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.

What we can learn from ‘Limbo with Lyrics’

NOTE: The music video for this song features a child drawn in a stylistic manner repeatedly dying violent deaths.

When it came out in 2010, ‘Limbo’ quickly became one of the most famous independent video games ever created, quickly putting developer Playdead on the map. With it’s beautifully dark art style, bleak aesthetics, brutal violence, and haunting soundtrack, ‘Limbo’ is a masterpiece of grim video games… so, naturally, parodies starting coming our way, including this rather amusing song.

There’s only one lesson to learn from this video, but it’s a good one:

Be cautious when doing making light of real-life horrors

If you haven’t played ‘Limbo’, here are two videos to show you what kind of game it is:

When I initially started this article, I was going to write about how the use of an upbeat tune and comedic sound effects makes for comedy gold when contrasted with very dark media (which it does very well). After all, such a mix has worked before:

However, I then realized that while that combination of lighthearted fun and horrific suffering is funny for fictional stories, it doesn’t work as well when used in real life: A fun Reggie song about concentration camps in Nazi Germany would be rather… tasteless. So would a happy jazz tune about atrocities committed by ISIS to innocent people. It’s easy and fun to parody Jason Vorhees, Darth Vader, and the Alien and Predator, but when it comes to poking fun at torture, genocide, or the mutilation and murder of ordinary people, we walk a very dangerous line between making a point and being tasteless.

Now, nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy. Writers should be free to do dark comedy if they wish, on whatever subject they wish. But discretion is important: Doing a parody song about how millions can’t pay their bills, afford insulin, or even a place to live can be funny because it critiques society and makes a point. Doing a Reggie song about children having limbs hacked off because their parents couldn’t make daily quotas on a rubber plantation probably won’t have the same effect.

When audiences watch or read comedy, they want to laugh and get away from the horrors of the world, if only for a few minutes or even a few seconds. As writers, we have to be careful how we use horror to make them laugh. If we use the horrors of a fictional world, we have more leeway because those horrors don’t really exist. But if we use the evil that surrounds us in everyday life, we must be careful of the point we’re trying to make… unless we’re talking about people who push shopping carts in grocery stores at half a mile an hour and block isles so that no one can get past them. They’re fair game.