This classic, daring-do film about the U.S. World War II combat swimmers, is great entertainment, even if it is showing its age.
I recently discovered this movie classic, and I must admit I was a bit skeptical. I mean a dive movies about valiant Navy divers, filmed in 1951?
Couldn’t be that good. But I must say that while the dialogue and drama does reveal the movie’s age, I was greatly entertained.
The movie is directed by Lloyd Bacon and follows a group of U.S. Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UTD) soldiers, known as “Frogmen”.
The unit has recently (prior to the movie starting) lost their beloved commander and has been assigned a new one. The new commander, played somewhat stiffly by Richard Widmark, doesn’t share his predecessor's leadership style. Being less “one of the boys” and more a career officer doesn’t sit well with the men and he struggles to gain their trust.
However, as the band of watery brothers face the perils of the Pacific Theater, he eventually proves himself a worthy leader of these He-Men of the Sea (their own term).
The plot is hardly a big surprise and the main devices have been seen in any number of war films.
What is the main draw of this film are definitely the underwater scenes. Even though it is filmed in 1951 and shot entirely on set using the 20th Century Fox Studios in Hollywood, CA. The water scenes, both surface and underwater, work really well. And it is obvious that the filmmakers have taken great care in depicting the methods used by the real-life UDT soldiers.
In spite of this, one technical glitch has made its way into the film: in one of the dive scenes, the UDT soldiers are diving with open-circuit aqualungs, which were unknown to anyone outside of a handful of people in France until after the war.
Real UDT soldiers used closed-circuit rebreathers, but this is only noticeable by us dive geeks.
Due to the movie’s age, it is shot entirely in black and white which does remove some of the underwater beauty, which later dive films have strived to capture, is lacking.
But this isn’t actually a bad thing. As it means that we get fewer “diver frolicking in the beautiful water” kind of scenes, and more focus on underwater action. And that action works well using the unique environment that the water is to make the scenes all the more powerful.
All in all a very enjoyable film, about a very fascinating part of World War II history. It might not be for everyone, but for dive enthusiasts, especially those with a liking for history it is a must-see.
The historic background of the film
During World War II, amphibious landings were a major part of military tactics, in both the European and Pacific Theaters. Where shallow-bottomed landing boats loaded with troops would sail up on a beach and let out the troops.
Think the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan.
But to do this the Navy needed to know that the boats were actually able to reach the beach and find a path clear of any underwater obstacles. Also, enemy forces would place underwater defenses to prevent these landing boats from accessing the shore.
So Navy divers, called Underwater Demolition Teams were sent in before-hand to do reconnaissance of both underwater features and land-based topography. As well as to identify and remove any defenses that might cause problems for the landing vessels.
These teams were highly successful, not least at the beaches in Normandy, prior to the D-Day invasion.
After the war, these teams were further expanded and additional tasks were added to their area or operations. And in time, they became what we today know as Navy SEALs.
Underwater demolition and reconnaissance are still among the key operative tasks of SEALs, but it all started with the UTDs.