“This is Really Beneath Me,” He Claims. “20,000 Leagues Beneath Me.”
Because I’m not drawn to drink or drugs, I think I’m more susceptible to other less conventional intoxicants. Case in point – my current addiction to cheesy submarine movies. Whether you consider this peculiar predilection a harmless hobby or a nautical neurosis, I’ll leave to your consideration. I do believe these underwater cinematic spectacles trigger the same neurons in my brain’s pleasure center that are triggered by drugs and alcohol in normal people like you (this may be assuming a lot). I’m as happy as a clam, sitting at attention in my marine mancave, watching soldierly submariners behaving like dutiful amphibians. My life coach says these cheesy submarine movies are beneath me, and she’s right. In one movie they’re 20,000 leagues beneath me.
Don’t you find the term “cheesy” to be a lactose intolerant word? Your cheese is my caviar and I’ve found great happiness in those little underwater fish ova. Underwater things speak to me. Maybe I’m all wet on this issue, but where computers see a binary world of ones and zeros, I see a binary world of submarine movies and not submarine movies. I cannot fathom anything deeper than 2 categories of things. To my way of thinking you’re either part of the submarine movie universe or you’re just…the rest of universe. In the former category you’re part of the solution. In the latter you’re part of the problem. I consider myself a high-functioning person, if only because my 7-layer dip does not contain mulch as one of its layers. However, when I initially encounter a person, place or thing to be categorized, the first question I ask myself is: Does this thing serve the cause of the submarine movie universe; or is it just part of the boring, everyday cosmos? I ponder this question while figuratively submerged beneath the waves in my marine-like mancave.
Don’t you find the term “mancave” to be a caveman intolerant word? It can sound so unkind to a Neanderthal’s hairy ear. In any event, my marine mancave is like a magical aquarium outfitted with artifacts to render my above-ground underwater experience arrestingly authentic. And true to my submarine ways, I’ve spent money on it like a drunken sailor. There’s a sunken treasure chest, bio-luminescent lighting, a little bubbling man in a diving suit and some fishnets. Not the kind of fishnets to catch fish, but the kind of fishnets women wear to catch men – I mean I am a male and this is my manspace I’ve outfitted to suit my interests. And I employ the word “outfitted” with great binary precision. You see women decorate. Men outfit.
Don’t you find the term “outfitted” to be a female intolerant word. Alright, I’ll stop with this running “intolerant” trope. Even I can’t tolerate it anymore. I guess that makes me intolerant of intolerance. But as I claimed earlier, I am high-functioning. I know the difference between being entertaining, and being repetitive. As I said earlier, I know the difference between being entertaining and being repetitive.
Rules of the Sea
In order to qualify as a submarine movie, the film must feature, present or promote the following mandatory items:
- All sailors must have a visible arc of armpit sweat extending from the front of the shoulder to the back of the shoulder – even if they’re shirtless.
- For reasons known only to the tobacco industry, smoking in this confined, underwater gas chamber is not only allowed, but is encouraged. Hence the slogan: Join the Navy and get 3 lifetimes of tar in just one 3-month deployment.
- All food is “chow” and served by a grizzled yet lovable mess cook, Sergeant Falco, who plates everything with a side of cigarettes and a dash of armpit sweat.
- There must be a fraught scene where perspiring midshipmen gaze anxiously at the ceiling for what seems like an eternity as they await the latest detonation in a barrage of enemy depth charges. And when they do explode, they must make sudden phony movements in one direction as the hull absorbs yet another powerfully bogus explosion.
- Smiling is prohibited (unless it’s ironic).
- There must be some recognizable, but out of place actor in it – like Don Rickles, Wally Cox or Trini Lopez (oh, what that man could do with a hammer).
- At some point an exasperated ensign exclaims, “I didn’t sign up for this sh*t.” He’s soon reminded he did indeed sign up for it. For a 4-year hitch.
- At some point the hull will be breached and there’ll be a containable, yet harrowing flood in which 2 superfluous seamen (they didn’t have speaking parts) drown.
