Thursday, 8 November 2018

The Atomic Submarine (1959)

A low-budget sci-fi thriller with overbearing narration, grainy stock footage, ordinary effects and cheap sets, but also containing some quite interesting concepts and plenty of action.

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Produced by Alex Gordon
Screenplay by Orville H. Hampton
Story by Irving Block; Jack Rabin
Music by Alexander Laszlo
Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Edited by William Austin
Production company: Gorham Productions, Inc.
Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation (US); Warner-Pathé (original, UK)
Running time: 72 minutes
Budget: $135,000 (approx.)


Arthur Franz: Lt. Cmdr. Richard 'Reef' Holloway
Dick Foran: Cmdr. Dan Wendover
Brett Halsey: Dr. Carl Neilson Jr.
Tom Conway: Sir Ian Hunt
Paul Dubov: Lt. David Milburn
Bob Steele: CPO 'Grif' Griffin
Victor Varconi: Dr. Clifford Kent
Joi Lansing: Julie
Selmer Jackson: Adm. Terhune
Jack Mulhall : Justin Murdock
Jean Moorhead: Helen Milburn
Richard Tyler: Carney
Kenneth Becker: Frogman Powell
Sid Melton: Yeoman Chester Tuttle
Frank Watkins: Watkins

It's 1968 – 10 years into the future!
Ships and submarines crossing the North Pole have mysteriously vanished!
The nuclear sub, Tiger Shark is sent out to investigate.
What they discover is not so much out of this world as…….
Deep within its waters!

Read on for more.....

Spoilers follow below....

As the movie, Atomic Submarine opens with title and credits shown over a submarine traveling under the Arctic ice, a narrator informs us that “it cost Commander Robert Peary twenty years of unremitting hard-ship and misery to reach the North Pole, finally, in 1909” and that “it would have astounded Peary to learn that, by the late 1950's and early 60's, the vast, frozen top-of-the-world he pioneered had become a vital highway for world travel and commerce. Not just in the skies but also deep under the ice, in the frigid, five-million-square-mile depths of the Arctic Ocean” where “great passenger and cargo-carrying atomic submarines glided by the dozens, back and forth across the Pole, until a series of mysterious undersea disasters threatened to close the Arctic route forever.”

A sense of panic and urgency is generated with the realization that an essential conduit for world travel and commerce has been threatened by a series of mysterious undersea disasters. This could mean the complete and indefinite closure of the Arctic route.

The narrator goes on to inform us that, “the decisive moment came May 3, at 1315 hours, when the undersea atomic liner, Sturgeon, largest of them all, reached 87 degrees, 10 minutes north latitude - only a few miles from the North Pole itself!”

Suddenly we see in the depths a distant faint ball of glowing light approaching and growing larger and larger while the Sturgeon’s sonar impulses increase in pitch. The light eventually resolves itself into an oval-shaped disk while the Sturgeon’s sonar seems to frantically scream in terror in response only to be drowned out by the humming sound emanating from the looming saucer.

The Sturgeon attempts to beat a hasty retreat by reversing its screws but is soon being overtaken by the saucer-shaped intruder who appears as a great mass of glowing energy. Suddenly a bolt of energy shoots forth from the saucer and strikes the hull of the Sturgeon.

The entire sub glows with radiant incandescent light before beginning to melt away and collapse bit by bit. The red-hot carcass of the sub then rises to the surface, towards the ice-layer where it emerges in its final grinding, cracking and writhing death-throes.

Finally, a thunderous roar accompanied by a fireball and mushroom cloud signals the outpouring of the mortally wounded sub’s life-blood as its atomic reactor blows up.

After the destruction of the Sturgeon near the North Pole and the loss of several other ships in the Arctic, the polar route is closed, and an emergency meeting is convened at The Pentagon.

