The American ship’s doctor, (Russell Collins) and a couple of the sailors talk about how hot the weather is. One sailor says he’s thinking of sleeping topside that evening, but the doctor warns that bad weather is coming. The response from the sailor is that “you can’t plan on anything.” This simple exchange is a foreboding of the rough times to come (the calm before the storm?), not only of the weather but also of the fighting that will occur. And, it implies that in wartime, the individual’s plans are always in jeopardy.
The sailors aboard the Haynes are relaxed, almost bored, as they joke with each other during this period which is absent of military action. From these lower-ranking personnel we hear some feelings of insecurity expressed concerning the leadership of their captain, Murrell (Robert Mitchum). He has been holed up in his cabin since his assignment to the destroyer, and there are reservations about his experience. As one seaman says, he’s hiding because he’s been seasick. We hear the officers voicing the same concerns, questioning if their new leader has any “sea legs.” The doctor gives us some backstory, telling the higher ranking men that Murrell is not physically ready for a new assignment since his previous ship was torpedoed and sunk, and he had to spend twenty-five in a raft and only a short time in the hospital for treatment. Lt. Bonelli (Ralph Manza) says, in what turns out to be an ironic statement, “He’d still get more rest here than he would if he were in a feather bed.”
Then a blip shows up on the sonar, and everything changes in an instant. The men are now alert, and the captain comes out of his cabin cocoon, taking command. But, he is still an unknown to the crew, as one sailor blocking his passage doesn’t recognize him, and he must ask the name of the man working the sonar. But his orders show his seamanship, as he orders that the destroyer follow the unknown vessel, matching its speed so that the Haynes will appear as a ghost echo to the ship pursued.
We now cut to the German submarine viewpoint. (The film employs the use of accents and an occasional authentic German phrase to let us know the submarine men are speaking German). Captain Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens) suspects Murrell’s ploy, and alters the sub’s course, but Murrell is able to continue the strategy. Murrell wants to be able to track the U-boat until it surfaces in the morning, making it a far easier target. Von Stolberg quickly becomes a character an American audience can sympathize with because we immediately see he is not a supporter of Hitler. He throws a towel over a German sign hanging in the command center which, when translated, says they should follow the Fuhrer's commands. He also is not thrilled with a gung-ho Nazi seaman named Kunz (Arthur La Ral). He tells his old friend, Heinie (Theodore Bickel), that someone should tell the sailor that there is no saluting at sea. This statement is meaningful, because it implies that those sailing on the open waters are less tied to the rigid systems of those mired on land. It implies that Von Stolberg represents those soldiers who are capable of independent thought.
Von Stolberg expresses his feelings to his confidante, Heinie. Despite the possibility that there is an American ship tailing them, he wants to surface to travel faster, meet up with another German ship to collect a British code book, but, most importantly, he wants to return home. He is war weary. He taught his two sons to be good soldiers, believe in their country and do their duty. They both died in the line of duty, which makes sense to the captain. But, he should have died first. He feels that he has outlived his time. He tells of a past era when war was less exact, less destructive. But, current technology has made armed fighting lethally accurate. Everything is machine-like, automatic, with no human factor present, which makes it easier to kill. He does admit that he thinks too much. Questioning things is not a good idea if you are a soldier who is supposed to just carry out orders. His ruminating has cost him his sleep. He says to Heinie, “Be a good warrior and never think. You pay penalty for thinking. You cannot rest.” But, he can’t help but see that, “It’s a bad war. It’s reason is twisted. It’s purpose is dark.” He believes his country will lose its soul in the current struggle because of its “dark” objectives. He says, “there is no honor in this war. The memories will be ugly, even if we win. And if we die, we die without God.”
The symmetry of the story now brings us back to the American side, where we hear Murrell’s story, as he tells it to the person who becomes his confidante, the doctor. Murrell, too, has suffered personal loss at the hands of war, just as Von Stolberg. He worked on a freighter as a civilian. He had recently married when he lost his bride when she perished in a torpedo attack on his ship. But he assures the doctor that his commanding a destroyer which hunts submarines is not part of a personal vendetta. He says he has a job to do. He then shows empathy, not something usually demonstrated in war movies up to this time. He compares himself to the German commander, saying that his opponent is in a similar position, and neither may like what they have to do, but both feel they must do their duty. But, like Von Stolberg’s saying how thinking too much is contradictory to what makes a soldier, Murrell says he doesn’t want to know too much about the German captain. The American commander also feels the need to suppress his humanity when he says, “I don’t want to know the man I’m trying to destroy.”
When Von Stolberg rests the submarine on the ocean bottom to make it appear as if the sub has escaped, we have a quiet period where we see how the two sides indulge in heavy reading (an American sailor holds The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Kunz opens up Mein Kampf), and a crewman on each side looks at comic strips. These shots attempt to humanize and universalize the experiences of soldiers, no matter which side they fight on. Onboard the destroyer, waiting for the U-boat to make a move, the doctor says to Murrell that it’s too hot out. The captain says during wartime, it’s always too hot or too cold. It implies that there is too much action or none at all. But, it also suggests that nobody is comfortable when in a state of war.
Once Von Stolberg takes a chance that the destroyer may have left and decides to resume the journey home, Murrell decides to wear the submarine crew down by firing intermittent barrages of explosives to slow the German sub down and demoralize its sailors. However, Von Stolberg plays rousing German celebratory music to show their spirit. (It is ironic that the supposedly overly patriotic Kunz is the only one who wants to surrender, which shows that his nationalism is not based on solid ground). Murrell admits his admiration for his foes by saying that he almost wishes his tactics wouldn’t work.
Von Stolberg realizes a pattern to Murrell’s maneuvers, and is able to predict where the ship might be so he can fire off four torpedoes while not at periscope depth, hoping one will hit the destroyer. His plan is successful. But, Murrell has one more move. He makes it look as if his ship is failing quicker than it is by lighting fires ondeck. After having most of the crew abandon ship, he has gunners take out the surfaced submarine’s primary weaponry and rudder, and then rams the U-boat with the destroyer. What happens next illustrates how this film goes beyond the usual good guy versus bad guy ending. The American sailors help rescue the Germans who abandoned the submarine. Murrell sees Von Stolberg with the severely wounded Heinie, who he stayed to rescue, and they exchange salutes. Murrell then helps rescue the two men, and the German and American sailors, together, climb back up the destroyer to retrieve their commanding officers. Both ships are totally destroyed as the self-destruct bomb on the submarine explodes. It’s as if these two sides, who were enemies, ended their conflict with each other after eliminating the machines of war which left them as individuals, not soldiers of countries, needing the help of each other to survive.
They are all rescued by an American ship. The Germans conduct a respectful funeral at sea for their fallen comrade, Heinie. The doctor tells Murrell that he found reasons for hope in the strangest of places, a war, for the future of the world based on how these soldiers acted. The movie ends with Murrell offering a cigarette to Von Stolberg, who says that he should have died many times before. He says his survival this time was Murrell’s fault.The American captain jokingly says that he didn’t know, and says, “Next time I won’t throw you the rope.” But, the German commander sees in Murrell a man like himself, who is a caring human being underneath the military exterior. That is why he knowingly says, “I think you will.” Maybe some day we will realize that we will all survive by being each other's lifeline.
The next film is Good Night and Good Luck.