U-Boote westwärts! (1941)

When I first discovered and read about the German World War II film U-Boote westwärts!, I was struck by the extreme story similarities with the British film We Dive at Dawn from two years later. So struck that for a while I speculated whether the latter might actually be a loose remake of the former.

German submarine U-123 in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

The initial story structures are, indeed, strikingly similar. A submarine returns to port after a long and hard mission at sea (scenes of surfaced submarine moving steadily forward through picturesque sea and port backgrounds). The crew is looking forward to a long and well-deserved shore leave. They meet up with families, fiancées and various other female friends. One is about to get married. But duty calls. The Queen/Führer needs them and they have to set to sea immediately in order to fulfil an important mission.

However, even during the brief shore leave sequence, the differences between these two films start to become apparent. Beyond the abovementioned similarities, these films are very different at their cores.

Compared with the British film, U-Boote westwärts! seems much more realistic, both in terms of the submarine interiors, and in terms of the missions and situations that a World War II submarine would typically face. On the other hand, the story lacks the intensity, action and adventurous touch that the British production has. Which version you prefer thus depends on whether you prefer realism or suspense.

This film is best enjoyed if you like old war films. U-Boote Westwärts! is not a great film, and some will be further put off by the propagandistic portrayals of British seamen. Nevertheless, it has several good qualities, including some very solid actors.

Herbert Wilk in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

U-Boote westwärts!
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Günther Rittau
Stars: Herbert Wilk
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Matroska (681 M)

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49th Parallel (1941)

One of the first films made by the famous British team of writers/producers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (jointly known as “The Archers”) was the World War II propaganda 49th Parallel.

Finlay Currie, Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman in 49th Parallel (1941)

The film begins with a German submarine that tries to hide in Hudson Bay after being hunted by the Canadian navy. The submarine is eventually caught up with and sunk, but a small group of survivors start to make their long way across the enormous nation of Canada, trying somehow to find a way to neutral or allied territory.

The film has an interesting structure. It is basically a series of short stories, strung together by the evil protagonist in the shape of Leutnant Hirth. Hirth is well played (though not exactly delicately) by Eric Portman. As he and his small group of Germans go from one place to the next, they also move from story to story. And there is where we meet the true heroes, played by Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, and others. They are true-blooded Canadians, who stand up for their country, against oppression and tyranny.

49th Parallel in some ways forms an interesting counterweight to One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Powell’s and Pressburger’s joint project from the following year. Both films share the theme of a crew that has lost their vessel and now have to make their way through enemy territory. The two stories share many similarities, but through the filter of propaganda they still emerge as completely different films. They are also very good, so I can only recommend that you download and watch both.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and well played drama. Even though Powell and Pressburger were yet to develop their true mastership in film making, we can already see many of the techniques that were to be used to make some of the best films in the history of cinema. 49th Parallel may not be quite up to that standard, but it is still excellent.

Peter Moore and Leslie Howard in 49th Parallel (1941)

49th Parallel
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Year: 1941
Running time: 2 h 2 min
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (664×502, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.2 G)

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The submarine film is an interesting genre, and We Dive at Dawn is a good representative. Here you will find everything to be expected from a good submarine film. The closed spaces, the comradeship and conflicts among the crew, the sounds of machinery and exploding depth charges, the excitement of the hunt and the tense waiting as the hunter turns to prey.

John Mills and Reginald Purdell in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The British submarine Sea Tiger has just come back after a long time at sea. We get to see the various crew members as they go ashore for a presumed lengthy leave, but we barely get a glimpse of their private troubles before they are ordered back to ship for another important mission. As the somewhat disheartened lot take their vessel out again, they are told that they are going after the German battleship Brandenburg, as they should be able to catch up with her before she enters the Kiel Canal in northern Germany.

But when they take aboard some Germans from a rescue buoy, they learn that the Brandenburg is farther ahead than expected, and they will not be able to catch up. The ship’s captain (John Mills) then makes the decision to enter the Baltic and search for the German battleship there. But the decision is a foolhardy one. Not only because the Baltic is full of German ships, but also because they are running low on fuel.

Judging by its looks, We Dive at Dawn was a pretty cheap film. The submarine interiors look convincing enough to my untrained eye, but many small details, such as John Mills’ fake stubble, lack the attention which marks a really well-produced film.

Nationalism and propaganda naturally lurks in the background of a wartime production such as this. But it is never allowed to surface (pun intended) in the same way as in, for example, In Which We Serve (1942) or One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942).

This film is best enjoyed if you like either submarines or British 30s/40s films. Though not the best representative of either category, We Dive at Dawn nevertheless has enough good qualities to satisfy your hunger for more of those kinds of films. The story, while a touch on the sentimental side, is good and the actors are adequate.

Turkish S class (Oruç Reis class) submarine P 614 in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

We Dive at Dawn
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Anthony Asquith
Stars: John Mills
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (700 M)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

There is a certain amount of confusion about which was the world’s first feature-length science fiction film. Partly, perhaps, because it is not always very clear where to draw the border between what is and what is not science fiction.

Wikipedia, along with several other sources, claim for instance that the first ever science fiction feature film was Metropolis (1927), but then in the same article mentions several earlier films. (Here we see some disadvantages of community editing without an overseeing editor, but that is a discussion for another time.)

Edna Pendleton, Dan Henlon, Allen Holubar and Ned Land in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

The earliest one mentioned in that article, and one which is often mentioned in other soruces, is the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A splendid novel, which was one of my childhood favourites.

The film is unique not only because it was early science fiction, but also because it was the first feature film that used underwater photography, showing “actors” in spectacular diving suits. The divers move slowly and clumsily, but the coolness factor is enormous. It was also one of the first ever submarine films.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. Due to its age, it has a number of faults, such as the blackened face of Captain Nemo. Still, it is a good effort for its time, and for sci-fi fans in general and Jules Verne fans in particular, it is a cinematic milestone.

Divers in diving suits in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
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Year: 1916
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: Stuart Paton
Stars: Dan Hanlon, Allen Holubar
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronised with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (678 M)