The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gray Lady Down

From World War II to the Cold War and everything in between, the submarine has become its own war movie genre. Up Periscope to Hunt for Red October and many others, it's quite the list. How about a sub-sub genre (pun intended)? The submarine in distress!!! A quasi-war movie, quasi-disaster flick, here we go with 1978's Gray Lady Down.

Awarded a promotion, Commander Paul Blanchard (Charlton Heston) is on his last patrol, bringing in the U.S.S. Neptune -- a nuclear submarine -- into port. In foggy conditions though in the Atlantic, the surfaced submarine is struck by a Norwegian freighter and sinks, falling over 1,400 feet below the surface. The Neptune manages to land on a ledge above the ocean floor, perched precariously and one slip-up away from sinking all the way to the bottom of the ocean. They manage to send out an S.O.S. though, and the U.S. Navy is quickly sending rescue ships and crews to the site, headed by specialist Captain Bennett (Stacy Keach). Time is running out though, and the surviving members of Neptune's crew have a limited amount of air. The mission is obviously extremely delicate, the Navy turning to an eccentric officer, Capt. Gates (David Carradine), with a specialized two-man sub to save the day. Can they do so in time?

My first thought when I stumbled across this movie was that it was based on a similar story, even sounding similar to a British war movie about a similar accident, Morning Departure. Nope, I was wrong. From director David Greene, 'Gray' is a disaster flick that doesn't play like a disaster flick. For me, that was a good thing. This isn't some natural calamity, no huge building on fire, no airplane trying to stay in the air. Instead, it feels like a war story that could be true. A horrific accident at sea? A group of survivors desperately holding out? An all-out effort by the Navy to rescue them? Yeah, I could totally buy that as being a true story. It plays well without pandering or being too obvious. There aren't a lot of stand-out examples of "Oh, drama! People are in danger!"

The danger is established and recognized throughout, but for me, it never felt really obvious. That's saying something considering the end-game here. The Neptune sinks several hundred feet below its crush depth, meaning that at any second the submarine could simply be ripped to pieces by the extreme pressure of the water. I can't think of too many worst ways to die than drowning near the bottom of the ocean. Making it worse, the Neptune was torn up nicely in the collision, forcing the survivors to band together in the parts of the sub that are still operational. Just inches and feet away though, the water pressure is beating away at the air-tight doors. Credit to composer Jerry Fielding for turning in a score that doesn't need to be in the forefront either. It is a solid, underplayed score that reveals itself in some key moments.

The one way 'Gray' does stick to its disaster flick roots is in the casting. It's not a huge A-list cast like Towering Inferno or Poseidon Adventure, but it's solid just the same. Mr. Disaster himself, Charlton Heston is a rock-solid lead. It's a quieter, less obvious part that Heston handles well, the sub commander trying to keep his men going while hiding his own worry, concern and guilt over the accident. Keach does a solid part in a more workmanlike role that simply doesn't give him much to do. It's Stacy Keach though, and that ain't a bad thing. As for Blanchard's crew, Ronny Cox is Cmdr. Samuelson, the Neptune's second-in-command who starts to question how things came about. Also look for Stephen McHattie as Murphy, the officer on watch who blames himself for the accident, a pre-Caddyshack Michael O'Keefe as the radioman, Hilly Hicks as Page, the medic, and more than a few other familiar faces. Rosemary Forsyth makes a quick cameo-like appearance as Blanchard's wife.  

The best part though goes to David Carradine as the eccentric Navy officer who doesn't have much use for authority in any form. His Capt. Gates has developed a two-man submersible with a hydraulic arm that can be used underwater. When the Neptune's escape hatch is blocked, Gates and his assistant, Mickey (Ned Beatty), are called in to remove the underwater debris. Gates isn't interested in protocol, orders and what should be done. He's more interested in getting the job done and rescuing the trapped men in the Neptune. It is a part and character we're supposed to like, but Carradine's roguish Navy officer handles it perfectly. Solid casting from top to bottom, Carradine rising to the top.

Sure, things get to be a little much by the end. How many different things can be thrown at this seemingly doomed submarine? It's one thing after another and all against a ticking clock getting close to its deadline. The tension gets ratcheted up throughout, especially when the Navy is finally able to use its Deep Submergence Rescue Vehile (DSRV) in conjunction with Gates' submersible. The final 45 minutes feature a couple pretty big surprises, including one shocker in the final scene that caught me by surprise. Critics and reviews ripped this one to pieces for any number of reasons, but I liked it. It's a solid, entertaining and pretty dramatic story that kept me interested throughout. Also, look for a pre-Superman Christopher Reeve making his screen debut.

Gray Lady Down (1978): ***/****

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