Aaron Schneider (2020)
When Americans think of Naval battles during World War II, they usually think of the South Pacific. I know I do, since that was where my father served after Pearl Harbor. But the longest continuous military campaign of World War II, the longest and largest naval battle in history, was the Battle of the Atlantic, which began immediately after the war erupted in Europe in September 1939, when the British announced a naval blockade of Germany, and the Germans responded with a counter blockade. The battle pitted German U-boats and other warships against British and Canadian ships and, after the United States entered the war in December 1941, American ships as well. It finally ended when the Germans surrendered in May 1945. Essentially the battle involved the Germans’ attempt to stop the flow of supplies crossing the Atlantic from North America to Britain that allowed the British to keep fighting, and that brought equipment to Britain that would ultimately be used for the invasion of mainland Europe. The Allies ultimately were victorious in the battle, and hence the war, but in the nearly six years during which the fighting raged, the Allies lost 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships, while the Germans lost 783 U-boats and 47 other warships.
Now a small glimpse of that battle is available in Tom Hanks’ new film, Greyhound. Hanks has had an almost obsessive interest in the Second World War ever since making Saving Private Ryan, one of the best films ever made about the war. He and Steven Spielberg created the acclaimed miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and a third miniseries,Masters of the Air, is purportedly in the works as well. So it is no surprise that Hanks has had this film as a pet project for years. The story was adopted from The Good Shepherd, a 1955 novel by C.S. Forester, the English novelist famous for the Horatio Hornblower series as well as the novel that provided the basis for a little film called The African Queen. Hanks himself wrote the screenplay for Greyhound, and got Academy Award winning director Aaron Schneider to direct it, his first feature film since 2009’s Get Low. The film had been scheduled for nationwide release in June, but, in another sad pandemic story, was brought out instead streaming on Apple TV+ on July 10. Hanks was reportedly heartbroken that the film would not be released on the wide screen.
The story gives Hanks another opportunity to portray a simple, ordinary man who, confronted with extraordinary difficulties, rises to the occasion and performs admirably, relying on steady competence and what Hemingway called grace under pressure. Like Sully or Captain Phillips, or even Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, Greyhound’s Commander Ernest Krause is a man with everyday talents and abilities, but with outstanding knowledge, tenacity, and courage under fire that allows him to fight off a wolfpack of enemy submarines in an attempt to save his ship and his convoy.
The plot goes like this: In February 1942, just two months after America’s entry into the war, Commander Krause is given command of the destroyer USS Keeling, codenamed Greyhound. He has the task of escorting a convoy of 37 merchant ships, along with a British destroyer, codenamed Harry, and two other supporting warships, codenamed Eagle and Dickie. It is Krause’s first command, and the convoy is on its way to Liverpool. The convoy enters the area known as the Mid-Atlantic gap, nicknamed the “Black Pit,” where they will be out of range of any air support either from North America on the one hand or Britain on the other. And this is where the German U-boats are most dangerous. The convoy will be without air cover for at least fifty hours, during which they will be at their most vulnerable to enemy attacks.
It isn’t long before Greyhound hears from the convoy’s flagship, informing Krause that they have intercepted transmissions that they believe are from a German submarine. Krause takes his ship off after the U-boat, which dives before Greyhound is able to get within firing range. But shipboard Sonar is able to pinpoint the position of the enemy vessel, and Greyhound destroys the U-boat with depth charges. When one of Greyhound’s midshipmen rejoices “Fifty less krauts!” at this success, Krause mildly corrects him: “Fifty less souls.”
This is a clear sign of the commander’s character. He does not think of his adversaries as a faceless “Other.” We see him in prayer several times during the action, mostly when he says a silent grace before the meals that his personal messmate, an African American seaman named Cleveland, brings him and which we never actually see him eat, since something always takes him away just when he is about to have a bite. He neither eats nor sleeps in the fifty hours in the Black Pit, but pushes himself to be on top of everything at all times. He pushes his crew as well, but another of his notable traits is his kindness to the men. Even when they make errors, he uses it as a teaching moment rather than berating them. You might find him a little too gentle, given the stakes of the battle they are in. But this is the man he is. Forester’s novel spent a good deal of time inside Krause’s mind, but the film does not have this luxury. We get no psychological study but instead a trim, tense 90-minute drama that is continuous action, so that we know Krause only by what we see him do.
Like Krause, we are given no time to rest as one crisis follows hard upon another as the film goes on. Immediately upon sinking the first U-boat, Greyhound is called to assist a Greek supply ship that is sinking, and Greyhound must dodge torpedoes as it moves in to help. There are now six U-boats forming a wolfpack surrounding the convoy, waiting to attack in the night. Five ships are attacked, including an oil tanker, and when Greyhound seeks the vessel that torpedoed the tanker, Krause makes a critical error in judgment that causes him to waste a number of depth charges—a mistake he will soon have reason to regret. But before the scene ends, Greyhound is called to two places at once and Krause must choose either to speed off to protect another ship from attack, or to rescue survivors of the tanker explosion from the sea.
To give away his choice, or more of the plot, would only be to engage in spoilers. So I’ll leave it there. Overall, the film rushes from one crisis to another, and you’ll be kept on the edge of your easy chair, or wherever it is you stream movies these days, with suspense. There is a feeling of actually being there in a sea battle, kept in a high state of alertness for fifty hours in that Black Pit. But it’s really only ninety minutes.
Hanks is watchable as ever, the consummate everyman hero. But one of the weaknesses of this movie is that he is the only character that we get to know at all personally. His sympathetic messmate George Cleveland (Rob Morgan from Just Mercy) and his loyal navigator and right-hand man Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham, perhaps best-remembered as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) are really the only other members of the crew that make more than a passing impression on us, and they don’t have a lot to do but follow Krause’s orders. The only other memorable character is Krause’s romantic interest Evelyn (played by an underused Elisabeth Shue), who pops up in the first scene to decline Krause’s marriage proposal as he heads out for the war, and to exchange Christmas gifts with him. We never see her again, but she does give him a pair of slippers that are going to come in handy during those long fifty hours on his feet.
The movie uses a lot of CGI effects that simulate the feeling of being in a war zone. But this is no Saving Private Ryan—there is nothing close to the realism of the Normandy invasion of that film. In fact, in many ways this film is more reminiscent of another Normandy film, The Longest Day. Like that movie, it makes use of on-screen labels, like “British Destroyer HARRY” and “British Destroyer EAGLE” when Krause looks at those ships through his binoculars. And like The Longest Day, Greyhound is determined to give you detail after detail, often in technical military jargon that many viewers will find annoying after a while.
In some ways, this film is less a war movie in the classic sense than a kind of pseudo- documentary intended to tell you everything there is to know about how this (fictional) skirmish was fought. The opening scene with Elisabeth Shue, designed apparently to give us an idea of Krause’s life outside this episode, seems out of place in this film, since it introduces things never resolved and raises a lot of questions never answered. Despite the delight of seeing her, the film may have been better without it, though it does, as my wife pointed out, establish Krause’s uncertainty of command after waiting so long for a commission. Overall, I’ll give this film three Tennysons, because it does a great job at creating suspense, and because of Hanks’ capable performance. But there are a number of things missing here.
To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/
You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1
Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.