The Enemy Below
By David Henderson
One of my pleasures each Memorial Day weekend is watching one or two war movies on the Turner Movie Channel. This last weekend was no exception.
I’m weird that way. I hate war and wrote regularly for antiwar.com from 2005 to about 2010 and sporadically after that. Yet I like war movies. It’s similar to my loving to analyze the economics of taxation while hating taxes.
The two war movies I watched this weekend were The Great Escape, which I had seen probably 8 times already, and one I hadn’t seen titled The Enemy Below.
The Great Escape is my favorite kind of war movie because it’s about escape. It also brings back fond memories. Our family drove an hour from Carman to Winnipeg in 1962 to see the movie and when we returned, my mother, without ever having heard the theme song before that day, played it on the piano. When I put my father’s memorial tape together in June 1997, I put that song on the tape: it was one of my father’s favorites.
My second favorite kind of war movie is one in which there are good people on both sides. The Enemy Below filled the bill. Robert Mitchum plays the captain of a U.S. destroyer who is in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a German U-boat whose captain is played Curt Jurgens. Or maybe it’s cat and cat, since both were trying to destroy the other.
The viewer gets to see the crews of both the U-boat and the destroyer and, at least in my case, sympathizes with both. I liked everyone on the U.S. destroyer and liked all but one guy on the U-boat. The guy I disliked was reading Mein Kampf in his spare time. The expression on Jurgens’s face when he sees the crewman reading Mein Kampf is priceless.
Because I liked everyone, I wanted both sides to fail. I wanted Mitchum to fail at using depth charges to destroy the U-boat and I wanted Jurgens to fail at torpedoing the destroyer. I won’t tell you what happened.
I like the kind of war movie in which I want both sides to make it out alive. I think it’s kind of natural that I would. What grabbed me in my teens about economics was the idea that so much of it is about transactions in which both sides gain.
I recommend The Enemy Below. It’s also nicely short, running only one hour and 38 minutes.
Two final observations:
First, I learned a new term: feather merchant. When Mitchum arrives as the new captain after his merchant marine ship was sunk, many of the crew are skeptical and some call him a feather merchant. That term means a civilian and has the additional meaning of someone with a cushy job or without combat experience. Although Mitchum does not have combat experience, the crew quickly get to see how clearly he thinks about combat. He’s very analytic.
Second, many of the U.S. crew refer to the Germans as “Nazis.” But the Nazis were a political party and while many Germans expressed fealty to Nazi views, I would bet that less than a majority of Germans were Nazis and that less than a majority of the German military were Nazis. Calling them Nazis would be like referring to U.S. sailors, soldiers, and airmen during World War II as Democrats. My uncle, who, along with my aunt, was captured by the German Navy in April 1941, referred to his captors as Nazis. I don’t blame him. He had good reasons for his resentment. Nevertheless, the term is inaccurate.