Among nerdy modes of transportation, submarines may be underrated. I suppose that the spaceship – or maybe the TARDIS – is the ultimate dream vehicle for nerds, but the submarine would still be high on the list, and it has, abetted by comic book advertising, a sense of plausible attainability the others do not.
So with Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald’s heavy-handed but agreeably tense submarine thriller, out on Blu-ray this week, here are a few of the many submarine adventures with nerd appeal. I’ve focused only on vehicles, by the way, not undersea stations, even though it meant skipping such favorites as Destination Inner Space and DeepStar Six…
19. The Enemy Below
Of the many memorable “straightforward” submarine movies, there are several that could vie to be the representative classic. There’s 1981’s Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen’s saga of a U-boat’s wanderings during WWII, with its fine performance by Jurgen Prochnow and its dues ex machina ending. There’s Run Silent, Run Deep with its cast ranging from Clark Cable to Don Rickles, or 1957’s Hellcats of the Navy, which brought together Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis on the big screen for the only time.
Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington butted heads – with an unsavory racial subtext – aboard a nuclear sub in Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (1995). Sean Connery played a Soviet sub commander in The Hunt for Red October (1990) as did Harrison Ford in K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and Matthew McConaughey captured a Nazi sub in 2000’s U-571.
But for nerds, the nod should probably go to 1957’s The Enemy Below, directed by Dick Powell. Not only is it an absorbing account of a battle of wits between ship Captain Robert Mitchum and U-boat Captain Curt Jurgens – who, like Prochnow in Das Boot is conveniently unenthusiastic about Nazism – it’s also the inspiration for the Star Trek episode “Balance of Terror,” a similar duel between Kirk and Romulan Captain Mark Lenard.
18. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea – The Series
Claustrophobia is one of the central sources of atmosphere in the realistic submarine genre, but the fantasies of nerds tend to have elbow room. The Seaview, the vessel at the center of this Irwin Allen series – adapted from his 1961 movie – is roomy like the Sydney Opera House.
Maybe because it didn’t have much in the way of female sexiness, or maybe just because it was usually howlingly silly yet numbingly straight-faced, lacking the humor of Allen’s Lost in Space, VTTBOTS hasn’t held up as well as a lot of ’60s TV sci-fi. But there’s an elegance to its designs – the Seaview with her broad, curving, windowed bow like a high forehead, and the little flying sub that could deploy out of the ship’s belly – that could really stir a kid’s imagination.
Many preposterous menaces threatened the Seaview and her crew during the show’s four-year run (1964-1968). These included octopi, rock monsters, anthropomorphic crustaceans, amphibian people, aliens, Nazis, pirate ghosts, a werewolf that looked like it had a little Pekinese in its heritage, a Leviathan-sized whale that swallows the whole sub like a collective Jonah, stock footage from Allen’s The Lost World, and even a leprechaun.
17. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea – The Lunch Pail
One of the few bright spots of an incipient school year, for me, was the ritual of picking out a new lunch pail. The very first time I ever did this, my choice was the tie-in with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Why wouldn’t it be? It depicted the Seaview cruising to the rescue of the Flying Sub, which was entangled in the arms of a bright-red and very irritable-looking giant octopus. On the other side, Richard Basehart helpfully points out this potentially hazardous situation to David Hedison.
As even worse-for-the-wear specimens can fetch upwards of twenty or thirty bucks on eBay, I rather wish I’d saved mine. But not as much as I wish I’d saved my copy of…
16. Yellow Submarine – The Comic
In good condition, and with the pull-out poster intact, this Gold Key tie-in from 1968 can sometimes sell for prices in the hundreds.
On the other hand, mine probably wouldn’t anyway, because I reread it to coverless shreds even back then. If it inevitably isn’t as visually beautiful as the movie, it’s still a solid, fast-moving adaptation that captures some hint of the trippy Odyssey to Pepperland’s low-key wit. Reading it, it’s easy to hear the Liverpool accents in your head. Indeed, as I recall, it added the interjection “Gar!” to my vocabulary, briefly but no doubt annoyingly.
15. Yellow Submarine – The Movie
Still, it’s as a movie that Yellow Submarine is best experienced. Even setting aside the score of classic songs, it’s one of the more charming manifestations of the “psychedelic” art style in the movies.
And for many nerds, no section of the whimsical voyage could beat the “Sea of Monsters.”
