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"The Enemy Below" pits Robert Mitchum vs. Curt Jurgens in WWII battle of wits

The Enemy Below


In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, major movie studios produced many outstanding movies set during World War II. The theme of the hardships faced by men (and women) at war was the cornerstone of movies about the conflict. However, because World War II was waged in many different places, there was a great deal of variety in stories and sub-genres.

HMS Defender is modern version of ships like the one in The Enemy Below
Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

One popular sub-genre was the destroyer-versus-submarine story. Several of these movies were made, including Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep and Operation Pacific, which told the submariner’s side of the war.

Perhaps the best-known American movie of surface ship-vs.-U-boat movie is The Enemy Below, released in 1957 by 20th Century Fox. Starring Robert Mitchum as the surface ship skipper and Curd (Curt) Jurgens as the U-boat commander, The Enemy Below marked the directorial debut of actor Dick Powell, who also produced.

The Enemy Below's screenplay by Wendell Mayes (based on the novel by Commander D.A. Rayner) focuses like a laser on the USS Haynes, a destroyer escort assigned to patrol the South Atlantic shipping lanes. Its mission: to seek and destroy German submarines in the waters between Africa and Brazil..

Because most of the U-boats are attacking Allied shipping on the busier shipping lanes of the North Atlantic, the Haynes’ crew have had such a quiet war that one of the officers claims that the new skipper, Lt. Commander Murrell (Mitchum) will get more rest aboard than on a feather bed.

The officers and men are eager to see action, but they also have questions about their captain,. Murrell had previously been a third officer aboard a merchant ship on the North Atlantic run. Unfortunately, that freighter was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, taking down with her tons of cargo and most of her crew..

After a brief expository passage that introduces the key characters aboard the Haynes (including the usual "All-American" mix of Reservists and "regular Navy" officers, The Enemy Below moves quickly to its main storyline. A radar operator sees a "spook" (an unidentified blip) on his scope during one of those proverbial "dark and stormy nights."

The "spook," as it turns out, is the conning tower of a diesel-electric submarine belonging to the German Kriegsmarine. It is commanded by a World War I veteran named Von Stolberg (Jurgens), a professional officer who despises the Nazis.

The U-boat has orders to rendezvous with a German surface raider to retrieve a captured Allied code book, refuel, rearm, and then head home to Germany for an extended shore leave and bring in the enemy codes. But the purely military objectives are not as important to Von getting back home.

But destiny takes a hand to prevent Von Stolberg's wishes for his boat and his crew to reach the Fatherland. After his first attempts to shake off the Haynes' pursuit fail, Von Stolberg knows his only chances for survival depend on either sinking the Haynes or luring her within range of the surface raider's weapons before the Americans can send more powerful destroyers to help hunt his submarine.

As the critic for Variety wrote at the time, The Enemy Below swiftly becomes "an engrossing duel of wits" in which the audience wonders who will win the battle between the "killer sub and the sub-killer."

Although the film's realism suffers somewhat by the conventions of the time (U.S. Navy sailors who don't curse like, well, sailors, German submariners who speak most of their lines in English except at the very end of the film), The Enemy Below is still a good World War II movie.

Not only is there no time wasted on extraneous material (the film's total running time is 98 minutes, including a very short main title sequence and no long end credits at the tail end), but Powell, one of the first big-time actors to become a director-producer, gets excellent performances from the cast, including the sometimes underappreciated Robert Mitchum.

Powell also gets most of the flavor and details of antisubmarine warfare correct; despite a few goofs in Wendell Mayes' screenplay involving the maximum depth diving abilities of World War II submarines.

For instance, we learn, without boring bits of exposition, the weapons and tactics used by both sides during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Also, the contrast between the living conditions aboard the DE and the U-boat is stark and hard-to-miss; the Americans, on the surface, fight boredom and the stifling heat of the tropics but have plenty of rations (especially potatoes!), while their enemies below live in a cramped steel coffin where everything smells of diesel oil, bilgewater, and the stink of over 60 men who can't even take a daily shower.

Adding to the realism of The Enemy Below was the Navy's generous cooperation, including the use of a real World War II era DE (with its pennant number painted over to read "181") during the film's principal photography in Hawaiian waters. This allowed Powell to film the ship as it let loose with K-guns and depth charge racks for maximum effect.

Only a few short sequences, including underwater footage of the U-boat and the climactic end-battle, were dependent on 20th Century-Fox's special effects department, which earned the 1957 Academy Award for Best Special Effects. (Yes, to jaded 21st Century audiences, the visuals look a bit fake, but The Enemy Below still packs a powerful emotional punch nonetheless.)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is the difference between Hollywood's depiction of the Germans in The Enemy Below in comparison to its portrayals of the "bad guys" in movies made during and shortly after the war. Jurgens, for instance, plays Von Stolberg as a professional naval officer who does his job but doesn't believe in the Nazi cause.

Not only has he seen too much bloodshed and destruction, but Von Stolberg has also lost his two sons – one a U-boat officer, the other a pilot – to Adolf Hitler's evil attempts to conquer Europe.

His executive officer and friend, Heinie Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel) is also shown as a kind-hearted officer who is a bit perplexed by Von Stolberg's deep thoughts about the war ("It's a bad war, Heinie," the skipper tells him) and his lack of fervor for Hitler and his evil "new Germany."

The rest of the U-boat crew is seemingly made up of what the renowned film critic Judith Crist once labeled "Good Germans," except for the annoying Lt. Kunz, the one "die hard Nazi" who admires Hitler and gives Von Stolberg “Heil Hitler” salutes.

Of course, screenwriter Mayes was right in some ways about the Germans, since not all were Nazis, just officers and men doing their duty for their country in wartime.

But it's also worth noting that the tone of the film was also a subtle commentary "foreshadowing" the reconciliation between the U.S. and what was then West Germany, which only two years earlier had joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Western alliance designed as a deterrent to the Soviet Union's Cold War expansionistic ambitions.

Doctor: Well, in time we'll all get back to our own stuff again. The war will get swallowed up, and seem like it never happened.

Captain Murrell: Yes, but it won't be the same as it was. We won't have that feeling of permanency that we had before. We've learned a hard truth.

Doctor: How do you mean?

Captain Murrell: That there's no end to misery and destruction. You cut the head off a snake, and it grows another one. You cut that one off, and you find another. You can't kill it, because it's something within ourselves. You can call it the enemy if you want to, but it's part of us; we're all men.

Despite the few gaffes in the script and that feeling of Cold War political correctness, The Enemy Below is still a powerful film. Its narrative inspired not just several movies (The Bedford Incident, The Hunt for Red October) but also the Star Trek Original Series episode, "Balance of Terror," which is basically a retelling of The Enemy Below with a few futuristic twists.

DVD Specs and Special Features:

  • Format: Color, NTSC, Widescreen
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 4.0), French (Dolby Digital 1.0), Spanish (Dolby Digital 1.0)
  • Subtitles: English, Spanish
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox
  • DVD Release Date: May 25, 2004
  • Run Time: 98 minutes

The 2004 Fox War Classics DVD doesn’t have a treasure trove of extras to offer viewers. The single disc includes several wartime Movietone newsreels and the original 1957 theatrical trailer.

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