Sidney Poitier: The Bedford Incident (UK-US 1965)

This film is topical again with NATO again confronting Russia and in danger of starting a nuclear conflict. In terms of its importance in Sidney Poitier’s career, this is a rare example of a film in the 1960s which does not focus on his African American identity in any way. Of course, there may be those in the audience for whom his presence is a surprise in a positive or negative way but that is not the direct concern of the narrative.

Richard Widmark is the driven Captain Finlander

The ‘Bedford’ is a US Navy destroyer equipped with new technologies for submarine hunting and its captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a determined hunter. Also on board is Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke of the Deutsche Marine (Eric Portman) who twenty years earlier was an ace U-boat captain. He is an observer for a NATO ally and also an adviser on submarine tactics. At the start of the film a helicopter delivers two extra passengers, a magazine journalist Ben Munceford (Poitier) and a doctor, Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter (Martin Balsam) who has been in the US Navy Reserve since 1945. The other leading player is Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), a likeable and talented young man being treated harshly by Finlander who thinks this will make him a better officer. All the action takes place on the destroyer which patrols the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Finlander hopes to catch a Soviet submarine in Greenland territorial waters (i.e. in NATO waters). He identifies a ‘mother ship’ (a Russian trawler) and works out that a submarine is not far away and that it is a conventionally powered rather than nuclear vessel, meaning it can’t return to base under the Arctic ice. It may, however, have nuclear torpedoes. Eventually Finlander’s crew detects a submarine within NATO waters. How will the potential contact work out?

The fictitious USS Bedford as a model and a British frigate

I saw this on release in 1965 and it has stayed with me. I’m now intrigued by the production as well as the taut narrative. It wasn’t unusual for Hollywood productions to shoot in the UK during the mid-1960s but usually that meant either a British production with Hollywood backing for a British story or an American film set in the UK. This is an American story set in the North Atlantic with an American cast, apart from the always reliable Eric Portman. Yet the production actually took place at Shepperton Studios with footage at sea shot in the Mediterranean using facilities in Malta. There was model work in the tank at Shepperton and footage of a similar British ship (a frigate) in the Med. The crew was almost entirely British, including Gil Taylor as cinematographer and Arthur Lawson as art director. Lawson worked on many shipboard narrative features. He was a regular on shoots by the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, including The Battle of the River Plate (UK 1956) which also used Royal Navy ships filmed in the Med to stand in for the (South) Atlantic. The Bedford Incident is very much a film of ‘connections’. The director James B. Harris was mainly a producer (this was one of only five films he directed) and he worked in the UK with Stanley Kubrick on Lolita in 1962. It is said that they fell out over Dr Strangelove (1964), which Harris wanted to be a straight drama. The Bedford Incident might therefore be his anti-nuclear war film. Eric Portman had played at least two Germans before, once as a U-boat Leutnant in 49th Parallel (1941), one of a trio of Powell and Pressburger films in which he featured.

Sidney Poitier as Munceford the journalist

Widmark and Harris were producers on the film with Denis O’Dell as associate producer – I presume that he was the  link to the British crew and creatives. He had also been associate producer on The Long Ships in 1964 which also starred Widmark and Poitier. That film was a UK-Yugoslavia co-production through Warwick Pictures an UK independent with a strong link to Columbia which also distributed The Bedford Incident. Widmark and Poitier were friends, going back to No Way Out (US 1950). A further link between some of the people working on this film was Richard Lester. The film was written by James Poe, an experienced writer on several high profile films, including Lilies of the Field (1963) for which Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar. The original novel of The Bedford Incident was written by Mark Rascovich who in the Second World War had been a flyer across the North Atlantic and in Africa. He did write other books but they were not adapted.

Eric Portman as Commodore Schrepke

The film had a positive reception except for some high-profile critics. It has got a good reputation now, including among navy veterans despite a number of mistakes including a mix of British and American equipment and some outdated terminology. For my purpose here, the central issues are about the Munceford-Finlander relationship and also the extent to which the film tells us something important about the Cold War and subsequent nuclear confrontations. Poitier’s journalist has been described by some critics as a form of liberal intellectual who is intent on challenging and investigating Finlander. We learn that although he is aiming to research a general piece about life on a navy ship, he has specifically asked to visit Finlander’s command. This was after he discovered that Finlander had been passed over for promotion immediately after being feted for his actions in forcing a Russian submarine to surface at the time of the Cuba crisis. The inference is that Finlander is a dangerous ‘hawk’ in his approach to his job. Wikipedia’s detailed analysis of the film suggests that Munceford is similar to the character in The Caine Mutiny who challenges Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) – except that he is more likeable than the Keefe character on the Caine. Widmark apparently based his performance partly on the persona of Barry Goldwater who was seen as a ‘hawk’ at the time of his presidential campaign in 1964. However, there is also the suggestion that Finlander is a modern Captain Ahab hunting his own Moby Dick and there are some whale references in the script.

Martin Balsam is Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter. The medical orderly in the foreground is played by Donald Sutherland in early role.

This is really Widmark’s film and Poitier does not have as much screen time. I feel he is also a slightly comic character at certain times, clearly not used to life on the ship which is constantly on alert. He is often taking photographs and at one point seems in danger of being swept overboard. Perhaps he is in some ways simply a ‘civilian’ who is too light-hearted for Widmark’s Captain. But this means he is really the audience’s representative on the ship. He is also a determined journalist and an acute observer as well as someone concerned by Finlander’s behaviour. But his character is not the only one challenging Finlander. Both Potter and the German Commodore attack or criticise Finlander – and both have naval experience. Potter might have been a reservist for twenty years and he has returned to service in order to escape something in his personal life, but he is a doctor and an officer and not a rating. He is prepared to stand up to Finlander – but he cannot in the last resort disobey orders. But the most chilling line in the film goes to Commander Schrepke. He gives Finlander good advice and doesn’t attempt to pass criticism directly. When Finlander challenges him and says “Do you think I am a desperate man”, he replies “No. But you frighten me”. I won’t spoil what happens at the end of the film. It is certainly worth waiting for.

The criticism of this film is that it is conventional. It’s true that it is quite a static film and for much of the time it is more like a stage play. Its strength however is that the four leads are all very experienced and capable actors and carry the script through some of the more surprising actions of the captain. The fifth central figure, James MacArthur as Ensign Ralston, has less to say but his actions are significant. Widmark and Poitier work well together but perhaps it is Portman and Balsam who are very strong supports that ensure the the narrative works as a Cold War lesson. The Ukraine War reminds us that we have spent nearly 70 years in a state of nuclear ‘preparedness’ I guess that for some younger audiences this could be quite an eye-opener. The film is highly recommended and it is available on many of the streamers.

One comment

  1. film-authority.com

    Fond of this for reasons you ably describe; Harris got his way and made this serious fare in a Stanley Kramer vibe. It’s also nice to see Poitier in a role where race isn’t the major concern, which feels progressive for 65. And as you say, the cold war vibe is back, and such concerns still ring true…

    Liked by 1 person

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