The cast is solid. The film making tight. Outstanding sound, too. This is a Cold War drama mostly occupied by dialogue occurring within the tight quarters of the navy destroy Bedford, but the action — as it were — never lets up. All in all, an awesome film, perhaps even Widmark’s best?
Sidney Poitier plays Ben Munceford, a reporter for a national magazine on assignment to document the Bedford’s patrol in the North Atlantic, but he is also there to study Captain Findlander’s reputation as a hardened, punishing commander.
Poitier’s character feels out of place early in the film. He’s a bit too smug, presuming, and self-righteous, but he is a necessary foil to Findlander.
Findlander is all Navy and a zealous patriot. Poitier is press — you know, the Fourth Estate — is there to be a check on the power of government and military. He’s also black, which might have had more social significance in 1965. In fact he is the only black person seen on a ship of more than 300 men. He is the outsider.
It is the juxtaposition of outsider versus Navy that I want to hit on in my reading of this film.
Briefly, the Bedford discovers a Soviet submarine in violation of NATO ally territorial waters. Findlander pursues the trespassing sub back into international waters and all the while pressure and tension increases on his ship builds.
Findlander demands exacting discipline. No compromise. He works his officers and crew hard. Stress mounts. All the while Munceford tirelessly pursues a story, with camera in hand, which provokes an even sterner hand from Findlander.
Also on board the Bedford is Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke, former Third Reich naval commander, played by Eric Portman. He is a technical and intelligence advisor to Findlander. He also becomes a voice of reason and restraint in the film’s conclusion.
The key character, however, is played by James MacArthur, in what also might be his ultimate performance. MacArthur plays Ensign Ralston, an eager and underappreciated subordinate to Findlander.
Findlander relentlessly demands more from Ensign Ralston, criticizing him for errors big and small. There is no let up. Ultimately Findlander’s insistence on strict and immediate response to his orders dooms his ship.
In the closing scenes the Bedford has finally trapped the Soviet sub. Findlander turns up the heat, attempted to both provoke and humiliate the Soviet sub and crew. His actions are aggressive and confrontational. Munceford is joined by Commodore Schrepke in advising Findlander to pull back and stop the pursuit. But Findlander only seems more determined to force the sub to surrender.
In the tense atmosphere of the emerging conflict, Ensign Ralston misinterprets Finlander. Findlander tells Schrepke that will not fire on the Soviet sub unless he is fired on. He won’t “fire one” unless they “fire one.” Ralston hears: “Fire one” and he obeys the order. He fires an Anti-Submarine Rocket at the submarine.
The submarine is destroyed, but not before it has had a chance to launch torpedoes at the Bedford in response.
Here is where the insider/outsider dynamic that plays out.
Findlander gives one order to evade the torpedoes, but then seems to give up. He walks through a quiet ship, glancing at his broken crew who only stare back in return. Even Schrepke is silent. He stoically looks on, unfazed, as Findlander wanders through the bridge, then turns away.
Munceford, on the other hand, literally is on Findlander’s coat tails, demanding that he take evasive actions and try to protect the ship. He is alone in his demands.
Munceford is the outsider. The others are Navy. The crew of the Bedford destroyed a Soviet submarine. One might argue that the responsibility ultimately rests with Captain Findlander, but on this ship in particular we are told the men on this ship are different. They choose to be with Findlander. Therefore, I would suggest that crew shares in the culpability of the accident and take responsibility for the lost sub and crew.
Findlander doesn’t try to save his ship, he goes to a top deck to get a view of the torpedoes that will deliver the blow that will even the score. It is a sort of naval justice that none of the crew protests. Munceford, the outsider, protests.