Burt Lancaster was the producer and star of the 1958 World War II submarine thriller, Run Silent, Run Deep. He co-starred with Clark Gable, in what turned out to be one of Gable’s last movies. (Gable died of a heart attack in November, 1960.) Run Silent, Run Deep is a very good submarine movie, with a lot of suspense, and a battle between commander Gable and officer Lancaster. (I think every submarine movie features tension between the captain and the crew.) Submarines are a great subject for movies because they’re really creepy and terrifying for anyone who likes the open air. The enclosed setting and the constant sense of danger is a great recipe for drama. Lancaster gives a good performance, similar to his character in From Here to Eternity, the tough but fair military officer. Gable is also very good as the driven Commander Richardson.
As the film opens, Commander Richardson has his submarine sunk by the Japanese in the Bungo Straits, off the coast of Japan. He is then relegated to desk duty, even though he longs for another chance to command a sub and sink the Japanese ship that torpedoed him. Every day he “sinks” the Japanese boat on his desk, as his adjutant officer, played by a ridiculously young-looking Jack Warden, recreates the circumstances under which Richardson lost his sub. Lancaster plays Lieutenant Bledsoe, who is looking forward to command a sub of his own. Bledsoe is expecting to get command of his own submarine, but he gets the news that he will be serving under Richardson. Bledsoe quickly figures out that Richardson used Bledsoe’s good record to argue that he should be given command of a sub again, with Bledsoe on board as a “back-up.” Bledsoe resents this, and tells Richardson this before the sub leaves port. The crew of the submarine, featuring a very young Don Rickles, has worked with Bledsoe before, and they begin to resent Richardson’s constant drilling. It turns out that Richardson is planning a very risky maneuver to sink Japanese boats, which has everyone nervous. Richardson is also taking the submarine to the Bungo Straits, which is not part of their mission. During an attack on the sub, Richardson falls and sustains a skull fracture, and Bledsoe takes command of the sub.
Gable is very good in a role that isn’t very sympathetic. His Captain Richardson is reminiscent of Captain Ahab, given his monomaniacal obsession with the Japanese boat that sank his sub. Richardson is willing to put his crews’ lives in danger just so he can settle a score. Lancaster is excellent as Bledsoe, and he exudes confidence and competence when he takes over the sub. There was tension between Gable and Lancaster off the screen, as well. No doubt some of this was due to their different career trajectories. Gable, known as the “King of Hollywood,” hadn’t had a hit movie in a long time, and had left MGM, his longtime studio, in 1953. Gable was also aging, and had put on weight. In contrast, Lancaster was at or near the peak of his popularity and good looks. And even though Gable had top billing, Lancaster’s company was producing the movie, meaning Burt was calling the shots. When the time came to shoot the scenes where Lancaster would take over command of the submarine, Gable said, “I’m not going to do it. He’s not going to take over the boat.” Because the rest of the movie depended upon this plot twist, there was no way that Gable could keep commanding the sub for the rest of the movie. Gable walked off the movie, and shooting was suspended for two days. Scriptwriter John Gay and producer Jim Hill finally worked out a solution where Gable’s character would be injured, and thus could no longer command the sub. Satisfied, Gable went back to work. (Quote and story from Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, by Gary Fishgall. Pg. 166-7.) One can only wonder what Lancaster thought about Gable’s behavior! Gable must have seen Lancaster’s taking over the submarine as a threat to Gable’s own masculine screen persona. Lancaster could also be difficult to deal with at times, and I wonder how he was able to control his temper after Gable’s outburst.
Lancaster, and director Robert Wise, strove for authenticity with all of the submarine sequences. All of the underwater shots of the sub were shot in a water tank with models, which was as realistic as special effects could get in 1957. Don Rickles said of Lancaster’s drive for realism, “He always wanted to know what the depth was and what this gear meant…He’d say ‘Don, do you know what you’re looking at?’ I had no idea what I was looking at, but to humor him, I’d always say, ‘Yes, I do, I do.’” (Fishgall, pg. 169) Typically for one of Lancaster’s movies, there were also clashes with director Robert Wise, and when Lancaster and Hill edited the picture themselves, Wise quit. (Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, pg. 185.) He was certainly not the only director to be infuriated with how a Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production was run.
After the commercial failure of the amazing Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt and Tony Curtis, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster needed a hit. They figured Run Silent, Run Deep would be a big commercial success. It was not. Although the movie was not a flop, it was not the smash that Lancaster needed at the time. Run Silent, Run Deep is still a good war movie, and I would definitely recommend it.