The idea of a conscientious objector is a sticky one because it has to be hard to read a man's true intentions. Combat and war are a terrifying premise, and most would do anything possible to avoid it. But regardless of personal or religious beliefs, some men slip through the cracks and make it into combat on a front-line position. That's 1958's The Deep Six, the story of a man raised as a Quaker who outgrew his childhood beliefs as he grew into an adult. Now when his draft summons arrives in the mail, his beliefs come up again. If it came down to it, could he kill?
A successful advertising artist in Los Angeles, Alec Austen (Alan Ladd), is riding high. His job pays well, he owns a beautiful seaside home, and he's in love and about to be engaged to his boss, beautiful Susan Cahill (Dianne Foster). When it seems everything is lining up into place, Alec relieves a draft summons for the U.S. Navy because he took an ROTC program in college and is still part of the Naval Reserves. Raised as a Quaker, he wavers over what to do but ultimately reports for duty where he's assigned to the USS Poe, a destroyer in the Pacific captained by Commander Meredith (James Whitmore). As the Poe sails toward the Japanese and the conflict awaits, Alec begins to question if his childhood beliefs of pacifism are really gone. When the time comes will he be able to give the order to fire, an order that will almost certainly end in the death of a human being?
Movies about war -- especially in the 1950s -- are a dime a dozen. Doing the norm and making a flick about combat is fine by me, I love that type of story and own a fair share of those on DVD, but it's always refreshing to see a war story with a fresh spin. This story is effective because it's hard not to feel for Ladd's Alec character. It's only natural to be scared about how you'll respond in a situation like he is in regardless of your beliefs or ideologies. Alec must not only worry about his own concerns, and how he'll respond, but if the choices he makes will end up taking the lives of his crew, the men he bunks and eats with on board the Poe. Throw in that the crew (including nasty executive officer Keenan Wynn) finds out about his Quakerism and ostracizes him, and you've got a whole bucket of worms.
In a career that was cut short because of his personal demons, Ladd still made his mark on Hollywood. He always had an easy-going way about him that played on his character's vulnerabilities and made him a likable leading man. His Alec is quiet and unassuming, a good man pressed into a difficult choice. He doesn't whine or moan about his predicament, doing his best to deal with it himself. For the most part, Alec bonds well with his men because he has their best interest at heart. In helping us to get to know his main character, director Rudolph Mate adds in the subplot with Alec's fiance Susan. Where some movies use this technique and it fails miserably, it works here, and I can't explain why the subplot didn't send me up the wall. It just works, and it certainly makes Alec more human. He's worried about marrying Susan because of the very real possibility that he may die at sea, sacrificing his feelings and needs/wants for his concerns on how that event that might not even happen would affect her.
Still, The Deep Six is a war movie, and the heart of the story is Alec and the USS Poe's involvement in the war in the Pacific against the Japanese. The combat is held to a minimum with an occasional strike by a patrolling Japanese plane and saved for the end when Alec must lead a small patrol onto a Japanese-held island where five downed fliers await rescue. The finale -- as was the case with much of the movie -- is limited by a smaller budget, but it makes up for any epic battle with the impact the fighting makes. Filming much of his film at sea, Mate give viewers quite a look at life on a U.S. destroyer, providing some great footage with his cast (not stock footage) on board the ship. The supporting cast includes JHP favorite Whitmore as the veteran commander, Wynn as the bloodthirsty XO, Efram Zimbalist Jr. as on-ship physician/doctor, Lt. Blanchard, and a scene-stealing William Bendix as Frenchy Shapiro, Alec's close friend and Chief officer.
Reminding me of the somewhat out of place humor in John Ford's Mister Roberts, too much time is spent with the crazy antics of the crew, including a pre-Rat Pack Joey Bishop, Perry Lopez, and voice of Alvin and the Chipmunks Ross Bagdasarian (among other cast members). The humor is unnecessary, and if it is an attempt to lighten the mood, it fails badly. It's just not funny and takes away from the more interesting aspects of the story. By no means enough to detract overall from the movie, but worth mentioning.
The Deep Six (1958): ***/****