Fans of World War II submarine pictures like "Destination Tokyo" (1943), "Run Silent, Run Deep" (1958), "Up Periscope" (1959), and "Das Boot" (1981) might find the British war drama "We Dive at Dawn" to their liking. Made during the height of the War in 1943, it features fine acting and mounting suspense. It's not a big, popular film, just a small, rewarding one.
Director Anthony Asquith made "We Dive at Dawn" with "the cooperation of the Admiralty and the offers and men of His Majesty's submarines." Like another of Asquith's WWII films, "The Way to the Stars" (aka "Johnny in the Clouds"), this one concerns itself more with human drama, personal relationships, and character development than with outright action, although, to be fair, the last half hour of the story includes a good deal of action and suspense. The human drama and relationships should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Asquith's films; he also made "Pygmalion," "The Winslow Boy," "The Browning Version," "The Importance of Being Earnest," and "The Yellow Rolls Royce." He's only marginally less effective here.
Sir John Mills stars as Lt. Freddie Taylor, skipper of the submarine H.M.S. Sea Tiger. It is he whom we first get to know, as he will become the focal point of the story. Taylor had been a ladies' man and something of a socialite in civilian life, characteristics he carries over into his wartime duties but which never interfere with his responsibilities. He is not, in fact, your layabout playboy but foremost a stalwart officer and an intelligent, decisive leader with the full respect of his crew. Asquith and screenwriters J.B. Williams and Val Valentine are not about glamorizing war or its participants; they are about telling a satisfying tale as realistically and as honestly as they can.
Thus, we get almost the first half of the film involved with an introduction to the crew of the Sea Tiger before she ever begins her biggest mission. We learn, for example, not only about Freddie Taylor but about Jim Hobson (Eric Portman), a grumpy sort of fellow going through a rough patch in his personal life, what with a wife about to leave him and a small son he hardly gets to see. Then there's Mike Corrigan (Nial MacGinnis), who is about to get married but afraid to take the plunge. Diving deep in a submarine is a piece of cake for him compared to diving into marriage. And so on through a host of minor characters whose lives become intertwined aboard the tiny vessel. These are ordinary people, likeable people, whom we get to know aboard the ship and on shore leave.
At about the mid point in the narrative, however, the Admiralty calls them all back from leave for an urgent duty, the most important mission of their lives: to intercept and sink Germany's newest battleship, the Brandenburg, as she enters the Baltic Sea. To say it's a harrowing mission would be an understatement.
Along the way, the Sea Tiger picks up some disabled German seamen, maneuvers through undersea mine fields, navigates enemy-held waters, engages the battleship and its escorts, and then only begins its hazardous business.
Yes, the film gets a tad tedious up to the midway point, but the documentary-drama approach works well for its verisimilitude, for creating its sense and semblance of truth. Interestingly, the film often marks the passage of time with the skipper writing entries into the ship's log, which has the added benefit of helping the narrative to unfold without our having to see every detail. While the story might overplay its human-interest angle a mite, it never does so at the expense of mere sentimentalism, crass commercialism, or corniness. This is no "Pearl Harbor," with its labored romances and exaggerated battles. The emphasis in "We Dive at Dawn" is on the actual feel of war and its effects on the men and women who participate in it. For viewers who just want the film to get on with it, things might seem a little dull; but stick with it and it's rewarding enough.
By the last third of the movie, because we care about the characters, we get caught up in the suspense of the situation and, finally, the engagement of the enemy in various encounters. What's more, it's filled with fine acting from Mills, Portman, MacGinnis, Louis Bradfield, Ronald Miller, Jack Waitling, Reginald Purdell, Caven Watson, and others who lend the film an authoritative air. In other words, it's a war movie for grown-ups, a movie to enjoy for more than just watching things blow up.
VCI restored the movie to something like its original 1.37:1, black-and-white condition, with the results more than acceptable. There is a bit of natural film grain, of course, and a minimum amount of flicks and specks here and there. Otherwise, it has a good-looking picture, with especially vivid B&W contrasts and at least adequate definition.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural sound holds up its end of the bargain by being reasonably quiet, with a minimum of background noise and a fairly clean midrange. There's not much more to it, really, voices a tad hard, pinched, and nasal on occasion but listenable. Don't expect anything spectacular in the way of dynamic range, impact, bass, or treble extension, either.
As with most old movies from VCI, there are no extras to speak of. There are some promos at start-up, twelve animated scene selections, an attractive main menu, and English as the only spoken language.
The first half of "We Dive at Dawn" is a bit slow, developing as it does the relationships among the crew members and their relationships with loved ones on land. Once the action starts, however, things pick up considerably, and the human drama turns into wartime action. The film works pretty well on both fronts and should satisfy fans of older WWII adventure films.
"One comes in, another goes out. Just like running a ruddy bus service."