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Roy Ward Baker's timeless classic about a peacetime sea disaster is 1958's A Night to Remember, the best movie to date about the sinking of the Titanic. But eight years earlier when he billed himself simply as Roy Baker, the director's Morning Departure earned considerable critical praise as a nominee for BAFTA's Best British Film Award. Adapted from a play, the story of a submarine disaster makes a surprisingly taut suspense drama. Baker's film is not a rousing "How I Won the War" tale, nor even a combat story. It chronicles an almost banal mishap that can happen to any ship at sea. As someone says, when bad luck is combined with bad weather, almost anything can bring about a tragedy. Morning Departure is a paean to brave sailors, yet I doubt that the Admiralty viewed it as a recruitment aid for the submarine service.
The title is a good example of dramatic understatement. Universal released the show in America as Operation Disaster, a name guaranteed to lead the audience to expect exciting action scenes. It begins with the dawn mission of HM Submarine Trojan. Lt. Commander Armstrong (John Mills) feels as if he's in a rut; he responds fairly positively when his wife Helen (Helen Cherry) suggests he leave the service for private life. Unmarried First Officer Lt. Manson (Nigel Patrick of Raintree County) interrupts putting out to sea to signal affection to his latest date, a WREN on shore (Zena Marshall). Lowly stoker Snipe (Richard Attenborough) can't handle the demands of his wife Rose (Lana Morris), who seems interested only in collecting and spending his pay. Commanding officers Gates and James (Bernard Lee & Kenneth More) take a professional attitude to what some consider a boring ten-hour cruise exercise.
It isn't long before the routine trip becomes a terrible ordeal. A mine left drifting for years explodes, drowning all but twelve men. The sub is left on the ocean floor, disabled. Following the book, Armstrong rallies his men to prepare for an emergency escape. Rescue vessels arrive in fairly good time, and a salvage barge drops needed oxygen lines to the sub. Eight men can escape through the two surviving air locks, using breathing apparatus to float slowly to the surface, an ascent that takes several minutes. The remainder will escape all at once by flooding the ship. The first four sailors exit successfully and are rescued. Then Armstrong must tell the others what he alone knows.... they have only four more breathing apparatus kits not ruined by the mine blast. Half of the survivors must wait out the "iffy" proposition that the salvage barge can raise the sub with cables -- a process that might take a week, and only if the weather remains calm.
Morning Departure begins with a disclaimer in which the producers offer their respects for a recent actual submarine disaster. Just a month before the release date, an identical British submarine sank, with a loss of 64 sailors. The movie's release was almost canceled. A second text line tells us that the film does not incorporate the latest rescue methods in use by the Royal Navy.
There's certainly no faulting the movie's dramatic element, as all the cast members are in top form. John Mills portrayal would win the approval of any Navy critic, even if the captain is considering leaving the service. Richard Attenborough's young Snipe almost immediately loses his nerve and disrupts the disaster procedures with irrational demands to be rescued immediately; he admits that he volunteered for sub duty only for the extra pay. The character seems to be an extension of the worthless sailor back in Noël Coward's In Which We Serve. This show gives Attenborough an opportunity to redeem himself.
Nigel Patrick is even better as the slightly bored bachelor Manson, who turns out to be a stand-up guy. The veterans in the crew are already reconciled with the notion that their occupation comes with an ever-present chance of terrible death. Manson, unfortunately, has a serious medical condition that will not hold up under conditions of oxygen deprivation.
While Bernard Lee observes the necessarily methodical, slow-paced operation on the surface, the final four trapped submariners face new difficulties. A leak of Chlorine gas puts the already stricken Lt. Manson in a very bad way. The waiting brings other problems. Armstrong loses patience with the garrulous Seaman Higgins (James Hayter of Land of the Pharaohs). W.E. Fairchild's screenplay brings up a few predictable issues -- why didn't Lt. Manson want to skipper his own ship? Who has the right to say who lives and who dies? -- but always tells the tale straight, without crazy histrionics or speechifying.
Viewers may be reminded of the October 2010 rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped for 69 days, a somewhat similar situation. Today various Navies maintain complex (fantastic, really) rescue equipment capable of extracting survivors in fairly deep water. The movie is basically an affecting variation of the "Cold Equation" suspense principle, in which lives depend on a technological uncertainty. The Flight of the Phoenix: will that jerry-rigged airplane really fly? Destination Moon: we have enough fuel to blast off with only three crewmembers, not four. Who will stay behind? The nadir of this sub-subgenre might be 1969's Marooned, in which three professional astronauts get stuck up in orbit and almost immediately collapse into a trio of wailing crybabies. It's embarrassing.
Jammed into that submarine is more screen talent, faces we recognize yet have to look up the names. Ensign Rating (?) Marks is George Cole (Cleopatra) a capable actor that I often confuse with Kenneth Griffith. The telegraph operator Hillbrook is Victor Maddern, whom horror fans remember in an extreme makeup in Blood of the Vampire. Interestingly, Nigel Patrick had previously performed a different role in a 1946 TV version of the same play.
Morning Departure is one of those dramas where things keep going wrong, and the central tension is generated by our fear that the movie will end on a horrifying, grim note. Realistic from one end to the other (did you know that magnetic mines don't have to make contact to explode?) and true to the Cold Equation of its premise, Roy Ward Baker's show is a distinguished maritime drama.
VCI's DVD of Morning Departure is a beautiful B&W restoration in fine shape and given a quality encoding. The sound is rich and clear. To VCI's great credit, removable English subtitles are provided, making the show more than suitable for older fans of military movies.
Roy Ward Baker made some very impressive pictures both in England and Hollywood. In 1967 he directed a classic science fiction film, Quatermass and the Pit and thenceforth exclusively horror pictures, for Hammer films and others.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Morning Departure rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.