14. The Land That Time Forgot
The meat of this 1975 adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn unfolds on the lost continent of Caprona, seething with giant reptiles, blazing volcanoes and primitive people progressing through evolution in the course of their lives. But our hero – plucky American Doug McClure – and his pals arrive at Caprona via a German U-boat they commandeer after it sinks the ship they’re traveling on. They capture it by, uhm, kicking the ass of the U-boat’s crew.
The special effects on this drive-in and matinee hit may seem a bit quaint in the post-Jurassic Park era – they weren’t exactly on the Harryhausen level back in their own time, either. But they have, at least, the charm of being rock-solid practical, and that extends not only to the dinosaurs and pterodactyls but to the very cool U-boat model. Most of us would have loved to play with it, but had to settle for…
13. “Diving Sub”
Originally offered as a cereal premium back in the ’50s, these tiny plastic subs would dive and resurface in water in response to the reaction of a tiny amount of baking powder placed inside them. They followed a rather erratic course, as if the helmsman were drunk, or maybe just badly indecisive.
Of course, if you were a real sucker, you might have blown your allowance money on a…
12. Polaris Nuclear Sub
Right up there with Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Specs, the Polaris was one of the classic ads that defrauded Boomer-era kids, expertly leading us to believe that we might actually order a usable submersible out of the pages of Turok, Son of Stone or Magnus, Robot Fighter or whatever, for less than ten dollars. Even if the toy that arrived was cool – doubtful – it would inevitably be a disappointment, simply because it was a toy, not an actual sub.
I’ve sometimes wondered if, somewhere in some Dante-style Purgatory, there was a tiny lake in which the copywriter for that ad would be repeatedly submerged, within the “sturdily constructed…200 lb. test fibreboard” hull of such a Polaris, once for every kid who ever parted with $6.98 over that ad. Plus 75 cents for shipping charges.
11. Aquaman Sub
One more toy: This Fisher-Price Aquaman sub includes “pop out claws and spinning propellers.” It does not seem to include an explanation as to why Aquaman should need a sub.
I suppose the argument would be that Aquaman needs a sub for the same reason that, say, Batman needs a Batmobile, or that I need a Toyota Tacoma. But given his most remarkable superpower, you would think that he would, at least, drive a convertible.
10. Subwar 2050
Of numerous submarine “simulators” (games) Subwar 2050 seems the most appropriate here, simply by virtue of the “2050,” and the cool futuristic subs, some of them with bows painted in the manner of “flying tiger” aircraft. The 1993 game, which may now be downloaded from GOG.com, is set in a mid-21st century in which, apparently, the human race still sometimes takes its disagreements underwater.
In this game, however, the disagreements aren’t nationalistic. The player is an “independent mercenary working for a corporate conglomerate” piloting “…the latest fighter subs to protect the corporation’s interests in return for cold hard cash.” Touching.
9. Neptune 2000
In this 1991 episode of Get a Life, Chris Elliot’s classic Dadaist sitcom about an imbecilic fellow who still lives with his parents and has a paper route, Chris finally gets the sub he ordered twenty years earlier from a comic book. Indeed, this episode establishes that earning the money to place that order was how Chris got started as a paper boy.
He and his crotchety Dad (Bob Elliot) spend some very belated father-son quality assembling her, but the Neptune 2000’s maiden voyage – in a shower stall – is far from smooth sailing. Father and son are trapped within the vessel as the shower gradually fills, and the submarine genre’s customary tension builds…
7. The Boatniks
In this 1970 farce, a young and, of course, “bumbling” Coast Guard officer played by Robert Morse runs afoul of jewel thieves and romances Stefanie Powers. It isn’t the pinnacle of Disney live-action comedy, but it does feature a “baby sub” in which the thieves (Phil Silvers, Norman Fell and Mickey Shaughnessy) try to escape.
This is, perhaps, exactly the tiny personal-use sub that kids were hoping for when they ordered the Polaris out of the comic books. And, just two years after the Beatles took their trip, she was even painted a cheery yellow.
A submarine shouldn’t be defined merely by its ability to travel underwater. Well, OK, maybe that’s exactly how a submarine should be defined, but we needn’t be limiting. The title “character” of this 1963 Toho sci-fi epic – known as Gotengo in Japanese – is a submarine, sure, but she can also fly, and her drill bit nose can burrow through rock, like the Iron Mole that took the explorers to Pellucidar in At the Earth’s Core. In the later Toho film War in Space she even saw interplanetary duty. She’s straight out of a nerd’s time-killing pencil sketch in a spiral-bound notebook during a boring class.
