Up Periscope! (US 1959)

This film is available on BBC iPlayer for three weeks. I hadn’t seen it before and thought it might make a useful comparison with Ford’s They Were Expendable from a weeks ago. Although I hadn’t seen it, I thought I recognised the title and I think I’d assumed at first that it was a comedy, something also suggested by the still used by the BBC on iPlayer. It’s set during the early part of the Pacific War in 1942 and stars James Garner, then just turned 30 and a contract player at Warner Bros., who had already established himself as the lead in the TV comedy Western series Maverick (1957-62). What I didn’t know was that Garner had been a decorated soldier during the Korean War. This background throws a little light on what Warner Bros. might have hoped for with Up Periscope.

Braden (James Garner) in the diving gear celebrating a successful action on the Barracuda

James Garner is Lieutenant J.G. Kenneth Braden who has been trained as a naval demolition engineer and as a Japanese language expert. The film opens with a romantic sub-plot which sees Braden secretly checked out by an attractive young woman from naval intelligence. Unaware he has passed a test, Braden is then shipped to Pearl Harbour and soon finds himself on board the Barracuda, a submarine under the command of Commander Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). Braden’s mission seems ambitious and potentially dangerous for not just himself but also for the whole crew of the submarine – but only he and Stevenson know what it is. Stevenson has to get the sub close to a Japanese-occupied island so that Braden can get ashore unseen and carry out a daring spying operation – and then return undetected. If he succeeds he will have obtained vital information for a planned attack by US forces. If he fails many men will be killed in future action. What this narrative will then produce is a familiar underwater thriller in which the submarine faces Japanese aircraft and destroyers on its journey to the island and then a tense suspense thriller as Braden carries out his mission. The submarine drama is also driven by the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson as a ‘by the book’ captain whose actions are militarily ‘correct’ but perhaps not understood by his men. The light relief from the drama is provided by Alan Hale Jr., the son of the jovial character actor at Warners in the 1930s, who would later become famous for Gilligan’s Island on US TV (1964-1967).

Commander Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien) on the bridge

Up Periscope! is a ‘WarnerScope’ and Technicolor presentation and it’s directed by Gordon Douglas who almost defines a ‘solid Hollywood studio director”. He made nearly 100 films and TV episodes/TV movies. Starting in the mid-1930s with shorts and then B pictures he came into the spotlight in the 1950s when he signed for Warner Bros, staying until 1965. He was probably best-known for Westerns/action pictures and crime thrillers and he made many well-known films during the 1960s. His last major picture was They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1970) with Sidney Poitier. He retired at the end of the 1970s. Up Periscope! was in safe hands and I certainly found the film gripping. I even fast forwarded a couple of sequences because the tension as Braden is on the island and mustn’t be seen by the Japanese got to me. I can understand some of the more negative comments in the sense that there are only a couple of (very good) war combat action sequences when the submarine is under attack. Much more time is spent on the spying mission, also very effective but the romantic sub-plot rather detracts from the main narrative, even though it is used as something Braden thinks about while he is waiting for darkness on the island.  At 112 minutes the film is arguably too long for its main genre purpose. On the other hand, we might argue that the context of Braden’s recruitment for the operation and the sense of community that is engendered by Ensign Malone (Alan Hale Jr.) are important in grounding this wartime action.

Allan Hale celebrating promotion to Lt. J.G.

If we do compare this film with a wartime film made in late 1945 such as the Ford film, that sense of community is a key element. In some ways the  films are similar. Ford also includes a romance element but it is much more powerful (and doesn’t show a happy ending). He also sends MTBs out on unlikely and ambitious missions and Braden is a Lieutenant J.G. like John Wayne. The submarine is a much more enclosed and ‘closed’ world than the MTBs of the Ford film which means the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson is more personal. Edmund O’Brien has quite a difficult role and pulls it off well. The argument usually is that the wartime films need the propaganda power and big statements that the 1950s war films don’t really need at all. Like the Ford film, Up Periscope! is based on a book, in this case a novel by Rob White. White was born in the Philippines and served in the US Navy. He became quite a prolific author of what are now considered ‘Young Adult’ novels and this includes Up Periscope (the film has a U certificate in the UK, the most accessible certification for ‘all audiences’). White did serve in submarines as well as in aircraft and naval ships. Whether there is any basis in actuality for the story of Up Periscope! is unclear.

Warren Oates (left) attempting to enjoy a sandwich in the mess

James Garner appeared in many films but for UK audiences he may be better known as Brett Maverick in the various TV series or later as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. I hadn’t seen him this young before, but his later persona is already visible at times as the suave, cocky conman. His role as the intrepid frogman spy was one he felt forced into by Warner Bros. There is another connection to TV series besides Garner and Hale because the submarine’s pharmacy steward is played by Edd Byrnes who was also in Maverick but better known I think in 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64). Warren Oates plays a submariner in what I think is the earliest of his performances I have seen. I don’t know if he played with Edmond O’Brien again before The Wild Bunch in 1969. Up Periscope! is well-made entertainment but not much more I think and catching sight of Warren Oates was one of its pleasures for me.

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