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 British destroyers.

            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.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association