case of The Bedford Incident, the decision to ignore the blackness of Poitier’s character suggests an attempt to create a unanimity of opposition against Finlander’s darkly “patriotic” military zeal. The film chooses as its more “important” work the issues surrounding the policing of Communism. The narrative works primarily as a suspenseful thriller (and is notably advertised this way in the trailer) while also functioning as a warning about the dire consequences of military aggression in the name of patriotic duty. The Bedford Incident consistently depicts the Captain’s antagonism and militaristic impulses as deviant and pathological. And yet, the excesses of military aggression is contained within the character of Captain Finlander and not expanded to general U.S. government of NATO policy, so the anti-cold war critique is somewhat limited.

In fact, Finlander was, we learn, passed over for a promotion to Admiral as a result of his support for military action during the Cuban missile crisis — against White House policy. Further drawing the distinction between Finlander and the U.S. government, telegrams from NATO authorities ordering the Captain to “wait” on any military action punctuate the narrative at critical moments. This dramatic strategy essentially absolves the institutions of the U.S. government and Western policing entities of any aggressive tendencies. They are drawn as peacekeepers, not been heeded by the rogue Captain.

What The Bedford Incident does address is the danger inherent in the military hierarchy and social isolation. Captain Finlander’s ship is run as a fascist state, the regime of a tyrant. His rule has so cowed the crew that, to the new doctor’s shock, no one ever reports to the sick bay. Ultimately, after driving his crew over 24 hours without pause, Captain Finlander’s maniacally single-minded compulsion to sink the errant Soviet sub drives an impressionable young protégé, Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur) and simple-minded seaman Merlin Queffle (Wally Cox) to their breaking points with apocalyptic results.

The story of this Captain and his crew offers us a cautionary tale about the power of authority and military might left unchecked. Certainly it reflects its particular historical moment (much like contemporary doomsday pictures, such as Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove [both 1964]). And yet, parallels to today’s global political environment and our government’s new cold war loom as large as the icebergs surrounding the USS Bedford and its Soviet prey in the North Atlantic Sea.