- In the mandatory scene where the sub and its crew are plummeting to a potentially watery grave after taking one too many enemy depth charges, you realize it’s not their destiny to die yet. These men have got packs of unlit cigarettes to smoke and hampers of sweat-stained uniforms to launder.
- There’ll be a lot of eerie sonar pings indicating we’re underwater and it’s a submarine movie. No pongs, just pings.
What’s in a Name
All submarine movies except one are about high stakes, underwater peril in the midst of mortal conflict. I’ll give you a moment to think which one that is. OK. Times up. It’s Yellow Submarine. Other submarine movie titles (some real, some perhaps invented) include:
- Ice Station Zebra – A wondrously vague military moniker laid athwart a forbidding Arctic seascape. I’m swooning here. Calgon take me away – to the North Pole!
- Run Silent, Run Deep – Starring Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable. My God, 10 minutes in, before Mr. Lancaster even issued the order to “Take ‘er down ensign,” Lancaster had completely chewed the scenery (not an easy thing to do on an all steel boat). His overacting is all too easily criticized, but we owe a great debt to Lancaster, for without his example, William Shatner may never have honed his acting chops. Some say the actual title should be Run Silent, Run Deep, Run as Far Away from Burt Lancaster’s Acting as You Can. Confession: I couldn’t stop watching this underwater thriller. Little known fact: Before there were talkies, there was another Run Silent, Run Deep movie. It told the story of a mute philosopher who pondered profoundly while he jogged – true to its title he would: run silent, run deep. That film fared poorly. Why? – No submarines.
- Run Loudly, Run Shallow – This Mel Brooks parody of submarine movies belongs in the kiddie pool. Although the farting scene where, after a dinner of pork and beans the crew fills the submarine with so much noxious gas that they’re forced to surface, is hilarious. The rest of the movie stunk. Well, I guess that makes the entire movie a stinker.
- Ships Oy Vey! – In this all-Hebraic sequel to the gentile Ships Ahoy! the nascent Israeli Navy is out on patrol everyday but Saturday. Admiral Nimitzowitz insists each sailor trades in their traditional sailor’s hat for a little white yarmulke with a teeny-tiny brim. Trademark Yiddish humor is on display when each deployment to sea is dubbed a “Jews Cruise.” Burt Lancaster visited during filming, but orthodox Jews refused to allow him on the set because, “He’s just too hammy.”
- Das Boot – German U-boat flick with plenty of surface tension as well as below surface tension. It starred venerable German actor Klaus Traphobic. Reports say Klaus Traphobic had trouble coping with the cramped quarters on the submarine.
- Yellow Submarine – This Beatles submarine cartoon was much more upbeat than the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black Submarine.
- Up Periscope – This 1959 classic featured the impeccably well-groomed James Garner as Captain Morrel Rectitude. The line defining where Mr. Garner’s hair ended and his neck began is delineated with such expert tonsorial precision that the Navy is able to set their watch to it. In one scene the camera pans slowly over the bunks, and in the background I swore I saw a nude picture of Vivian Vance. Either that or it was a nude picture of Marilyn Monroe with Vivian Vance’s head taped over it. Being out to sea does something to a man’s head. Confession: Watched it twice back to back.
- Down Periscope – Kelsey Grammer at his pettifogging best in this uneven salmagundi of hijinks and lowjinks. Note: If your lowjinks last longer than 4 minutes, stop watching and call your doctor. Note to the note: The word hijinks is one of those rare words with 3 consecutive dotted letters – like iiicarumba! In Down Periscope, Kelsey Grammer speaks very clearly, but sometimes Kelsey’s grammar ain’t so good.
- Deep Periscope – Warning. Not a submarine movie, but a XXX sequel to Deep Throat.
- Gee Your Armpits Smell Terrific – Again, not the kind of movie you’d want to take the family to.
- The Hunt for Red October & Crimson Tide – 2 Cardinal-colored covert conflicts. Red-shifted wavelengths abound, proving the universe is still expanding. What is the proper length of a wave? Experts say about 3-4 seconds.
