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Hooked On Submarine Movies

Updated on July 28, 2017

See the Best Submarine Movies

I Like To Be Under The Sea....

Well, vicariously, anyway. I don't know if I'd have the nerve to go down there in a submarine. Heck, I'm even too chicken to scuba dive.

One thing's for sure, though: I love submarine movie, or those where a submarine plays a significant role. My husband says it's because I like watching a bunch of ... well, "men of the sea" (He thought that would be more P.C. than saying "sea men," you see) in a tube. And he may just have a point there.

Whatever the reason, though, and despite all the great films I've seen in all sorts of genres, I still answer, Hunt For Red October, when someone asks what my favorite movie is, and I'll watch just about anything else with a submarine in it.

Here are some of my top submarine movie picks....

The above image is in the public domain.

What's Down Below:

My Favorite Sub Films

#1: The Hunt For Red October

#2: Crimson Tide

#2 (it's a tie!): K-19, The Widowmaker

#3: U-571

More Submarine Movies

Set in the WWII Years

Set in the Cold War Years

Set in the future

Submarine movies
Submarine movies

What Is It About Submarine Movies?

I was pondering what it is that I like so much about movies that take place, to a great extent, inside submarines, and this is what I came up with:

I like stories set within small spaces, that really focus on the characters. That isn't to say plot doesn't play a huge part, but many films I've seen that center around a submarine crew seem to be more heavily weighted on dialog and the interaction between characters in close quarters than other types of action films. And I find submarine films to be more suspenseful than most.

It's a world completely foreign to me--being miles beneath the surface of the ocean. And other than the sub going up, and doing it the right way, there's really no way out of that big metal tube. That adds to the suspense of these films. Those men (are there women on submarines these days?) are stuck down there, together, and there's no opening the hatch and slamming it behind them to get away from each other.

In a review of U-571 on, Movie Mom sums it up perfectly, stating:

"Submarines immediately grab our attention. They are isolated and vulnerable. Once they leave the dock, they become a world of their own, with no time to wait for orders when they get into trouble. In movies from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to "Operation Petticoat," "Crimson Tide" and "The Hunt for Red October" we see men who must make life and death decisions without time or information, and we get to think, as we lean back and eat our popcorn, about how we would fare 100 kilometers below the surface. We get to see some terrific examples of problem- solving and moral choices."

The Hunt For Red October

My Favorite Submarine Movie

Okay, at first it was all about Sean Connery. I'd seen just about every movie he'd made to that point (it was the accent, I guess), so off to the theater I went again.

And then, as I watched the film, I was torn between Sean and my new discovery, Sam Neill. Later, while I was watching the movie for a third time after it came out on video, Sam really won me over, and it was like ... Sean who?

Seriously though, I love the story, the characters, the cinematography. I even like Alec Baldwin in this picture, and I'm not particularly a fan.

So, how many times have I seen this submarine movie, you ask? Hm. At least four. So far.

The Hunt for Red October
The Hunt for Red October
In this film, Sean Connery is senior Lithuanian submarine captain, Marko Ramius, who decides to defect to the U.S. and hand over Russia's newest nuclear submarine, Red October, in the process--the sub that can run silent thanks to an innovative propulsion system called the caterpillar drive. But the U.S. isn't privy to Ramius's intentions. In fact, they believe he might be planning to attack. Enter Alec Baldwin, who plays CIA analyst Jack Ryan, the one person who believes Ramius is trying to defect. And he has to convince the American navy he's right ... before they blow the whole submarine out of the water. Meanwhile, the Russians are also on the hunt to stop Ramius before he carries out his plan. Unbeknownst to Ramius, there's even someone amongst his own crew who is dead set on stopping him. Despite some negative reviews by film critics (poo on them) at the time of its release in 1990, The Hunt for Red October was one of the year's top grossing movies, and I certainly think it's well-acted, including the scenes with more looks between characters than words. In fact, the movie has me in suspense no matter how many times I've seen it.

Based On The Book: Hunt For Red October

By Tom Clancy

I read the book after seeing the film for the second time and really enjoyed it, even though I already knew the story. Often in books, you get to know more about the characters than you do in the films based upon them, and that's the case here.

After reading the book, I had to go back and watch the movie yet again, with that new information.