At the Pentagon’s Bureau of Arctic Defense War Room. Admiral Terhune introduces the commander of the atomic submarine, Tiger Shark, Cmdr. Dan Wendover to the Secretary of Defense, Justin Murdock, Dr. Clifford Kent who was involved in the design and development of the sub and Sir Ian Hunt, winner of the Nobel Prize for Oceanography.

Admiral Terhune outlines the reports that have been received: "Destruction of four surface vessels, Largest, 10,000 tons. Radioactivity in Arctic waters, flow ice and bergs. Peculiar television images preceding each distress call. Seven polar atom subs vanished without a trace."

The Tiger Shark is currently undergoing modifications in the Bremerton Navy Yard, one of which is an escape hatch in the keel for the Lungfish—an advanced exploratory diving bell.

Admiral Terhune informs Cmdr. Wendover that "the mission of the Tiger Shark is to hunt down and identify the cause of these Arctic disasters. If humanly possible you will remove it."

The role of women in this film is a pretty minor one in which they are reduced to being either a model of matrimonial forbearance or a piece of eye-candy and object of sexual desire. And so, we have a scene in which an inebriated Lt. David Milburn drivels on about something or other to slinky, sexy and seductive platinum blonde, Julie while his wife, Helen Milburn tries to pry him away before he can warn Julie what a wolf Lt. Cmdr. Richard Reef Holloway can be.

After Dave and his wife leave, Reef and the blonde snuggle up on the armchair only to be interrupted by a knock at the door followed by a note shoved under the door. The note informs Reef of his orders and that his leave has been cancelled. Blondie will have to wait – after all, in future world of 1968 it’s a man’s navy!

No Admittance Except to Authorized
U.S. Navy Personnel

At the Bremerton Navy Yard, Reef and Milburn meet while boarding the ship. Reef is introduced to Kent and Sir Ian. Reef is informed that he will be sharing quarters with a Dr. Neilson. Reef is soon disappointed to learn that it isn't Dr Neilson himself but instead, his son, Dr. Carl Neilson Jr. He states with disgust and loathing, “I should have suspected, when I heard that 'Doctor.' I thought it was your father.” Dr. Neilson's father was supposed to make the trip but had a heart attack. Carl informs Reef that he and his father “developed the Lungfish together. Except for him, I'm the only one qualified to dive in it.” There was no time for anyone else to be trained for the job. The hatred that Reef feels for Carl is palpable.

The narrator informs us, "The Tiger Shark left her dock at Bremerton at 0335 hours the morning of May 11, on what was to prove the strangest, most fearful voyage ever made by a submarine, atomic or otherwise."

Cmdr. Wendover makes the following entry in his log;


The narrator goes on to explain that “the men would remain un-briefed for two hours, until the Tiger Shark cleared Puget Sound and was headed for the open sea.” Once outside Puget Sound, Wendover will brief the crew.

In the crew dining area, CPO Griff Griffin enters, and almost trips over a huge pile of equipment on the floor. This sets the scene for the usual gruff barking interactions that are often depicted as passing for communication between people in the military.

The gear belongs to underwater demolition “frogmen,” Seamen First Class Powell and Carney. An irate gruff Griff Griffin grumbles and rumbles at the two men, ‘this whole deal is making less and less sense to me! What're frogmen doing aboard the Tiger Shark?”

The narrator informs us that, “shortly before dawn, the Tiger Shark, running submerged at better than thirty knots, had left the Sound behind and was headed for the open sea.”

Meanwhile in the war room, Wendover shows the now opened sealed orders to Reef, then briefs the crew;

“Now hear this: All men of the Tiger Shark. This is the Captain speaking. I know you're wondering about all the mystery - Our mission is so dangerous it had to be kept completely secret. It's our job to find out what caused the disasters under the Arctic ice. Once we cross the Arctic Circle, any command you hear will be the real thing, remember that! That's about it. Now you know as much as I do - as much as anybody does - I assured Washington this was the best crew of the best sub in the fleet. I know you won't make a liar out of me!”

