Several years removed from the end of WWII, Lt. Commander Armstrong (John Mills) has remained in command of the Trojan, a British sub crewed by veterans and youngsters alike. A 12-year veteran of the Navy, Armstrong is feeling pressure from his wife to leave that life behind and settle down with a not so dangerous job, but first he make take the Trojan out on an annual exercise. So with his first officer, Lt. Manson (Nigel Patrick), and crew, Armstrong takes the Trojan out only to strike disaster. The sub accidentally collides with a mine that's been drifting at sea for years and sinks to the ocean floor with 12 survivors. Armstrong holds out hope they will be found, but can he hold his crew together until then?
Based off a stage play, 'Departure' is a prime example of the quality British war movies made in the 15-20 years following the end of World War II. They typically lacked the immense scale and sheer size of many American movies, but they equaled that out with an emotional link. It isn't always impressive to the eye, but more on the personal level. We feel what these survivors are going through. Lt. Cmdr. Armstrong can send four men through one chute to the surface, four men through another, leaving four to sit on the ocean floor waiting to be salvaged in a process that could take a week. Uncomfortable much? The situation on its own is completely uncomfortable. When you're invested in the characters, it is that much worse.
Those individuals are somewhat borrowed from the War Movies Stock Characters list, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Familiar can be okay when handled right. Mills is one of my favorite actors, and his lead performance as Armstrong -- solid, resolute, a calming effect on his men -- is perfect for the role. Patrick's Lt. Manson is the ladies man, but more importantly, he's a good officer standing at Armstrong's side. A past incident from WWII lingers on his mind, making an impact on their waiting rescue. A young 27-year old Richard Attenborough is given a chance to do his thing and doesn't disappoint playing Snipe, a young seaman with a wandering wife back home. Faced with a perilous situation in the definition of a claustrophobic situation, he finds out who he really is. Also look for Bernard Lee as Commander Gates, the high-ranking officer leading the rescue effort for his possibly lost ship, Kenneth More as his adjutant, Lt. James, and James Hayter as Higgins, the veteran submariner and cook for the Trojan.
Director Roy Ward Baker does a great job here not only setting up the story but also executing it successfully. It's clear early on that this "routine afternoon exercise" will no go smoothly (thanks for making me cynical, Gilligan's Island.), but seeing it happen is no less troubling to watch. Stories of survivors waiting to be rescued can be tricky then because basically we're watching people sit around waiting. It's here though we get to know some of these characters on a more personal level, making their struggles more personal to watch. The rescue effort on the high seas with weather and tides a factor is interesting to watch, building to an ending that I certainly didn't see coming. Moving, highly effective surprise ending at that.
One other thing worth mentioning, 'Departure' was made just months prior to an accident with a British submarine -- the HMS Truculent -- that cost the lives of some 60 people. The film had been made with Navy backing but was still almost withdrawn because of its similarities to the real-life incident. The movie was released though and was the better for it. There's some great footage of the Trojan and all the rescue ships, not to mention some cool underwater footage as some survivors make it to the surface and another scene where a diver heads down to get in contact with the Trojan. Underrated, not hugely well known movie, but an above average one worth seeking out.
Morning Departure <---Movie @ Youtube (1950): ***/****