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Up Periscope

Up Periscope
Warner DVD
1959 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 111 min. / Street Date December 19, 2006 / 19.97
Starring James Garner, Edmond O'Brien, Andra Martin, Alan Hale Jr., Carleton Carpenter, Frank Gifford, William Leslie, Richard Bakalyan, Edd Byrnes
Cinematography Carl Guthrie
Art Direction Jack T. Collis
Film Editor John Schreyer
Written by Richard Landau from a novel by Robb White
Produced by Aubrey Schenck
Directed by Gordon Douglas

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Warner Bros. resurrects the dependable submarine movie yet again to serve as a big screen transition for TV star James Garner. TV's Maverick had already played second fiddle to Marlon Brando and Tab Hunter and Up Periscope was his last program picture before the push into screen stardom. Adept at both comedy and drama, Garner was soon acting opposite top-caliber stars Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn as well as cementing his appeal in action films like The Great Escape.

Up Periscope is perhaps the least distinguished of a string of successful submarine pictures: Robert Wise's Run Silent, Run Deep, Dick Powell's The Enemy Below and Joseph Pevney's Torpedo Run all came out the year before. The script by Richard Landau simplifies Robb White's realistic source novel, but good work by director Gordon Douglas and cinematographer Carl Guthrie keeps the action on track.


Navy Frogman and commando Lt. Ken Braden (James Garner) is puzzled when his girlfriend Sally Johnson (Andra Martin) turns down his marriage proposal. Before he can hear her final answer, Ken is shipped out on a hazardous submarine mission. Ken's new commander Paul Stevenson (Edmond O'Brien) has a reputation as a cold regulations man and this new voyage isn't going to make his crew any happier. The submarine will spirit Braden to an enemy-held island, where he will sneak ashore to steal a Japanese codebook. Tensions mount along the way when it looks as if Stevenson's priorities are faulty: His idea of good planning is to make Braden swim 2,000 yards with his equipment, so as to avoid risking his submarine. What chance does the mission have if Braden is too exhausted to function once he reaches the shore?

Movie studios have long appreciated economical submarine pictures; take a look at Columbia's stock-footage epic Hellcats of the Navy, most of which takes place in tiny sets. Much of Up Periscope is filmed on a real submarine at sea, indicating full Navy cooperation. This may explain why the script is lacking in dramatic tension -- no matter what happens, Navy policy or prestige is never in question. The hero is a clean-cut college athlete with high marks in Oriental languages and an unswerving sense of duty. Played by handsome James Garner, he's an ideal late-50s recruitment symbol.

On land, Up Periscope barely klunks along. Navy personnel spout lame terminology and talk in the hushed tones of military secrecy. Ken Braden romances the drop-dead beautiful Sally Marshall (Andra Martin) using 'beach maneuvers', lame 'salty' jargon for making out at the seashore. Ken is barely surprised when an officer reveals that Sally is a naval intelligence agent assigned to check up on him. The government may have a right to learn if Braden blabs classified information to his dates, but Up Periscope suggests that whatever relationship Sally and Ken develop will be closely monitored by the Navy.

We're also given to understand that a Honolulu bar is basically a brothel for jolly submariners. Three dark haired hula girls crowd around Alan Hale Jr.'s Ensign Malone as if he were a sultan. Officers like Braden get to date movie stars and non-coms spend time with B-girls from the starlet pool. Let's all enlist!

Things perk up once the mission is underway. Edmond O'Brien brings a needed credibility to the thinly written sub skipper, Stevenson. Already troubled by not being 'popular' with the crew, Stevenson claims that the safety of the ship is his first priority, even as he unwisely runs on the surface to save time. Stevenson then turns conservative, insisting that Braden must make a Marathon swim to the island so the sub can remain far out of harm's way. But the skipper softens when time runs out, waiting for Braden beyond the mission deadline and sending out audio signals to guide him back to the sub. Good acting by the reliable Edmond O'Brien minimizes these inconsistencies: Logic dictates that the success of Braden's crucial commando mission justifies almost any risk. The way Stevenson is written, his priorities vary between keeping his ship intact and being loved by his crew.

We can tell that the commando mission is going to be small in scale when Braden surfaces on the same rocky surfline where he played 'beach maneuvers' back in San Diego. He sneaks in and out, easily avoiding the Japanese and locating the all-important Military codebook. Again, James Garner's charisma and good looks excuse a lot of fuzzy details, such as the fact that Braden wears no face camouflage. And were officers really permitted to smoke cigarettes on submarines?  1

Alan Hale Jr. leads a supporting cast of familiar faces playing stale stereotypes. Ex- MGM musical prodigy Carleton Carpenter (Two Weeks With Love) is the earnest first officer and Richard Bakalyan a surly sea-lawyer. Edd "Kookie" Byrnes is the easygoing pharmacist's mate. Warren Oates has an unexceptional film debut as a sailor who likes to eat!

Warner DVD's Up Periscope looks great in CinemaScope, especially the scenes filmed on a real submarine at sea. Unlike some big-screen sub pictures, Gordon Douglas chooses angles that emphasize the tight spaces below decks. The enhanced transfer has few if any flaws, and the film's pick of stock library marching music sounds fine in the mono mix. The amusing original trailer features James Garner giving a quick personal tour of the submarine.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Up Periscope rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 26, 2006

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.


1. A terrific note from Mike Lief, 1/11/07:

Glenn, two quick points, from a former dieselboat crewmember: I read your review of Up Periscope and ...

1. The fleetboats of WWII vintage usually spent most of their time on the surface, diving only to avoid detection by the enemy. The boats' hulls were designed for maximum efficiency on the surface; they used less fuel and cut through the water best while up top. Therefore, transits were run at high speed while surfaced.

2. Cigarettes were indeed allowed while submerged. It often got pretty rank until we surfaced or raised the snorkel, but unless we were moving weapons or fueling, the smoking lamp was darn-near always lit.

If you're interested, I've written about the capabilities of modern conventionally-powered subs here. And about life aboard the sub here. Best, Mike Lief

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson

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