Log Entry:
May 20, 0900 Hours. Crossed
Arctic Circle. Nearing danger area. All Watches Doubled...

By May 20 the Tiger Shark has crossed the Arctic Circle. In the break room, Reef explains to Milburn that Dr. Neilson Sr. was “one of the finest men, and officers, alive. A real hero” who taught engineering and design at the academy. He had “fought like a demon to develop atom subs.” His son, Carl, however dropped out of school and had begun “making noises like a pacifist. A real egghead, do-gooder, and crackpot! 'Ban the atom tests! Junk the nuclear subs! Spend the military budget for peace!'” After some newspapers had referred to Carl as 'the honest, sincere son of a war-mongering father' the then Capt. Neilson resigned from the Navy, a broken man.

When Reef later meets up with Carl, he somewhat gleefully declares that he learned via a radiogram that his father is better and can replace his son on the mission.

A heated argument then ensues between Carl and Reef over pacifist ideals vs the need to militarily defend society’s ideals and values. Carl asserts that “anybody who doesn't happen to think like a little gold-braided puppet is, ipso facto, a coward!” and that ‘wearing a uniform doesn't bestow an automatic monopoly on courage.” For him, war is “a Paleozoic pastime that should have disappeared with the thunder-lizards” and that it constitutes “the worst cowardice of all - being spiritually yellow!” What is important to Carl is “peace - the dignity of man – the destiny of the human spirit!” and that anyone who claims that they can win those ideals or qualities by fighting wars is little more than “an idiot!”

Carl then informs Reef that he is in fact definitely staying and will go on to complete the mission.

Suddenly a loud banging noise draws Reef away to the con to deal with an emergency in which electrical interference in the water is disturbing the instruments.

Absolute pandemonium has erupted with the Sonar screaming hysterically and the view screen having some kind of acid trip complete with flashing lights, streaks and wavy patterns of light and lightning bolts. All the while ears are being assaulted by thunderous crashing sounds and insistent alarm bells.

Wendover orders the sub to submerge at maximum angle and depth. The sub seems to be buffeted by an underwater electrical barrage. The Tiger Shark gradually sinks deeper and deeper into the depths until at last all is calm, and the sub settles at the bottom.

Sir Ian has meanwhile formulated a theory. On a chart of the Arctic he has plotted every disturbance and disaster. A pattern seems to have emerged in which, "each incident occurred almost precisely 1,000 statute miles from the Pole. A line drawn through the points of occurrence makes almost a complete circle around the North Pole." It is apparent to Sir Ian that some sort of intelligence is responsible. However, Sir Ian does not” mean to imply, necessarily, a 'human' intelligence.” The kind of intelligence he is proposing is “perhaps not 'on earth' at all. Perhaps it comes from beyond the earth!”

He also predicts the next point of contact after theorizing that there “may be a significant gap, or break, in the ring” and proposes the Tiger Shark be there and waiting. The next danger point will likely be “the Queen Victoria Sea!”

“Swiftly, implacably, the Tiger Shark moved across the top of the world towards her rendezvous with the as yet unknown entity. When they arrive at the spot they predicted they are confronted with sections of ice calving off from the main body of ice. A strange glow of energy has appeared beneath the iceberg which begins to creak and groan from internal pressures. Great masses of ice from the exploding berg are heading straight for the sub.

The Tiger Shark performs an emergency dive procedure but is struck by an ice berg which rushes at the sub like an express train. The wounded and stricken Tiger Shark has sustained damage and is forced to come to a full stop. With a “moderate leak in overhead plates, damage to main drive shaft housing” and “forced to stop reactor engines,” the Tiger Shark is now “dead in the water!”

On the screen can be seen a great glowing oval-shaped saucer. It is as we soon learn about three-hundred feet in diameter and on top is a great, blazing turret of light. It is estimated as moving north at a speed of 22 knots. As the crew of the sub watch, the saucer begins to recede from them until it is only a point of light.

Carney and Powell are soon sent outside to do a damage assessment.