- The Hunt for Red Skelton – When famed comedian Red Skelton fails to show up for a rehearsal, his agent starts looking everywhere for him. He eventually finds him safe and dry at a deli eating a submarine sandwich.
Leveling-Off at Periscope Depth, Secure Quarters, Insecure Dimes, All Ahead 1/3rd, Smok’em if Ya Got’em
Watching submarine movies…let me rephrase that, experiencing submarine movies brings me untold joy. I’d like to tell you about it, but then it wouldn’t be untold, would it? It would be “told joy.” And there are 2 things I promised myself early on: 1. I wouldn’t read Tolstoy and 2. I wouldn’t share “told joy.” No Tolstoy, no told joy (try saying that 3 times fast). And if that’s not high-functioning, I don’t know what is. You see in my long pioneering years of social distancing, well before it became popular, I discovered the importance of being scrupulously honest with my readers so I didn’t suffer their social ostracization. Unfortunately, due to my single-minded interest in submarine movies, social ostracization is something I’m all too familiar with. In any event, social ostracization is not to be confused with being oblivious to things by sticking your head in the sand. That’s called social ostrich-ization, and it’s for the birds. But I’m pleased to be able to differentiate the meaning between social ostracization from social ostrich-ization – even though it comes up infrequently. In fact it’s probably never come up until now. And once again I’ve gone overboard here, but going overboard might be appropriate given the nautical topic.
Based on my entire life experience I‘ve concluded the following 2 precepts to be self-evident: There’s no such thing as bad macaroni & cheese and there’s no such thing as a bad submarine movie – misunderstood maybe, but never bad. In fact the American Pharmacological Society’s Drug Handbook now classifies submarine movies as an opioid, effecting 1 in 7.5 billion people. 1 in 7.5 billion people? Wait – that’s me! I always knew I was special and the APS (American Pharmacological Society) confirms it. While the APS is busy classifying my experience with their Big Pharma-babble, I’m off to the marine mancave for today’s celluloid screening.
In My Octopus’s Garden Watching Submarine Movies
Even though my outer adult recognizes these movies are fictional, my inner child thinks they’re documentaries. And when I screen a submarine film in the marine mancave, it is undertaken with more reverence and vigor than is really needed. On this hallowed day I’m screening Ice Station Zebra (sometimes abbreviated ISZ). I march ceremoniously into my aquatically appointed marine mancave. I then secure the hatch behind me (that’s “shut the door” for you civilians) and bark out an order to no one in particular, “Dive, Dive, Dive.” I blow one of those insanely loud “Ah-Ooo-Gah” horns several times until my neighbors report me to the HOA, and then I take her down to cruise at periscope depth. Just what it is I’ve taken down to periscope depth, and just exactly what that periscope depth is, are unknown to me and I prefer you wouldn’t ask me about them. I mean I may be high-functioning, but there’s still my inner child to pacify and validate. As the movie continues, there’s an overwhelming amount of imaginary work to be done, so in no particular order, and for no apparent purpose I: sound general quarters, blow the left ballast tank and secure the torpedo tubes. It’s all a little Army boy’s heart could wish for. And then sh*t got real…in a make-believe way.
Lucidly Experiencing My Ice Station Zebra Fever Dream
I find myself deeply ensconced in my marine mancave lucidly transported directly into the action of MGM’s 1968 blockbuster Ice Station Zebra – now there’s a title to send shivers up your Cold War spine: Ice Station Zebra. I’m euphoric to find myself immersed into the midst of this taut thriller featuring imperturbable Rock Hudson, roughhewn Ernest Borgnine, inestimable Patrick MacGoohan and jut jawed Jim Brown. It’s all so marvelously surreal. Not only am I flabbergasted to be thrust fully formed into the plot of this magnificent movie, but I’m also envious. I’m envious of my situation – and I’m me! It’s kind of like being narcissistic, but with self-congratulatory envy instead of misplaced self-love.