This novel was the first of many by Tom Clancy in which CIA analyst Jack Ryan is one of the central characters.

According to Wikipedia, "the novel was originally published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press—the first fictional work they ever published and still their most successful."

Crimson Tide

A Close Second Favorite Submarine Film

Gene Hackman is another favorite actor of mine, and here he delivers yet another stellar performance as what some characterize as the "trigger-happy" captain of a U.S. nuclear missile submarine, on a mission that potentially could start a nuclear war.

But it's the tug-of-war between the captain and his executive officer, played by Denzel Washington, that is the tense focus of this film, as their struggle for control of the sub's missiles leads to a full-fledged mutiny.

Crimson Tide (Unrated Extended Edition)
Crimson Tide (Unrated Extended Edition)
You have a Russian nuclear installation in the hands of rebels, who threaten to push the button if either the Americans or the Russian government challenge their control. Then you have an American submarine, the USS Alabama, under the command of seasoned combat veteran, Captain Frank Ramsey (Hackman), on patrol off the Russian coast, poised to launch a pre-emptive strike should the rebels arm the missiles. Second in command of the Alabama is XO Ron Hunter (Washington), who has great knowledge of military tactics and history, but has never experienced combat. Then the order comes to fire; the Russian missiles have been armed. But before the Alabama can launch its missiles, another message begins. That message, however, is interrupted by the attack of a Russian submarine that supports the rebels. With no further radio contact and without knowing the full content of the second message, Captain Ramsey decides to go ahead with the launch. But not if XO Hunter has anything to say about it, not until that second message can be confirmed. So begins the most tense scenes of the film, as the struggle between the captain and his right-hand man and those crew members that support one or the other escalates.

The Book: Crimson Tide

By Richard P. Henrick

This book provides much more background detail than can be packed into a film, including the reasons for the Russian rebellion. It also goes deeper into exploring the personalities, beliefs and actions of the two heroic yet very different main characters, who also lead and make decisions differently.

I don't actually know which came first here, the book or the movie, but both are great in and of themselves, and, as I see it, each complements the other as well.

K-19, The Widowmaker

Or maybe this one is second? Okay, it's a tie for my second favorite submarine movie....

Before I saw this film, I already had an attitude about it ... and not a very good one, I must say. I said, "Psshhh, Harrison Ford again? And now he's going to play a Russian?" I didn't think he'd be believable in the role or be able to pull off the accent, even though I had usually liked his acting and his films up till then.

Well, I'm happy to report I was wrong in this case (in my opinion, anyway) and Harrison Ford became Captain Alexei Vostrikov to me soon after the movie began. Another great actor, Liam Neeson, plays Captain Mikhail Polenin.

K-19: The Widowmaker
K-19: The Widowmaker
This independent film is based on actual events that happened aboard the Soviet submarine K-19, nicknamed "The Widowmaker," and was National Geographic's first feature film. Just as in the movie, the real K-19 experienced a malfunction in its nuclear reactor on its maiden voyage in 1961 in the North Atlantic. At the core of the film, similar to the struggle between the main characters in Crimson Tide, is the clash in leadership styles between the stern and militaristic Vostrikov and the more fatherly commander, Polenin, which leads to power struggles throughout the movie in the midst of high-tension events.

The Book About K-19, The Widowmaker

This book is National Geographic's companion to the movie, detailing the actual events that inspired the making of the film, when the Soviet nuclear sub K-19 sprung a sudden leak, and the captain and crew fought to prevent a nuclear disaster.

The book includes passages from the captain's memoir and rare historic images, along with excerpts from the original screenplay.


Coming In as my third favorite submarine movie....

Did you know Jon Bon Jovi can act? I mean, does this here picture look like someone who'd play a (short-haired) navy guy? I didn't, until I saw this film, and I say Jon did quite all right and held his own amongst a crowd that included Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton and Harvey Keitel.

This is a fictional story based on events that happened during WWII, though I've read that quite a bit of creative license was taken in the process.

As the film begins, the Nazi's have the advantage, because the Allies are unable to crack their codes. That is, until a disabled German U-boat sends out an SOS signal after a deadly fire on board, and the Allies, disguised as Nazi's themselves, take their chance to steal the "enigma coding machine." They intend to decode the Nazi's transmissions in order to find out where their boats are headed and prevent them from sinking the Allies' supply ships. The Allies' plan hits a snag, however, when they get stranded on the German sub.