Sir Ian meanwhile sketches a likeness of the craft and describes it as “a pure oval shape, with this cyclops-like eye, or turret, on top. I'd estimate its diameter at 300 feet. No discernible orifices...” He then muses “about our 'one-eyed adversary' and the legend of Homer” in which “'Cyclops were the Sons of Heaven, who forged the thunder-bolts thrown by Zeus.”

In a briefcase, Kent locates a picture of a UFO in a manila folder. The UFO resembles the craft they found under the ocean. The picture was taken by an amateur astronomer, over New Mexico. Sir Ian speculates that there haven’t been reports of landings of UFOs because “it's possible that whoever - or whatever – inhabits the craft is not a land creature, but a form of marine life.”

With Griff’s report that all internal repairs have been completed, and the exterior damage being only minor, the Tiger Shark can now get underway. 

The Tiger Shark spends a month traveling to the Pole and back, but “never a glimpse of their enemy, but there were disasters, new ships and lives lost. Invariably, the Tiger Shark made for the scene, only to arrive after Cyclops had left.” 

The pursuit seems fruitless until on July 3, Sir Ian and Kent meet with Wendover and consider the matter of “why does Cyclops invariably return to the Pole between attacks - never two in succession. Always away...and back....away....and back...” They speculate that the repeated trips to the Pole might be a means of magnetic power recharging in which “our saucer-friend has to return to the Pole, regularly to....recharge his batteries.”

The new plan now is to “place ourselves between Cyclops and the Pole” in order to “block his way to the Pole and attack” and “polish him off with an atomic fish!”

On July 13, at 16.00 hours the crew of the Tiger Shark encounter their prey, after the reported sinking of a freighter by the Cyclops gave them a clue where to intercept it. The Tiger Shark lies silently and motionless in wait on the bottom, until suddenly at 06.00 hours the radiation meter warns them of the Cyclops’ approach.

The plan involves the arming and launch of two atomic torpedoes. As the saucer moves ever nearer and grows from a tiny speck of light to its distinctive shape, the tension mounts ever higher within the sub. At a range of seven miles both torpedoes are launched.

By means of an energy discharge, the Cyclops manages to avoid or deflect the first torpedo. The second torpedo embeds itself in a cloud of radiant, luminescent jelly-like substance surrounding the saucer’s hull.

With few options seemingly open to him, Wendover barks orders into the intercom: “This is the Captain: Blow bow tanks. Reactor Room, stand by: Soon as we're off the bottom, I want all ahead, flank speed, pronto!” His intention is to ram Cyclops because “if the Tiger Shark can't destroy him, no power on Earth can!”

Like a predatory fish the Tiger Shark rises from the bottom and heads directly for its quarry. The sub seems hell bent on impaling and skewering Cyclops and manages to plough into the protective coating, slam against the saucer itself, and bury its bow deep within the Cyclops. A tremendous rending and tearing sound is followed by a complete and eerie silence as the glow emanating from the harpooned 'alien creature’s' eye gradually diminishes. 

Locked together in a slowly rotating dance of death, the Tiger Shark and the Cyclops silently sink to the bottom

Even exerting full reverse will not free the sub from its fatal embrace and prevent them from sinking to the bottom. Faced with being pulled lower and lower by the sub's engines, the order is given for the propellers to be stopped. The two craft still continue sinking, but more slowly now.

July 15, 10:00 Hours.  Now lying
on bottom. Locked to Cyclops. 200 Fathoms.

Assuming that the Cyclops has some kind of an atmosphere, Reef proposes they enter the craft and use torches to cut the Tiger Shark loose. It’s eventually decided that Dr. Neilson, Reef, Milburn and the two frogmen are to use the Lungfish and head for the Cyclops eye.

Dr. Neilson soon successfully attaches the Lungfish to the Cyclops’ eye and they open the hatch. The men gain access to the craft’s interior via an aperture or iris. 