Note: I may have just expressed “told joy” about the sublimity of watching submarine movies thereby breaking my rule of not describing the untold joy of experiencing submarine movies. Well damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. I guess when it comes to admitting character flaws I run a tight ship. Now that I’ve expressed “told joy”, I might as well read Tolstoy.
In this particularly dangerous and frigid scene, it’s daybreak and I’m on the deeply pitching deck of the surfaced nuclear sub USS Tigerfish somewhere north of the Arctic Circle near the forbidding and barren landscape of Norway’s Spitsbergen Island. The seas are heavy, rain pelts the conning tower and thick fog abounds (it was a dark and stormy morning?). I assist Capt. Anders (Jim Brown) drop down from a helicopter onto the deck so he can take charge of the marines already inside the sub. With the bracing spray of chilled salt air, the rhythmic rise and fall of the heaving sub and the frenetic whirr of the chopper’s rotor blades, I’m glad to have my sea legs under me. Freed from his tether, Captain Anders thanks me with a knowing fraternal grunt and a moment later we’re all below deck in the chow hall, having a cup of Joe served by Sergeant Falco with the usual side of cigarettes and a dash of Naval sweat. We discuss a host of important issues ranging from coffee to cigarettes to why everybody is so damn sweaty around here.
Still wearing our thick, bulging parkas, there’s 6 of us sitting like overstuffed Naval Santas at a table suitable for 4 non-parka wearing seamen. We cherish our intoxicating mix of bad coffee, noxious cigarettes and acrid sweat. This is manliness at its compacted, uncomplaining and canine best. We don’t know what’s good for us and we don’t care. There’s a mission to be executed and God damn it, we’re all in. The mission gives us purpose. Some kind of unknowable, ill-defined mission to maybe rescue civilians attached to a compromised British weather station whose communications with us are garbled so we don’t know exactly what happened. But that’s really a cover for intercepting a capsule that has fallen from outer space before the Russians do because it might contain film of airbases that, if gotten into the wrong hands, could upset the balance of power and Jesus I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore and eventually neither does the movie Ice Station Zebra. However, and this is the part that matters, it’s all presented with an earnestness that is nothing short of arresting. It’s bracing in its presentation of self-importance and God I love it. There. I’ve said it. I unashamedly and unabashedly admit to eating up this stuff like a crack addict does Crystal Meth (or, in a less narcotizing way, like a lemonade addict drinking Crystal Light).
That’s a lot to take in. And the plot is a lot to take out. It grows increasingly convoluted, like a Picasso painting. You just stare at it and say, “I have no idea what it means, but I can’t stop looking at it. I won’t stop looking at it.”
Trying to Get a Handel on this Water Music
And while the story arc is convoluted and contentious, it’s not as convoluted and contentious as the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (if that doesn’t put you in the time and place of Ice Station Zebra, I don’t know what will.) The plot is both supremely dopey and oddly riveting. There’s so much at stake – although just what exactly is at stake, I couldn’t tell you. The soaring score amplifies the confusion by punctuating every moment with uber sturm and drang – whether a seaman is simply lighting a cigarette or the sub is trying to outrun a torpedo, the music always keeps us at fever pitch.
The musical director Michael Legrand could’ve waved his baton a little more lightly – pacing, foreshadowing, breathe. Take your foot off the wand man. Every time there’s a long shot of the sub breaching the surface and exposing itself to the light of day, the embryonically solemn music sounds like it’s a rebirthing experience. If this much melodramatic music punctuated all the moments in my life I’d be an emotional wreck. Something as mundane as breakfast would become a seething cauldron of missed opportunities and vast regrets – an emotional roller coaster of hopeful, sunny side up eggs and once burnt, twice shy toast. I don’t know how I’d ever make it to mid-morning snack. If the mood enhancing music was any more omnipresent, my juice box would take on sinister airs.
