What We Can Learn From ‘The Enemy Below’

Last time here on Imperfect Glass, we took a look at ship-to-ship combat in ‘Sink the Bismark!’ Now, let’s take a dive under the waves for the 1957 classic, ‘The Enemy Below,’ which follows a US destroyer and a German U-boat as they both seek to take each other out in a battle of wits.

What does the story do well?

It humanizes both the protagonist and the antagonist

Whereas a WW2 propaganda movie would work hard to establish the protagonist as a squeaky-clean all-around good guy, and the antagonist a Nazi who kicks puppy dogs for fun and eats babies for breakfast, ‘Below’ smartly shows that its two main characters – Commander Murrell of the USS Haynes, and Kapitän zur See von Stolberg of the unnamed U-boat – are not walking avatars of patriotism or the embodiments of vengeance and revenge. Both have lost loved ones to war, are tired of the conflict, and are good men who could get along if there wasn’t a war going on. Even better, the film portrays them both as professionals doing their job. Neither holds any animosity towards the other; they both just want to go home, but can’t until their current conflict is resolved.

It has both parties destroy each other

While it would be tempting to have either the sub or the Haynes overpower the other at the film’s climax, ‘Below’ has both ultimately destroy one another: the submarine gets a fatal blow on the destroyer, and the Haynes inflicts a mortal wound on the sub by ramming it, and then having both be blown up.

Though the Americans ultimately win in the long term (they’re rescued and the German sailors become prisoners of war), having both parties inflict a fatal wound on each other makes the climax more exciting, as the audience is left unsure who will ultimately emerge triumphant.

It has an unexpectedly wholesome ending

So often we have war movies that end with either one combatant being destroyed, or where nobody wins, and everyone suffers. Very rare is war movie – especially a non-comedic one set in World War Two – that features both sides not only surviving, but an honest-to-goodness happy ending that doesn’t feel contrived or out of place. ‘Below’ is one of those rare films, ending with only one person dying (Stolberg’s executive officer), and the rest of both the submarine and destroyer’s crews surviving to see another day with no hard feelings between any of them. Heck, we even get to see both crews work together to get their captains off the Haynes before it’s destroyed.

While such wholesome, happy endings won’t always work, especially in a war movie, ‘Below’ proves that it can be done.

What would have helped improve the story?

Having Stolberg be more aggressive

Thought I may be more realistic to have Captain Stolberg hide his submarine for most of the running time, it does create an imbalance of power. He’s supposed be smart, clever, and cunning, but aside from a torpedo strike early on, it feels like he’s always on the defensive until the climax, never getting a chance to strike or damage the Haynes (though his means of escaping detection by sailing under it is very clever).

Following up on the crew’s boredom

Early on the film, it’s established that the Haynes hasn’t seen much action during the war, and her crew are getting bored. It’s a good set up for a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario later on, but with the film’s focus being mainly on Stolberg and Murrell, we don’t get any moments where the crew regret hoping for some action while their ship is sinking or they watch as their shipmates are injured and wounded.

Conclusion

Much like ‘Sink the Bismark!’ ‘The Enemy Below’ goes to great lengths to humanize its antagonist and protagonist, and it pays off in spades. While it would have been nice to see both captains get an equal shot to show off their combat intelligence and abilities, the exciting climax, wholesome happy ending, and the lack of a revenge subplot makes ‘The Enemy Below’ a wholesome war movie that the whole family can enjoy.

Huh… there’s a sentence you don’t see everyday.

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