by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Submarine Raider, a surprisingly interesting 1942 “B” from Columbia that offered an interesting riff on the true-life story of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 that sparked the U.S. entry into World War II. Turner Classic Movies had shown this as the lead-off item on a slate of war movies last December 7 but I hadn’t realized it was so closely tied in to the actual event they were celebrating the anniversary of and wasn’t just a war-themed movie about a submarine crew! The plot gimmick is that Yamanada (Nino Pipitone, whose name sounds Italian but he still manages to look convincingly Japanese), captain of the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiranamu (which incidentally looks like a giant self-moving barge rather than what we think of as an aircraft carrier), is on his way to help launch the attack on Pearl Harbor when he spies an American pleasure yacht in his way.
Fearful that the American pleasure cruisers are going to spot his ship, radio to the U.S. military and thereby spoil the surprise that was the key element in the attack’s success (you remember), the captain orders an all-stops-out attack on the poor, defenseless little yacht, whose occupants were engaged in the usual soap-operaish pursuits (a man was asking a woman to marry him and she was begging off because of the minor little detail that she didn’t love him) when a Japanese ship came at them, all guns blazing, for reasons that were a total mystery to them. Not only do the Japanese sink the yacht, but when three people — two men and a woman — try to escape the wreckage in a lifeboat, Yamanada orders a pilot to take off from the carrier and dive-bomb the lifeboat. His pilot sinks it and kills both men, but the woman, Sue Curry (Marguerite Chapman), is rescued by a U.S. submarine that happens to be in the area. The sub’s commander, Chris Warren (John Howard), and his first officer, Russell (Bruce Bennett), eventually figure out that the Japanese are planning something big and try to radio the information to their superior officers — but the Japanese are jamming all radio frequencies and they attack the submarine, failing to sink it but damaging the radio enough that they can receive but not send — and all they can receive are regular commercial broadcasts from Honolulu, including one from a local nightclub featuring musician Duke Kahola (Juan Varro), whom Warren and Russell futilely try to make contact in hopes he will pass on their warning to the authorities.
Submarine Raider is a surprisingly exciting movie given the black-and-white wartime morality — the good guys are very, very good, the bad guys are very, very bad and scenarist Aubrey Wisberg has the characters go on and on and on bemoaning the dastardly evil of the Japanese — and, as Charles pointed out, it anticipates Tora, Tora, Tora in showing the Pearl Harbor attack from both points of view, cutting back and forth from the submarine to the Hiranamu — and the Japanese carrier’s crew is practically an all-star list of the top male Chinese actors in Hollywood at the time: Philip Ahn, Paul Fung (as the pilot who sinks the lifeboat but leaves one survivor, for which dereliction he’s ordered by Yamanada to throw himself off the carrier and commit suicide by drowning — and, since according to Aubrey Wisberg the Japanese don’t have the reverence for their own lives that we do, a bit of racist twaddle that since has been repeated about Arabs and/or Muslims, he meekly obeys), Richard Loo and Keye Luke.
What’s amazing about Submarine Raider is if you can stomach the racism (obviously intended as wartime morale-boosting agitprop) and the black-and-white characterizations of the opposing sides, the film comes off as quite a neat thriller, with excellent suspense direction by the usually slovenly Lew Landers (though the imdb.com page on the film lists Budd Boetticher as an uncredited co-director) and cinematography by Franz Planer (though he minimizes his association with another Axis country by spelling his first name “Frank” on his credit) that at times is surprisingly noir for a wartime action movie. The music score was assembled by Morris Stoloff from stock sources in Columbia’s library, but most of it is actually intriguingly dissonant — there’s only one really cheesy cue, for a land-based car chase — and even the usual bugbear of cheap war movies, the incorporation of stock footage, is done quite smoothly here.
At times it’s hard to tell what’s new footage, what’s stock (I suspect the scenes of the submarine actually moving through the water were from Frank Capra’s 1928 Columbia silent Submarine), what’s model work and what’s newsreel — though some of the shots of the Pearl Harbor attack itself are almost too familiar from wartime documentaries and some seem to have been the re-creations, done with models, for the War Department’s official film on the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7th (co-directed by John Ford and the great cinematographer Gregg Toland). Submarine Raider wasn’t an important film when it was new and it isn’t one today, either, but it’s an engaging and legitimately exciting war movie — proof that the excellent pre-war RKO “B” Condemned Women wasn’t a fluke and, given the right script and the right circumstances, Lew Landers could make a creditable movie. And of course it’s ironic that, thanks to the marvels of globalization, this viciously anti-Japanese film comes to us now courtesy of … Sony, a Japanese-based multinational corporation.