Breathable air pressure is available, so the men dispense with their tanks. They soon spot the bow of the Tiger Shark and notice that the bow of the submarine extends some way into the chamber. Strangely enough, there is not a drop of water nor a break in the surrounding wall. It appears that the saw teeth of the bow ram are caught in the break. They’ll have to cut the teeth so the Tiger Shark can pull away. Powell is sent back so that Dr. Neilson can report to Wendover. Carney meanwhile uses an acetylene torch to cut away the teeth. 

Despite the inertial navigation system having been knocked out, Grif notices that it indicates they are moving! Kent also notices that the radiation level from the saucer is rising. Finally, the system indicates that they are moving due north at six knots.

As Reef works, a weird oscillating sound that varies wildly in pitch permeates the area. Reef asks Dave if he hears anything, but he doesn’t.

Reef continues working with the torch on the ram of the Tiger Shark, when Dave suddenly taps him on the shoulder and declares, “Hey - you know somethin'? It's getting lighter in here!” He then goes on to observe, “and if I didn't know better, I'd swear we were moving!” This is confirmed by Carl who states, “I get an impression of movement, Captain. Is that possible?” and by Wendover who says, “we have the same reaction, up here.”

With the radiation level rising as they near the Pole, and with the Cyclops appearing to be returning to life, the ram drops free making it possible for the Tiger Shark to pull free.

Suddenly, a strange voice calls out telepathically to Reef warning him to “make no resistance.” Reef draws his gun but is told it is useless. Powell pulls his gun but loses his nerve and turns to bolt away. He is then caught and enveloped in a force field and is shriveled by radiation until he becomes reduced to a jelly-like smouldering state. Carney decides to make a run for the exit, but the aperture begins to close on him crushing him to death. 

The scene shifts to a cavernous interior where a long catwalk extends out into space and reaches out toward a great sphere situated in the very centre of the saucer. A strange glow that grows brighter and brighter emanates from inside this sphere. It is the alien creature’s lair and Reef and Milburn approach.

A voice tells Reef to “remove your weapons, Commander and come here - alone!” Reef cautiously approaches a spherical chamber and peers into the opening. Inside an incredulous Reef is confronted by the sight of the source of the voice: an horrendous-looking creature with long, black, writhing spines, pulsating tubular body and a monstrous eyeball. 

As they finally meet “face-to-face”, Reef asks the creature why he is the only one that can hear its voice. The creature explains that their “individual brain frequencies are now attuned” and they can both “exchange wave-thoughts.”

The creature then goes on to explain the purpose behind its presence on earth. Its “mission is to study various solar systems, and planets -select the most suitable for colonization” and that it had “visited hundreds of other worlds, and of all of them… Earth seems most suitable.”

Dave meanwhile has approached the lair and sees the creature. He levels his gun at the creature and opens fire. In response a radiation beam strikes Dave causing him to melt and shrivel to nothingness.

A shocked and shaken Reef asks why he hasn't been killed and is told by the creature, “I have selected you, to return with me - along with several other specimens, for study. We will examine you and the others, discover desirable features to incorporate in our 'earth-colonizers.'”

Reef also learns from the creature that its species builds using living tissue and that the saucer itself “is a living thing. When damaged…. it immediately 'heals' itself.”

To stop the creature beginning the return journey, Reef attacks the alien by firing a Very pistol into its single eye, temporarily blinding it. He then bolts for the exit and to the accompaniment of wails of anguished pain from the creature, he avoids being struck by heat rays and crushed to death by the closing apertures. The iris leading to the Lungfish is held open by Dr. Neilson and as soon as Reef hurls himself inside, Dr. Neilson secures the Lungfish and returns to the Tiger Shark.

The creature repairs its eye and the Lungfish is brought aboard the Tiger Shark. Reef reports, “We didn't kill it, Skipper. And if it ever gets...back where it came from...the Earth is doomed, and everything and everybody on it!”

