Classic Film of the Week #6: Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
Normally I'm not a big fan of war films, but this week I'm very exited to talk about a particularly great one I discovered during--you guessed it--TCM's tribute to Clark Gable. Run Silent, Run Deep is a late-era Clark film that features two powerhouse performances from Clark and his co-star Burt Lancaster, a truly remarkable screen pairing that makes this film stand out from all of the other WWII films produced by classic Hollywood.
Directed by Robert Wise and starring the aforementioned Gable and Lancaster, Run Silent, Run Deep begins with commanding officer Rich (Gable) surviving an attack on his submarine by the Japanese forces in WWII. His sub and his crew are lost, and for the next year he's on the lookout for an opportunity to get revenge. He finds it when he wrangles his way into being captain for another sub, but in doing so he uproots Lieutenant Jim (Lancaster), who had been all set to take the same job, and has a long-time relationship with both the sub and the crew. The crew are dubious of Rich when he comes on-board, especially when they discover their destination is section 7, where Rich's sub--and many more since--went down. The official orders make it clear that they are to avoid the Bungo Straits, the particular spot where these attacks are occurring, but as Rich pushes the crew harder in their drills and becomes more and more secretive about his plans when they reach section 7, Jim must not only try to maintain peace between Rich and the crew, but determine if there's any chance of making it out of the mission alive.
Run Silent, Run Deep could easily have fallen into the cliche of the younger upstart who butts heads with the gruff, experienced senior officer. I've seen so many films with this basic premise, and so often the conflict is sensationalized to a ridiculous degree, with disrespect and insubordination running rampant with no consequences because, well, the main character is right and the senior officer is wrong, of course. Run Silent, Run Deep avoids this whole mess by placing a deep-seated respect for authority at the very foundation of the relationship between Rich and Jim: no matter how much Jim disagrees with Rich, he is always respectful to him, and shuts down any attempts by the crew to undermine his authority. When he ultimately does take a stand against Rich, it is only after Rich has defied military orders and put the whole crew in danger; only at this darkest hour, when no one could possibly fault Jim for taking power, that he is willing to defy his captain. This strict sense of honor and respect is a bit unusual among Hollywood characters, but by portraying Jim this way the filmmakers form what actually feels like an authentic portrayal of conflict in the military, rather than a sensationalist adaptation.
Run Silent, Run Deep is also unique in that it kicks that old adage about "classic Hollywood didn't have explosions and could still tell a good story" to the curb: it manages to tell a good story while still including a healthy dosage of explosions. The special effects in this film are really very impressive, with a lot of great shots of the sub underwater and of exploding ships, that seem very organic to the rest of the film: no silly shots of overly-obvious miniature models here. The smartest move on the part of the filmmakers is the emphasis on Rich's drills, which involve submerging the submarine underwater as fast as possible: this allows for lots of shots of the sub slowly moving underwater that look impressive, but aren't particularly difficult or strenuous for the effects team. Later, the crew has to do it for real, and suddenly a sequence that we've already seen several times is infused with a big dose of suspense. It's all very clever, and results in a film that seems much bigger and more expensive than it probably was in reality.
Finally, I must talk about the chemistry between Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. This is the only film the pair made together, with Clark dying just two years later, and it really is a shame because of all of the films I've seen from Gable, Lancaster is the only male actor I've seen him work with who really goes head-to-head with him the way Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and all his other great leading ladies did. Clark Gable is a big personality who really takes up the screen, and it takes a special kind of person to force him to move over and share the limelight with them; here, Burt Lancaster does just that. The endless tug-of-war between esteem and strife that occurs between these two actors every time they share the screen is incredible; they feel as though they would make perfect partners, perhaps even friends, if only they could agree on a common goal. This is a very different role for Gable, unlike anything else I've seen from him--his trademark boyish charm and romantic gestures are nowhere to be seen--and while he does a fantastic job, I doubt he would be so good if not for Lancaster, an actor whom I am more and more impressed by with every new film I see from him. I'm so thrilled that they at least were able to make this one picture together before Gable's death.
Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable are two of the most notable and iconic actors to ever come out of Hollywood, and while they occupied very different spaces in the filmmaking world, here they manage to find common ground and each put in a career-best performance. Run Silent, Run Deep is both an essential film for fans of Burt and Clark, as well as an essential of the WWII and war genres as a whole. It comes highly recommended, and is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and as a showing on TCM.