Submarine Command

by Glenn Erickson May 14, 2024

This little-seen Paramount war picture finishes William Holden’s run with lovely Nancy Olson as his co-star; John Farrow’s direction gets serious about a naval officers’ ‘between the wars’ troubles, and then settles on a recruiting stance for the then-hot Korean War. It’s filmed partly at sea, which adds to the realism, and it tries to keep the heroics under control.

Submarine Command
KL Studio Classics
1951 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 87 min. / Street Date May 14, 2024 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: William Holden, Nancy Olson, William Bendix, Don Taylor, Arthur Franz, Darryl Hickman, Peggy Webber, Moroni Olsen, Jack Gregson, Jack Kelly, Don Dunning, Jerry Paris, Philip Van Zandt, Noel Neill, Benson Fong, Nelson Leigh, John Mitchum.
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Art Directors: Hal Pereira, Henry Bumstead
Film Editor: Eda Warren
Original Music: David Buttolph
Written by Jonathan Latimer
Produced by Joseph Sistrom
Directed by
John Farrow

Is there actually a dedicated fan base for submarine war movies?  Hollywood managed to make service in underwater craft look glamorous in Destination Tokyo, but only by casting Cary Grant as a sub captain who dares to enter Tokyo Bay. The reality was something else. Ever been on a WW2-era submarine?  I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but even as a teenager on a tour I couldn’t wait to get back up out on deck. I spent a week on a soundstage with a fake submarine set, and can report that after an hour in the confined space jammed with sweaty actors and crew, I wanted to get out in the fresh air almost as badly. You have to hand it to Blake Edwards — his breezy  Operation Petticoat really takes one’s mind away from how unpleasant things must have been with 40 people on a submerged sub. Of course, he had the good sense to put Cary Grant back in a Captain’s uniform.

We remember well Glenn Ford & Ernest Borgnine’s  Torpedo Run, and Robert Wise’s adroit  Run Silent, Run Deep, but not so much John Farrow’s  Submarine Command, a show overshadowed by another sub drama from 1951. John Wayne’s very good  Operation Pacific is the one with the torpedos that malfunction. Wayne’s chemistry with his co-star Patricia Neal carried over into the excellent  In Harm’s Way, 14 years later.

Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer was a John Farrow collaborator on a number of classics —  The Big Clock,  Night Has a Thousand Eyes,  Alias Nick Beal. Compared to those pictures, the screenplay for  Submarine Command is something of a cakewalk. Paramount producer Joseph Sistrom had worked with John Farrow on the acclaimed  Wake Island. Their Submarine Command wasn’t a budget item. Filming took place on location at two Naval stations and on board a real submarine. The film’s support for the armed services surely attracted considerable cooperation from the U.S. Navy, even before the Pentagon’s cozy PR relationship with Hollywood had been fully codified.

The first two acts are framed by a sentimental flashback, as in the well-known  Twelve O’Clock High. Five years after the war, Lt. Commander Ken White (William Holden) pays a visit to his old sub the Tiger Shark, which has just been refitted after being in mothballs, with hundreds of other subs. Ken’s marriage is breaking up, mainly over his inability to get past his brief, bad wartime experience. Ken saw only one combat action. On the last day of the war, both his Captain (Jack Gregson) and another sailor were left wounded on deck during a crash dive to save the ship. It was correct procedure but Ken never forgave himself. Worse, the Chief Petty Officer Boyer (William Bendix) never stopped blaming Ken, either.


After five years of peacetime administrative work, Ken still resents the efforts of his adoring wife Carol (Nancy Olsen) and his friend Lt. Cmdr. Peter Morris (Don Taylor) to get him to move on, emotionally. Rather than leave the Navy, he drives Carol to leave him — just as he’s called to active duty back on the Tiger Shark. With some of the same crew members on board (Jack Kelly, Arthur Franz) as well as his detractor COP Boyer, Ken is handed a dangerous stealth assignment on the Korean coast. He’ll finally get his chance to redeem himself.

The Submarine Command script might as well have been concocted by a Navy public relations office — its central conflict never convinces. Ken White’s one day of combat goes badly, but for no fault of his own. The Navy has no problem with Ken’s ‘cold’ decision to follow procedure and dive with men on deck. The dead captain’s own father and widow are the first to exonerate Ken, yet he behaves as if an albatross has been hung on his neck.


John Ford’s  They Were Expendable should have swept away the kind of heroic mindset that Ken White cannot escape. Good combat officers strived to simply do their jobs and not screw up. Combat sometimes required that cold decisions be made. The English movie The Cruel Sea ( 1953) is about awful no-win situations where lives must be sacrificed. CPO Boyer’s judgment of Ken is entirely out of line — sub crewmen know that anything that slows them up in a crash dive can be fatal. Those two men on deck were hit hard by enemy gunfire.

Ken’s experience isn’t in line with the modern definition of PTSD. He thinks he was handed a raw deal, which isn’t the case at all. It would be different if the Navy blamed him for the loss of his Captain. The movie gives no hint that Ken’s peacetime assignments are in any way punitive. Ken’s problem isn’t one of honor or shame, just bad luck and personal disappointment.