The powerful engines of the Tiger Shark succeed in pulling the sub out of the hull of the saucer. The Cyclops then proceeds to head for the Pole at a speed of 50 knots.

Kent proposes a course of action they can take – “one last, desperate chance - a one-in-a-thousand shot...” This would involve him adapting “one of the torpedo guidance systems to the ICBM - so it would 'home' on the saucer when he rises from the Pole” where “Cyclops will have to linger….to recharge his power banks.”

The plan is agreed to. But what a plan: “Adapt a complicated guidance system to a huge ballistic rocket - convert it to a water-to-air intercept missile? It was foolish, it was insane, it was fantastic - but it was their only hope – and the earth's only hope!” 

A hole in the ice is eventually found, the ICBM is prepared for firing and the wait begins. Suddenly the Cyclops emerges from the ice amid a tremendous rending and tearing din. The saucer rises from the water, hovers just above the ice and begins rising slowly into the air and takes off. The rocket is fired from the Tiger Shark. It quickly leaps into the air and heads towards its objective. The missile scores a direct hit resulting in a thunderous explosion and a huge nuclear fireball. This is then followed by a mushroom cloud and at the end we are left with nothing but empty sky.

With their mission accomplished and the Tiger Shark returning to the Bremerton Navy Yard, a reconciled Reef and Dr. Neilson walk out into the night air. Neilson looks up at the night sky and wonders which star their alien visitor came from. Reef optimistically speculates, "When this ship doesn't return, they'll decide not to come here after all." And Carl Neilson seems to have come to the realization that his pacifist ideals were of no use in such a situation as the one they were confronted with.

Points of Interest

The atomic-powered submarine, the Nautilus made its debut five years before the making of Atomic Submarine. On 3 August 1958, the Nautilus was the first submarine to complete a submerged transit of the North Pole. The atomic submarine was at the time considered to be the cutting edge of technology.

The actors in Atomic Submarine manage to deliver fairly competent performances. There’s also the rather forced but interesting and tense clash of ideological standpoints between Reef and Carl.

Another point of interest is that Atomic Submarine appears to be the first sci-fi movie to employ the notion of a living spaceship.

While watching Atomic Submarine one can’t help thinking of the underwater 1960s series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. In that series we have an advanced nuclear sub capable of firing missiles or torpedoes and equipped with 2-man submersibles and later, the Flying Sub. In fact, some episodes of the series are very similar to the plot of Atomic Submarine!

There’s no escaping the fact that while being a sci-fi action adventure film, it is also a piece of Cold-War era propaganda in which the prevailing world view of the Power Elite is presented: Namely, that there are many monstrous enemies out there who are intent on doing us harm. We therefore should replace any pacifist notions with strength of purpose and fortitude and invest in “beautiful” military technology to combat and defeat them. Wow, sounds all too familiar even in the 21st Century! In fact, it inspired me to write this little poem……

Death Dance

An appeal made to the heart and mind
Beginning with a simple proposition:
To fear a fearsome foe behind
A status-quo faced with disruption.

Our enemies are monsters or, so we’re told,
Hell bent on destroying our way of life.
We must not let their evil plans unfold,
For they are the source of all our strife!

With the threat seemingly at hand
A call to action is proclaimed;
Faith placed in shiny weapons planned
For a way of life to be reclaimed.

The scene is set for conflict and discord,
A testing time of ego-fueled tension,
A butting of heads and a clash of sword,
A battle fought over points of contention.

A clash of ideals, world views and values
Erupt in a rigged and fake debate
In which we know who’ll win and who’ll lose:
Spoils to those best able to manipulate.

For minds entangled in red rose razor wire,
Might is the only right solution,
Time to let loose a flurry of fury and fire,
Anything less thus deemed a delusion.

Force is met with force until stalemate is achieved,
Both sides locked in a deadly embrace,
Still, the right of might is by both believed:
Till the final death-dance of the human race…..

Movie Clip

©Chris Christopoulos 2018

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