The Best and Worst War Movies About Submarines

Window looking out of submarine
Matthias Kulka / Getty Images

Submarine movies are few and far between for a reason. It's difficult to dramatize the action onboard a submarine, which usually amounts to men standing in a darkened room firing torpedoes at other vessels in the water, which, as the viewer, you also can't see. Two big lumbering underwater machines moving around each other doesn't often make for dynamic viewing. Of course, being a submariner also means danger, and the threat of drowning, and dying underwater—so there's that. Here's a brief history of submarines in war movies—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)

"Run Silent, Run Deep" film poster

The Best!

Starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, this is the first definitive submarine movie ever made by Hollywood, and it's a classic: An American sub in a cat and mouse game with a Japanese sub, while battling it out in the Pacific theater during World War II. From dealing with kamikaze pilots and a dastardly enemy navy, the film is exciting and, most important, it has decent characters that you actually invest in. It's an action film and nothing more, but sometimes that's all you want.

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Ice Station Zebra (1968)

"Ice Station Zebra" film poster

The Worst!

Rock Hudson!  Ernest Borgnine!  Bad special effects!  A silly plot!  

The above exclamations aside, Ice Station Zebra is guaranteed to make you want to rise to the surface, jump over the side of the sub, and swim back to shore as fast as possible.  The risk of drowning in the sea is still better than sitting through this painful attempt at an action film.

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Das Boot (1981)

"Das Boot" film poster

The Best!

One of the rare films that show the second World War from the point of view of the enemy, Das Boot follows a German U-Boat submarine crew as they engage in battle under the Atlantic Ocean. The film does an excellent job making the viewer feel and understand the intense claustrophobic conditions that exist on board a submarine, as sailors race through pitched tight spaces in almost near darkness as the submarine is attacked. The first thought one considers upon watching this film: What a horrible way to die! 

The film works because we care about the sailors (not much more than really scared eighteen-year-old kids) and because we're not sure how it's going to end.

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The Hunt for Red October (1990)

"The Hunt for Red October" film poster

The Best!

The first in the Jack Ryan franchise (this one with a young Alec Baldwin), it features Sean Connery as a Soviet submarine commander headed towards the United States (after some playful maneuvers with the U.S. Navy) in order to claim asylum.  It's exciting, has great production values, and is an all around fun film.  The film's release was poignantly timed with the collapse of the USSR.

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Crimson Tide (1995)

"Crimson Tide" film poster

The Best!

The pitch for Crimson Tide at the studio meeting probably went something like this: Mutiny on a submarine, as the crew divides among Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, two commanders battling one another for control of the vessel!  

And, as pitches go, that one doesn't sound bad. Both Hackman and Denzel are fantastic performers. 

Aha! But Crimson Tide does one better! It's actually, somewhat of a thinking man's film. The leadership conflict is based on an aborted signal ordering the submarine to fire its nuclear weapons while the world is on the cusp of a third World War. Should the sub fire its weapons without getting the orders verified? Or should they risk losing the war and waiting until the order can be confirmed? It's interesting to ask yourself what you would do. In a recent article on ethical decisions in war movies, I stated that I would not fire the nuclear missiles—what would you do?

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U-571 (2000)

"U-571" film poster

The Worst!

U571 stars Bon Jovi, among others, telling the real-life story of Americans out to steal the Engima code machine from the Germans so that intelligence operatives can decode German messages and turn the tide in the war. The film itself is marginally entertaining, except that it makes a grave historical error: In real life, it was British sailors, not Americans, that were responsible for the daring feats portrayed in the film. And upon further review, we find that most of the events in the film were entirely made up. It's sort of an entirely fictional story about a real-life event. Unfortunately, as my frequent readers will know, historical inaccuracy is one of my pet peeves.

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K-19 The Widowmaker (2002)

"K-19 The Widowmaker" film poster

The Worst!

And what a shame, because it had a lot of talent. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it starred Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. The film—about a Soviet nuclear submarine that has a radiation leak and slowly kills everyone on board—is, to put it shortly, bereft of action. There's no submarine battles, no Naval military exercises—just two long hours of Soviet sailors slowly dying of radiation poisoning while they make welding repairs. This might be sufficient for a central conflict if we cared about any of the characters, like say, the young sailors onboard the ship. But we don't. And Ford's Russian accent is a bit annoying.

So hey, if your idea of a good time is spending two hours slowly watching characters you don't care about die from radiation poisoning, then I give this film my highest recommendation. If not, I'd skip it.

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Down Periscope (2006)

Down Periscope film poster

The Worst!

Kelsey Grammar and Rob Schneider pretend to be sailors. I believe it's supposed to be a screwball comedy, but I'm not quite sure. I didn't laugh once, so maybe it was a drama? Except nothing dramatic happens, either. For myself, I would happily erase this memory from my brain if it was possible.