No domestic conflicts arise that might justify Ken’s negative state of mind. His darling wife is completely faithful. She willingly gives up her career before Ken even proposes, and makes no demands of him whatsoever. Ken’s former rival Pete boasts that he’s a ladykiller, but turns out to be an honorable colleague. When the marriage looks rocky, Pete stops making smart remarks and instead offers Carol advice worthy of Ann Landers. When Carol and Ken clash, it’s because he’s acting like he hates the world, and becomes furious when she tries to steer his employment prospects outside the Navy.


Leave the Navy?  Are you out of your mind?

When the time frame jumps back to the present, Ken’s Korean War assignment reunites everything from six years before — the same officers, the pilot he rescued from the sea and the sub itself. The Big Mission is a politically safe Pentagon Dream, a rescue of POWs. We doubt that any such mission ever happened, if only because ten TV movies would have been made about it. It’s as if Ken pushed the ‘play again’ button on a video game. His judgment is as good as it ever was — in this new situation, breaking protocol and risking the sub on his own initiative is the right thing to do. We know all is well when Ken flashes a million-dollar William Holden smile. One dissolve later, Carol is back and the happy Navy couple are launching a new Tiger Shark. The movie puts in a plug for Navy appropriations!

Despite Holden’s and especially Nancy Olsen’s fine performances, the human factor gets sidelined early on. As the carefree Pete, Don Taylor (of  The Naked City) is saddled with corny, unfunny banter painting him as an egotistical skirt chaser. When Pete is allowed to get serious in his heart-to-heart talks with Carol, he suddenly becomes 100% sincere. The thin story and inconsistent characters at first made us suspect that Submarine Command was a remake of a much older movie. That doesn’t appear to be the case.


Director Farrow doesn’t seem particularly engaged with the material either. William Bendix underplays nicely, perhaps cognizant of what a cliché his CPO Boyer is. Arthur Franz, Darryl Hickman and Jack Kelly are all but ignored, with no opportunity to flesh out their parts. Peggy Webber (The Screaming Skull) is the most obliging war widow ever — she keeps a dutiful altar to her lost husband. The unbilled Noel Neill (as Franz’s wife) and Benson Fong (as a South Korean commando) get as much attention in their brief bits as do most of the featured players. Robert Mitchum’s brother John had to be pointed out to us.

Where Submarine Command scores high is its avoidance of action-movie hype. The action on board the sub feels authentic. At least the Navy admits that those old subs were prone to a certain amount of leakage … God only knows how badly the toilets could malfunction on a steel boat built 80 years ago. The procedure to shoot torpedoes feels drier, more realistic, than we’re accustomed to in other sub movies. And frankly, it’s good to see peacetime Navy life depicted in such a business-as-usual, unromantic way. The notion of serving one’s country instead of getting rich is not pushed too hard. Carol is the one who really sacrifices, giving up an advertising career that we hear brought in a multiple of Ken’s Navy pay. The abysmal military pay back in the day certainly shows that officers and enlistees were committed to serving their country.


William Holden and Nancy Olson found themselves turned into a screen couple for a little over a year. After their pairing in Billy Wilder’s  Sunset Blvd. they were co-starred three more times, in the noir thriller  Union Station, Warners’ war romance  Force of Arms, and finally this picture. None was a high-profile assignment; even after his success in George Cukor’s  Born Yesterday Holden would need Billy Wilder and  Stalag 17 to boost him to ‘A’ – rank star status.

Always a favorite, Nancy Olson was soon typed as ‘nice.’ She’s of course excellent in her Disney movies, especially  Pollyanna, but one has to dig into her many dramatic TV appearances to see her range. Recommended viewing is Olson’s earlier Randolph Scott western  Canadian Pacific, where she’s allowed an entirely different persona, wild and sexy. So many Hollywood actresses had so much to offer, but the studios mainly churned out men’s stories that required wives & girlfriends in the margins.

The bottom line on Submarine Command is that it’s worthwhile for fans of Holden and Olsen, even if it’s not the most memorable submarine movie on the books. Fans of Hollywood war movies don’t need extra encouragment to give it a try.



The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Submarine Command is a near-perfect encoding, from a new 4K scan, of this infrequently screened item. The submarine interiors do indeed seem more realistic than those for earlier pictures, thanks to Lindon and Farrow’s use of unusual parts of the ship.

Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin’s relaxed audio commentary details the career situations of William Holden and Nancy Olsen in 1951, and gives a broad overview of submarine pix in general. They are also hard-pressed to find an angle that makes the show special. We wish we knew the rationale behind the repeated pairing of the two actors … Ms. Olsen was a winning presence, but the material they were given was never up to the standard handed, say, June Allyson, who became the Default American Housewife for this stretch of the 1950s.

The disc also offers about a half-hour of trailers, for films with William Holden or directed by John Farrow. Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster has just been reissued by Kino Lorber, as well.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Submarine Command
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio Commentary by Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
May 12, 2024

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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