Submarine Command (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Jun 03, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Submarine Command (Blu-ray Review)


John Farrow

Release Date(s)

1951 (May 14, 2024)


Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B

Submarine Command (Blu-ray)

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Submarine Command, set during the last days of World War II, is about a naval officer consumed with guilt over a decision made during his first and only official command in battle. Dealing primarily with the psychological scars of that decision, the film traces how, years later, that guilt affects both his military and personal life.

Commander Ken White (William Holden, Picnic), at the end of the Korean War, looks back in flashback to the day he became captain of the Navy submarine U.S.S. Tiger Shark in the Pacific war zone. On what would be the next-to-last day of World War II, the sub encounters a Japanese ship convoy. Captain Rice (Jack Gregson) allows Ken, a Naval Academy graduate with no combat experience, to direct the torpedo attack. He succeeds in sinking the lead ship, and the sub dives beneath the waves.

When the sub surfaces, a Japanese plane strafes the deck and Captain Rice and another sailor are shot. It’s not clear whether they’re dead or too badly wounded to move. As a Japanese destroyer speeds toward the sub, Ken gives orders to dive again. C.P.O. Boyer (William Bendix, Detective Story) pleads for the sub to resurface and retrieve the men who were shot. Ken judges that doing so would risk the ship and the lives of all aboard for the sake of two men who likely were already dead.

Though the other officers and the family of Captain Rice assure Ken that he did the right thing, he’s torn up by the incident. His wife Carol (Nancy Olson, Sunset Boulevard) is supportive but his unrelieved guilt takes a serious toll on their marriage. During the Korean War, Ken is put in command of the Tiger Shark once again, and assigned to destroy a radar station and telephone center along the Korean coast.

The plot of Submarine Command is familiar—a newly assigned officer must make a split-second decision and live with its consequences. Ken White is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but the term isn’t used, as it hadn’t yet been coined. White may also be suffering from survivor’s guilt. Several scenes portray Ken moody, distracted, and arguing with his wife. This is one of the first war films to deal with post-war psychological stress.

Performances are very good. Holden, a star at Paramount at the time (he starred in Sunset Boulevard the year before), is totally believable as Ken, confidently taking charge of the firing of torpedoes even though he’s never before been in actual battle. Holden makes clear that Ken has been well trained, knows the ship intimately, and is unafraid to take charge. He’s equally convincing in the aftermath as Ken begins to doubt himself and question the rightness of his actions. Holden always elevated his films with a combination of first-rate acting, a guy-next-door image, and undeniable star power. Though Submarine Command isn’t one of his best films, it certainly benefits from his presence.

Bendix’s Boyer excites our sympathy as White’s conscience. Unafraid to speak his mind, Boyer’s first thought is to save two men, without considering that it could jeopardize all the rest of the sub’s crew. Decisions may seem clear-cut when you’re not in charge but far more complex when you are. Boyer becomes a thorn in White’s side and a constant reminder of his possible responsibility for the loss of two lives when he’s once again assigned to the Tiger Shark under White’s command.

Carol is the good wife who suffers along with her husband, makes allowances, excuses his rude behavior, and recognizes his suffering, but after years of his volatility, she feels the marriage can’t survive. Olson infuses Carol with affection for Ken, despondency over his continued self-recriminations, and the feeling that she’s failed him.

Director John Farrow (Night Has a Thousand Eyes) and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer bookend the film with scenes of the submarine in two different wars with Ken in command and Boyer in the crew. The film intelligently chronicles Ken’s struggles after World War II and his inability to move on with his life. More about the men in war than war itself, Submarine Command takes the patina off the war hero to portray him as a human being not impervious to inner turmoil.

Submarine Command was shot by director of photography Lionel Lindon on 35 mm black & white film with spherical lenses and presented in the Academy standard aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Blu-ray is sourced from a 2020 Paramount Pictures master of a 4K scan of film elements. There’s a noticeable difference in quality between studio-filmed scenes and stock footage of ships at sea. The latter lacks the clarity of the studio footage. Underwater footage of depth charges adds suspense as the Tiger Shark attempts to outmaneuver them. Contrast is uneven, and is noticeable in the second half of the film, but it isn’t a major issue. Details are well delineated in insignia on the Naval uniforms, decor in a nightclub, Carol’s dresses, the intricate controls of the submarine, and the Japanese radar station. Miniatures in a tank at Paramount are used in a few scenes to stand in for the Tiger Shark.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and easily understood. David Buttolph’s opening credits music is stirring and triumphant, and reminded me of Max Steiner’s rousing main theme from The Caine Mutiny. Sound effects include torpedoes being fired, explosions, crackling flames of a fire aboard ship, ambient nightclub noise, ships moving swiftly through ocean waves, airplane engine, machine gun fire, and beeping sounds on the sub.

Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics include the following:

  • Audio Commentary by Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin
  • The Turning Point Trailer (2:01)
  • The Bridges at Toko-Ri Trailer (2:00)
  • The Horse Soldiers Trailer (2:39)
  • The Counterfeit Traitor Trailer (3:23)
  • The 7th Dawn Trailer (2:55)
  • The Devil’s Brigade Trailer (3:47)
  • China Trailer (2:09)
  • Wake Island Trailer (2:08)
  • Attack! Trailer (2:31)
  • Run Silent, Run Deep Trailer (3:02)

Audio Commentary – Filmmaker/historian Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin, author of Combat Films: American Realism, share this commentary. The film’s original title was The Submarine Story and was to star Alan Ladd. Submarine Command, an A picture, had a 30-day shooting schedule and was made for just under $1 million. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer was paid $25,000, a very good fee at the time. The subject was of interest to post-war audiences. Using actual shots of decommissioned submarines, the film opens similarly to Operation Petticoat—a captain visits his former submarine in mothballs. Director John Farrow, who served in the Navy, distinguished this film from other sub sagas, such as Crash Dive and Destination Tokyo, by striving for reality. Farrow had a reputation as a drinker and woman chaser. He was an adventure director, very much in charge, with a “Whatever I say goes” attitude. He worked for many studios and directed several war films, including Sea Chase with John Wayne. The Tiger Shark of the film is actually the U.S.S. Starlet, a fleet-type submarine that was put into service after Pearl Harbor. William Holden, who two years later won an Oscar for Stalag 17, was looking for better parts and was likely attracted to the role of Ken White because of the character’s conflicted feelings and psychological complexity. Holden always looked good in a uniform and was popular with both female and male audiences. The chemistry between Holden and Nancy Olson makes their characters’ relationship believable. William Bendix was a ubiquitous actor in movies of the 1940s and 50s and often served as comic relief. He worked on TV in the 50s and 60s and starred in Rod Serling’s The Time Element, the basis for TV’s The Twilight Zone, on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. Jack Gregson, who plays Captain Rice, never made another film. His only other screen work was as host of an early TV show. Most of the at-sea scenes were shot off San Diego and the Japanese plane strafing the sub was shot three miles off the coast. Submarine Command was marketed as an action film but is actually about a man dealing with PTSD.

Submarine Command is the kind of film that Hollywood would regularly turn out in the 1950s to compete with TV’s growing popularity. It has scope and a bona fide star. The writing and direction are very good. The military aspects of the film are treated realistically, and the performances are uniformly first-rate. The fact that the film deals largely with how the demons of war follow a person for years adds resonance and distinguishes it from other war pictures of the period.

- Dennis Seuling