Sunday, 4 September 2016

Gray Lady Down (1978)

Gray Lady Down is a 1970s disaster movie starring Charlton Heston and that’s always a pretty good recipe for entertainment.

This time Heston is Captain Paul Blanchard, skipper of the nuclear submarine USS Neptune. The Neptune is returning to port at which time Blanchard will be handing over the command to his former Executive Officer, Commander Samuelson (Ronny Cox). The normal procedure is to remain submerged until reaching port but Blanchard decides it would be more fun to enter on the surface and enjoy some fresh air. Surfacing in heavy fog might not seem like the greatest of ideas, and in fact it proves to be a very bad idea. The Neptune manages to get itself rammed by a Norwegian freighter. The submarine promptly sinks.

The boat comes to rest on a ledge 1450 feet below the surface, well below its designed crush depth. Forty-one crew members survive the collision but their problems have only just begun. The reactor has shut down and one of the air purifiers is now inoperable. They have enough air for about 36 hours but the ledge is in an undersea canyon and it is subject to continual rockslides. 

This is all pretty bad, and now the Executive Officer (and soon to be skipper) is starting to crack up.

The Navy has no problem finding the stricken submarine. Rescuing the survivors should be no problem - they have their new high-tech deep sea rescue submersible, the DSRV-1. Unfortunately in order to carry out a successful rescue the Neptune’s escape hatch has to be clear and it isn’t. It’s covered by debris from the numerous rock slides. This is very bad news but there may still be a chance. An oddball genius US Navy officer, Captain Gates (David Carradine) has been working on an experimental underwater craft called the SNARK. The SNARK might be able to clear the escape hatch. 

Everything that could go wrong goes wrong. There are more rock slides. The remaining bulkheads on the Neptune are about to give way. The SNARK can’t find the Neptune at first. There are quarrels between Gates and the officer in charge of the rescue operation, Captain Bennett (Stacy Keach). The Neptune is running low on power and the survivors will soon be sitting in the dark. More crew members start to crack up. 

The tension doesn’t let up as one obstacle after another crops up to frustrate the rescue attempt.

You would normally expect Charlton Heston to handle the heroic stuff (since he was very good at that sort of thing) but oddly enough it’s David Carradine (who wasn’t so good at such things) who does most of the hero things. Charlton Heston still gives a pretty good performance as Blanchard, a captain who manages to combine a certain crustiness with a surprising amiability. David Carradine was of course a terrible actor and his performance is distractingly eccentric and at the same time rather dull. 

The special effects are reasonably good and the various submarine models look fairly impressive.

The producers got a lot of coöperation from the US Navy which is perhaps a bit surprising given that the film shows most of the crew members dealing remarkably badly with a crisis situation and given that the Neptune’s collision appears to have come about as a result of a combination of irresponsibility and carelessness (the submarine spotted the freighter on radar but the officer of the watch decided not to worry about it until it was too late). And the thought of a misfit like Commander Samuelson ever being considered for command of anything larger than a dinghy is positively terrifying. I guess the Navy figured that the chance to impress by showing off some high-tech toys would be enough to compensate for the depiction of the submarine crew as a bunch of neurotic incompetents. And the DSRV-1 is pretty cool and (according to the end credits such a vessel really was available for use by the US Navy for submarine rescues).

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the movie is about the sinking of a nuclear submarine and we’re assured that there’s no danger whatsoever on that score. This was the late 70s and Hollywood was starting to get into full-blown hysteria mode over nuclear stuff (in fact Hollywood had been indulging in nuclear paranoia since the 50s). I suspect that in return for their assistance the US Navy vetoed any mention of nuclear dangers. I’m actually quite sure the Navy was correct on that score but I’m still surprised the producers were able to resist the temptation to introduce a nuclear panic into the mix.

The Region 4 DVD I watched was a rental copy and the menus didn’t work but rental DVDs usually are in poor condition. The anamorphic transfer was pretty nice.

1970s disaster movies can’t be judged by conventional movie standards. They’re supposed to be ludicrously melodramatic and cheesy and the acting is supposed to be exaggerated and hammy. What matters is whether they deliver entertainment and Gray Lady Down does that reasonably well. It doesn’t have the inspired craziness of other 70s Charlton Heston disaster flicks such as Airport 1975 but it has a few cool gadgets and it has submarines (if you like that sort of thing and I most definitely do like submarine movies). If you want a gripping realistic movie about a submarine rescue attempt in peacetime then the 1950 British production Morning Departure remains the gold standard. If you want action and slightly silly fun then Gray Lady Down isn’t too bad at all. Recommended.

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