February, 1942. It's
truly a World War now, two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and
the United States is racing to gear up its military.
Meanwhile, large convoys of ships filled with supplies and
oil---and freshly-trained troops--- were making the long, treacherous
Atlantic crossing. But though
the dreaded U-boats---the German submarines---could be encountered
anywhere, they were mostly likely to use as their hunting grounds the
“Black Pit” in the middle of the ocean----where air cover was out of
range from both the Eastern coast of the United States and the western
coast of Great Britain (The Germans had already overrun France).
It was into this “Black Pit” that the U.S. Destroyer class
“Greyhound” was escorting a large convoy, along with a couple of
The trouble was, the American skipper, Commander Ernest Krause (Tom
Hanks) had not only never made the Atlantic crossing before, this was his
first command. Tom Hanks' own
screenplay (based on the book by C.S. Forester) allows for just one scene
of relaxation for Commander Krause, and that's the Christmas before, when
he meets his girlfriend, Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue) in a hotel lobby, where
they exchange Christmas presents. He
gives her a plaque with a Bible verse, and she gives him a pair of
slippers. The next thing we
know, Krause is aboard the “Greyhound,” approaching the Black Pit, and
things start happening quickly.
The U-boats, of course, are equipped with torpedoes, which can sink
either a transport or a destroyer. The
destroyer is equipped with deck guns, for surface fire, and depth charges.
The problem, of course, is pinpointing the precise location of the
submarines. They give
themselves away, briefly, when their periscopes rise above the surface.
And their propellors also emit a sonar signal which the radio room
of the destroyer can pick up. But
the radio operator has to be able to distinguish that sound from friendly
propellors. The “wolf
pack” of enemy submarines will also follow the convoy just out of range,
until darkness descends, and it's a lot more difficult to sight them
visually, even with periscopes up. And
once a transport or troop ship is hit, and survivors are on the water, the
destroyer captain has to decide whether to stop and try to pick up
survivors, or continue to chase the dreaded U-boats.
To make matter worse for Commander Krause, a German sailor has
found the frequency of the Allied communication devices, and in
well-educated but accented English, taunts the American crews.
All the sailors are battling the nervous tension of not knowing
where the next explosion is coming from, and they are also battling both
mental and physical fatigue. And,
of course, their supply of depth charges is finite, and it seems like the
Black Pit will never end.
Tom Hanks, as usual, plays a sympathetic character.
The man prays before every meal, and at bedtime.
He's the one who reads the scripture aloud, solemnly, as they
commit their casualties to the sea. He
seems to have a sixth sense about how to avoid torpedoes.
And he keeps his cool in a firefight, no doubt garnering the
respect of his men who serve under him.
It's a harrowing kind of film, with not much emotional letup.
The intricate manuevers are not really explained, but even a
landlubber can grasp the gist of what's happening.
It's not a sunny musical or cute romantic comedy, but it packs
plenty of tension in a brief (82 minute) amount of time.