James Caan had roles in 1971 and 1972 that catapulted him to stardom, the TV movie Brian's Song where he played Chicago Bears fullback Brian Piccolo and in The Godfather as fiery Sonny Corleone. But through the 1960s, Caan had to put his time in, taking less glamorous roles both in film and TV. Some were obviously better than others -- his supporting part alongside John Wayne in El Dorado standing out -- but most just weren't very good, especially 1969's Submarine X-1.
Commanding a British sub in the North Atlantic, Commander Richard Bolton (Caan) makes a costly decision in battle that costs the lives of 50 of his crew as the sub sinks in a battle with a heavily armored German battleship. Having survived with a handful of men, Bolton is given a new mission. He is to take a small group of sailors and train them like commandos for a dangerous mission using midget submarines. Unfortunately, some of the men are the survivors of his previous ship, and they still hold Bolton responsible for the casualties. Bolton pushes on though, forcing his men to go through the brutal training when the mission is finally revealed. Leading three midget submarines, Bolton will lead a sneak attack in the Norwegian fjords on the very battleship that cost him his last command.
Like the spaghetti westerns, there's a certain charm to WWII movies made
in the 1960s. There's a certain look and feel to these war flicks,
seeing the same faces pop up, the same plot devices, the same locations.
For the most part though, 'Submarine' is missing all those little
things that can bring a movie up a notch...or at least make it bearable to watch. It is clearly filmed on a
small budget with a relatively unknown cast in support of a young James
Caan. It takes the well-worn formula of a team of commandos (however
unlikely) on an impossible mission key to the war's success and....does
nothing with it. Low budget (or cheap) isn't a bad thing, but when a
movie has as little energy as this one, you're in for a long movie.
That thought is odd considering that 'Submarine' doesn't even break
the 90-minute mark, clocking in at an epic 89 minutes. My first thought
was that it was a no frills, bare-bones but still exciting story focusing
on the training and execution of the mission, based off the true story
of Operation Source.
I was partially right. It's not interested in love interests or
character development. The only problem? It's not that interested in the
mission either. At least 35-45 minutes of this WWII story is shots of
divers swimming underwater, the midget submarines gliding toward a
target, the commandos cutting through nets to allow the subs to pass
through. Sounds pretty exciting, doesn't it? It is the dullest dangerous and/or suicide
mission I've ever seen in a commando movie. The only real obstacle in
the mission is the net, and watching three commandos cut through it is
not the spectacular visual you'd imagine. Go figure.
The only recognizable star here is a young Caan, but it's far from
his best work. It's never explained why Caan is serving with the
British, but if you look close you can see 'Canada' stitched on his
shoulder so there's that. The script does him no favors, but he looks
downright bored with the part. He delivers his lines as flatly as
humanly possible, squinting much of the time like he's in pain. Then
there's his three crews, some of the most nondescript commandos ever
seen. The only ones we even get to know by name are Lt. Davies (David Sumner), an officer who holds a grudge against Bolton, Lt. Pennington (Norman Bowler), a second commander, Seaman Quentin (Paul Young), an enlisted man trying to prove himself, and Gogan (William Dysart),
Bolton's right hand man. There is no character development...NONE, so
we're given no reason at all to be interested in any one of these men.
Any emotional impact is then thrown out the window.
There were moments I liked. The cold opening -- Caan and four survivors washing ashore -- is surprisingly effective. A German commando raid on Bolton's base
in northern Scotland in the middle of the movie is exciting on a
small-scale. The Germans send six commandos, not a lot if you ask me for
what they're sent to do, but the mission doesn't go as planned, the one
part of the movie with some energy and excitement. The mission itself
attacking the German battleship in the Norwegian fjords is slow-moving
even when the plan goes awry. The story is a blending of 1955's The
Cockleshell Heroes and 1964's 633 Squadron, but it doesn't even touch
those movies in terms of quality. An all-around stinker.
Submarine X-1 <---trailer (1969): */****