Red Scare Flicks Part II
The Bedford Incident
Not that the Navy needs TLC, but in general, history tends to give naval battles short shrift. There are indeed notable exceptions. But by and large, land and air seem more the focus of attention, at least insofar as representation in the arts is concerned. Which is a long way of introducing yet another film dealing with Russia, the atom bomb, and sea power. Like Hell and High Water, The Bedford Incident stars Richard Widmark. Well, he is cast well in the role of sea captain, so it stands to reason. He is far from crazy, and yet this time around he has a little bit of Captains Bligh and Queeg in him. Toss in Captain Ahab, also, for good measure. After all, Captain Finlander (Widmark) is as obsessed with a Russian sub as Ahab was with the great white whale. Nothing can dissuade him from causing trouble in a prolonged, eerie rendezvous, although, from his point of view, he is just doing his job.
Released in 1965, The Bedford Incident reflects more than just fear. It is, in the final result, a pictorial essay on widespread feelings of resignation and despair. The writer aboard this ship, Munceford (Sidney Poitier), admires Finlander's individuality, which has emerged in the Cuban crisis and been brought to national attention on television. But despite the captain's heroic actions, he was passed over for admiral. Munceford is intrigued. A doctor (Martin Balsam) is also aboard, but the captain, who at least allows the writer an interview, will not permit the physician to take an active role. Finlander's saving grace, at least for American audiences, is that he is a relentless anti-communist. As soon as the Novo Sibursk, using our alphabet (artistic license), surfaces to the strains of dark, ominous music, a red flag with a hammer and sickle waving in the cold air, it is as though, from the captain's point-of-view, dinner has arrived.
The Russian submarine is caught in Greenland territorial waters, two miles from international waters. Captain Finlander would like to make something out of this intrusion. The historical background explains why. In 1960, the Russians shot down a United States spy plane flying a mission over the USSR. It was a major triumph for them. By 1965, nearly 200,000 Americans were already in Vietnam, indirectly opposing the Soviet Union. As the drama progresses, degrees of animosity ratchet higher. There must have been no love lost in the unapologetic anti-Russian disposition of the movie. As over-aggressive as Finlander is, few viewers fault his disappointment at the powers-that-be who restrain him from doing anything other than track the sub. If only the Russians, in reality, had been more provocative. Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago had not yet been published. It might have helped if it had. Americans, most of whom had never so much as met a Russian face to face, hated Russians with a passion.
Unfortunately, hatred, rational or irrational, is a two-way street. Anti-Americanism was also rampant. At home, the fact of its existence congealed by way of newspaper articles, first-hand reports, and television into a kind of nationwide malaise. It was depressing. Country after country preferred Soviet aid to American. Americans could talk about freedom and suffrage all they wanted; they were almost universally ignored. Egypt, for example, rejected America and accepted Russian assistance in the construction of the Aswan Dam. Theirs became a strange alliance indeed pooling the combined human resources of religious and atheists. At home, again, American evangelicals held rallies for God and against Russia. Today, despite lessening tensions, many Americans cannot let go of their most preferred enemy. Still, what distinguishes this ongoing feud from others, such as the French and Germans during a certain period of time, is the bomb, which started out big enough and has over the years become only bigger and badder.
Nevertheless, it pays to pull back and consider the fact that however much this movie sharpens the pitchforks, it is still only a movie, and a direct, Russian-American confrontation, whether in Europe, America, or possibly Syria, has not yet come about. Good enough. There is no point to it. As the film ultimately shows, not to ruin it, when two well-armed enemies have a go at it, things happen quite fast, and options decrease rapidly. Back in the day, in the fifties and sixties, no one knew what was going to happen. And thus, although the film is black and white, dated, and below today's high standards when it comes to fx, it is realistic enough. Once aggressors crank up the heat, all bets are off. This incident might have been it, what Hawks hope for and dream of, right in the godforsaken waters off Greenland -- population, just to report a statistic, a little over 50,000.