The Book Based On The Film: U-571

- By Max Allan Collins

I have not read this book, which appears to have been written following the making of the film. This is same author who wrote Saving Private Ryan among other "movie tie-in" novels.

The plot: A crew of American sailors in a disguised submarine rendezvous with U-571--a crippled German U-boat in enemy waters--storm aboard, and capture one of the Nazis' coveted Enigma encryption machines, a device that would allow the Allies to decode secret German transmissions. The planning was meticulous. The secrecy was airtight. Every eventuality was prepared for. Except one.

Submarine Movies: The WWII Years

All of these movies are available to buy or rent on Amazon.

This is my favorite era for submarine films, in large part because my father was a WWII Navy veteran (though he was on a flagship, not on a sub), and he told me so many stories from that time.

While I say there's nothing glorious about war, I can't help but find well-made movies from those periods interesting and, dare I say, entertaining.

In Enemy Hands

From Amazon: "At the height of Hitler s notorious U-boat war the crew of the U.S.S. Swordfish is taken prisoner in a battle with a German sub. However meningitis strikes more than half of the German crew and there aren't enough Germans to run the sub. Avoiding both the contagion and POW protocol, crew members and prisoners alike must work together to survive."

Murphy's War

I saw this 1971 film starring Peter O'Toole years ago. He plays the lone survivor of a U-boat attack, who's set on extracting revenge against the crew of the German sub that killed his shipmates.

Operation Petticoat

This one's a comedy, starring Carey Grant and Tony Curtis, who sneaks a group of Philippine refugees and some beautiful nurses onto the all-male submarine.

The Enemy Below

From Amazon: "Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens are respectively captains of a U.S. destroyer and a German U-boat, whose vessels come into conflict in the South Atlantic. Both are good men with a job to do, the script noting Jurgens' distaste for Hitler and the Nazis and engaging our sympathy with the German sailors almost as much as the Americans. Made at the height of the cold war of the 1950s, the film delivers a liberal message of co-operation wrapped inside some spectacular action scenes and a story which builds to a tense and exciting, moving finale."

We Dive at Dawn

This film is about an encounter between a British submarine and a German warship in the Baltic Sea. The movie was actually filmed during the war years.

Submarine Movies: The Cold War Years


Ice Station Zebra

Rock Hudson plays the captain of a nuclear sub, ordered to the Arctic to investigate a disturbance at a research station on the floating ice. He doesn't know the mission, and he's stuck with mysterious passengers. This is considered by many to be one of Hudson's better performances.

Rutger Hauer, Martin Sheen and Max Von Sydow star in this thriller based on true events that heated the Cold War at sea to a boiling point, threatening to lead to nuclear war. In the film, a U.S. submarine accidentally collides with an armed Soviet sub spying off the American coast.

On the Beach

Gregory Peck is another of my favorite actors (and To Kill A Mockingbird right up there near the top of my list of all-time favorite films, submarine or not).

In this film, Peck plays a submarine commander looking for survivors in Australia after a nuclear holocaust. Ava Gardner is one of those survivors and Peck's love interest. Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins also star in this film.

My dad loved this one.

Gray Lady Down

In this film with Charleton Heston, David Carradine and Stacy Keach, an American submarine on the way home after a routine patrol collides with a Norwegian tanker in the Atlantic. The sub sinks to an unstable ridge on the side of an underwater mountain, and a high-tension rescue operation is then undertaken by the US Navy to save the sailors trapped on board.

Futuristic Submarine Films

I'm much more a fan of submarine films set in the past, but here are a few in the other direction.

The Abyss

Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio star in this film about an oil rig crew hired for a search and rescue mission 25,000 feet below the sea, when a nuclear sub sinks under mysterious circumstances.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The U.S. Navy commissions a marine biologist to investigate mysterious attacks on military sea vessels. The biologist in turn recruits a crew, including his own daughter, and discovers that evil Captain Nemo has been attacking the vessels from his submarine.

The Neptune Factor

Reviews of this movie with Ben Gazzarra and Walter Pidgeon are all over the map. This film is about a submarine that sinks to the bottom of the sea during an earthquake.


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