Thursday 23 June 2011

Above Us the Waves (1955)


During World War II, there was a German battleship called the Tirpitz. Based in the northern coast of Norway, it was considered a real threat to Allied communications and, by extension, the war effort in general. Determined to remove this threat, two separate attacks were devised. The first was to send in Chariot human torpedoes (two navy frogmen riding a big bomb), but it was aborted at the last hurdle after a storm damaged the payload and they were lost. The second was to dispatch the new X-class midget submarines, carrying huge explosives. A book was written about these events and eventually turned into a film - Above Us the Waves.

1942, and the greatest threat to the British navy is the Tirpitz. Anchored in a Norwegian fjord, any attempts to attack it have failed. Plans are then drawn up to send in newly built mini-submarines to attack it, by planting powerful explosives directly underneath it.

Above Us the Waves doesn’t exactly hang around, waiting to get going. Within the first twenty minutes, the threat is established, the plan proposed, the crew assembled and trained, the project questioned and proved, and then the initial mission is undertaken. Now, that’s a lot of stuff to cover in a very short amount of time, and it does all this by adhering to a very simple policy – be functional. That’s it. There is no time taken to give the audience a chance to appreciate just how much of a threat the Tirpitz is. We’re told it was a threat, that’s it, move on. The same goes for commander and crew. Only the most necessary of information is given, and in the quickest amount of time possible.

This is a very frustrating thing to deal with. You want to know more about the crew, the mission, the threat, but you’re expected to get all this from brief moments here and there. There isn’t even any real direction or editing that goes on. The camera is aimed at the people talking, and then the scene just dissolves into the next one. There is no sense of atmosphere or mood. The filmmakers seem so desperate to tell the story that they’d rather just do away with the preamble and get down into the submarines, where all the tension and action happens… but there is no tension or action, precisely because we skipped all of the stuff about character motivation and dramatic weight. The film is so stingy with information that there are times where you actually just don’t know what’s going on, so when something goes wrong, you’re not sure how bad it really is. Simplicity is not something this story can boast, so treating it as such is a serious misstep. And the lack of a real ending is quite disappointing, too.

(I do wish to point out that when Above Us the Waves was submitted to the British Board of Film Classification in 1955, it had an initial running time of 105 minutes, but that was cut down to 95 minutes. It’s possible that this lost ten minutes may have made a difference, but I doubt it.)

There are only a few moments where the film rises out of itself a bit and, typically, it’s when the crew are faced directly with German soldiers. The moments on the Tirpitz when John Mills (solid, but under-used) is being politely uncooperative is amusing, but only a little bit. Sadly, for the most part, the subdued nature of the picture makes it hard to care. This may have been less of a hurdle at the time of the film’s release, just ten years after the war. It was still fresh in people’s minds, so it was perhaps easier to stir their emotions with this film. However, even if that were the case, its power has certainly eroded over time.

Despite its status as a classic war film, Above Us the Waves isn’t actually particularly good. The acting is of a moderate to good standard; but the script is quite basic, Ralph Thomas’ very weak direction robs the film of almost every bit of tension or emotion that it could have, and the effects, even for the time, are quite poor. It’s a shame, because this is a great story here, and a real heroism to be shown. Both the story and the men involved deserve a much better telling than this.

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