Rock to the Rescue
The movie finds its center when Rock Hudson as Capt. Ferraday steps forward and takes the con (control of the ship). We’ll get into this in much more detail than is necessary, but suffice to say Rock Hudson, as the imperturbable Captain Ferraday, seems inwardly thrilled at being surrounded by 100 sweaty men in close quarters. Fresh off a supporting role in The Dirty Dozen, former NFL great and model for the Rock’em Sock’em Robots Jim Brown seems to have been given one acting note: “Except when speaking do not activate any facial muscles. Keep pupils fixed and dilated.” And he fairly achieved this level of catatonic accuracy by evincing less emotion than Chuck Norris at a gun show.
With Gregory Peck, the first choice as Captain Ferraday, unavailable the producers scouted around for a new captain and eventually they found another A-lister in Rock Hudson. Through phone logs and transcripts provided under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) I’ve reconstructed the conversation Rock Hudson had with his longtime Hollywood Agent Henry Willson on securing the part of Capt. Ferraday in Ice Station Zebra. Oh hell, I just made it up, but I bet it’s close to what happened. The conversation may have gone something like this:
Henry Willson: Hey Roy (Rock’s real name). I thought I’d run this by you. A couple of parts are available. One great. One not so good. First there’s the Doris Day franchise. She wants you to make another one of those frothy comedies with her. She said they’ll double your salary.
Rock: I’m listening. What’s the other part?
Henry Willson: Well, then there’s this stupid submarine movie where you’d have to spend 10 hours a day in close, steamy quarters with a hundred sweaty guys?
Rock: Wow that’s tough.10 hours? And you say it will be hot?
Henry Willson: Yeah, it looks like a pretty dismal shooting schedule for something called Ice Station Zebra. Doris says she’ll double your salary from the last picture. So I’ll call Doris’s people and tell’em you’re a go for her picture.
Rock: Like hell you will. All those young men are going to need showers and mentoring and direction from a caring yet strict captain. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t thank them for their service.
Henry Willson: Ah Roy. You do realize they’re actors. Right? They’re not really in the Navy. Anyway, I’ll confirm you for the Doris Day movie OK?
Rock: Negative Hank. I’ve made my decision. I’m all in on Ice Station Scrotum…I mean Zebra. You tell Doris I’m attached to Ice Station Zebra. Very attached. Anchors aweigh baby!
Who Doesn’t Want a Climax?
The climactic scene in ISZ takes place at the North Pole. And it looks exactly like the North Pole, if the North Pole was a 72° soundstage covered in vanilla frosting and populated by sweaty men wearing puffy white parkas. It should’ve been Neptune cold up at the top of the world, but unbelievably, when the combatants remove their parka hoods and speak to each other in the windless environment of Soundstage 27, you can’t even see the frozen vapor of their breath. Well that’ll happen when it 72° inside. I’ll grant you the underwater cinematography was magnificent and even Oscar-nominated, but this North Pole set was straight out of Santa’s workshop. I half expected Burl Ives to glide in on a sled while strumming a guitar. Well not to be too glib, but one wonders how professional set designers were allowed to create an alternative North Pole universe corresponding more with a Macy’s department store window than the desolate, blustery and forsaken landscape that is the North Pole.
Were there flaws in the movie? Yes. But there are flaws in real life and that only makes my heart grow fonder for ISZ. It’s a case of art imitating an imitation of life. And since reality is only a collective hunch anyway, I’m comfortable surrendering my concept of “felt presence” to its frame of reference. We buy into, and validate other milieus all the time, why not in submarine movies too?
Mission Completed and Terminated
I’m gratified to have shared with you my deep see into the deep sea. Having expressed some of the “told joy” associated with submarine movies, I’m terminating this successful mission. The “untold joy” of actually experiencing these movies you’ll just have to experience for yourself. I can only present my experience. Submarine movies captivate me in ways words cannot express. Words can only convey concepts. We humans however are much more adept at sharing wordless experiences and I’m a carrier of this content. That’s it! A carrier. An aircraft carrier. Perhaps films about carriers are a whole other Naval movie genre I should explore. Looks like my mancave is going to need a flight deck. See you on my next deployment.