The Enemy Below (1957)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Curt Jürgens, David Hedison, Theodore Bikel, Russell Collins, Kurt Kreuger
Directed by: Dick Powell
Written by: Wendell Mayes
Rating: NR Running Time: 1 hr. 38 min
Hey, this movie is just like that classic Star Trek episode, Balance of Terror. At least that’s what I knew back in my youth after I saw The Enemy Below for the first time. As it turns out though, the two were more closely related than I realized. Being that the Balance of Terror was directly inspired by this classic WWII action drama (which is based on a book by D.A. Rayner). A film pitting a German U-Boat captain, Von Stolberg (Curt Jürgens) against the stoic American destroyer captain, Murrell (Robert Mitchum).
It’s a great story. A battle of wits out in the middle of the South Pacific. Two captains, good men, playing cat and mouse trying to anticipate each others moves and deal the killer blow. The Enemy Below is classic WWII Hollywood entertainment. Cheesy by today’s standards, with scenes on the American destroyer playing out like old news reel footage. Bouncing along to a weirdly upbeat tempo, with Captain ‘plank of wood’ Mitchum sticking out his broad chest, coolly smoking a cigarette. Phoning in his performance as he blandly reads is lines and stares wistfully out over the ocean blue.
Down below however, is Curt Jürgens, a way more nuanced part and a really great performance. His German U-Boat captain despises the war, and the political philosophy espoused by Adolf Hitler. He’s playing the ‘enemy’, but he’s a character you can also root for. Which is why this (and Balance of Terror) works so well. It’s not a clean-cut good against evil paradigm. These are skilled operatives playing a clever yet dangerous game. Played in such a way that there’s no outright winner, only mutual respect for how the game was played.
These old war movies are great Sunday afternoon entertainment. Expect some wooden acting from Mitchum and dated (though Oscar-winning at the time) special effects. The Enemy Below is not rated, but my guess would be a PG-13.
The Oscar-winning special effects have dated, but they are not so bad that they become a distraction. A regular format DVD or streaming presentation on a nice big TV will do this film justice.
I loved this speech by Von Stolberg during the first act.
“I am sick of this war. It’s not a good war. You don’t remember the first one. I was a Fähnrich in the U Boats. How proud I was! We went out in those little sardine tins, and if we submerged we couldn’t always be sure we would come up again. Oh it was a good game we played! The Captain would look through his periscope and sight the target… and then he did arithmetic in his head! And said ‘torpedo loose!’ And you know something? Sometimes the torpedo wouldn’t even leave the tube. And if it did, we were most lucky to hit something! And now… now I look in the periscope and it gives me the distance and the speed. I pass this information to the attack table, and machinery turns, and lights flash, and we get the answer. The torpedo runs to its target, and there is no human error in this. They’ve taken human error out of war, heini. They’ve taken the human out of war. War was different then. It put iron in a country’s backbone, gave them brave memories. And even in defeat it gave them honour. But there is no honour in this war. The memories will be ugly, even if we win. And if we die… we die without God. Do you know that, Heinie?”