The original 1963 Atragon was also the debut of a minor member of Toho’s monster stock company: Manda, Atragon‘s dragonish “allegoric destroyer” [sic]with vestigial limbs that would later turn up in Destroy All Monsters. Supposedly the creature’s design was in recognition of the impending Year of the Dragon.
5. Fantastic Voyage – The Cartoon
In the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, a miniaturized submarine, with a miniaturized crew, travels to the brain of a brilliant scientist in hopes of zapping away a blood clot and escaping before they messily re-expand. An animated series based on the film, produced by Filmation, aired on ABC in 1968.
Here the adventurers and their sub, the Voyager, traveled through other micro-environments, starting with a water droplet, which they found teeming with monsters and perils. The voice cast was led by Ted Knight, whose familiar stentorian tones introduce the Voyager‘s crew in the opening. Among these is “Guru,” a “master of mysterious powers” – always a handy fellow to have around.
Meaning “spearhead,” the Fer-de-Lance is a kind of snake found in the Caribbean and notorious for its great, possibly somewhat exaggerated venomousness. It’s also said to be particularly aggressive when cornered. Just the sort of critter you’d want aboard a submarine.
In this 1974 undersea tale, a sailor brings a few of these creatures aboard a U.S. research sub. The presence of such stowaways alarms Captain David Janssen to the point that his face almost seems in danger of expressing emotion. This odd, strikingly stupid and rather enjoyable specimen of the ’70s TV-movie features such venerables of the period as Hope Lange, Ivan Dixon and Frank Bonner. But alas, no Samuel L. Jackson.
3. The Violets Are Blue
Somewhere in the middle of My Dinner With Andre (6:51 in the clip above), Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s metaphysical fat-chew of 1981 directed by Louis Malle, the following short exchange takes place:
Wally Shawn: By the way…did you ever see that play The Violets Are Blue?
Andre Gregory: No.
Wally Shawn: Oh, when you mentioned the violets, it reminded me of that…It was about…people being strangled on a submarine…
At which point Gregory gives his dinner companion a perplexed, WTF sort of expression, and the subject is dropped and never brought up again. I’ve always wondered about the background of this peculiar throwaway gag, but also…I’ve always wanted to see that play. Can’t some literal-minded nerd dramatist make it a reality, like the Coen Brothers did with O Brother, Where Art Thou? from Sullivan’s Travels?
2. The Atomic Submarine
Talk about burying the lead. It shows how astonishing nuclear submarine technology seemed in 1959 that the title of this movie was The Atomic Submarine and not The One-Eyed Tentacled Alien Invaders Hiding Under the Sea.
But then, maybe that constitutes a “spoiler.”
1. Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
There can be little argument about the top spot on this list, however. This 1954 adaptation of the Verne novel is arguably the best live-action movie Disney has ever made – a colorful blend of gaslit period atmosphere and rich, colorful futurism. Its attractions begin with the Nautilus herself, an elegantly Victorian vessel resembling an ironclad shark on the outside and a gentlemen’s club on the outside.
The film also featured a testosterone-charged star turn by Kirk Douglas as harpooner Ned Land, fine supporting turns by Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre, and a surprisingly intense and haunted performance by James Mason as Captain Nemo. And, of course, there’s the battle between the Nautilus and the giant squid, one of the peerless nerd moments in American pop culture.
Although it was Columbia Pictures and Ray Harryhausen, not Disney, who made the splendid 1961 semi-sequel Mysterious Island – with Herbert Lom memorable in the role of Nemo – Disney did nonetheless make a franchise out 20,000 Leagues. First of all, there was the LP, with Ned Land narrating a tame, bowdlerized version of the story. The cover, with the Nautilus in a collision course with a titanic squid, was really cool, as was Douglas singing “Whale of a Tale,” a jolly sea ballad about his various failures with women.
And then there was the ride, a staple at Disney World from 1971 until 1994, in which visitors got to board a small version of the Nautilus, wander through an irresistibly kitschy fake undersea kingdom, and even endure a duel with a squid. I took this cruise at the Florida park in 1972 – certainly a highlight of my first decade on the planet.
M.V. Moorhead won five Arizona Press Club awards for his work in Phoenix New Times. His reviews, essays, poetry, fiction and other writings have appeared in Wrangler News (wranglernews.com), Phoenix Magazine, USA Today, Weird Tales, Elysian Fields Quarterly, The Big Click and many other publications in the U.S. and Australia, and may also be found at his own blog, Less Hat, Moorhead ([email protected]). He's also a produced playwright, and was a talk-radio host in Phoenix for two years. A native of Pennsylvania, he lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife, his daughter and three Chihuahuas with five eyeballs between them.