This weekend Turner Classic Movies kicks off it’s annual Memorial Day Weekend marathon of classic war films with one of my all time favorites. First, I should say that I am a nut for films set against the backdrop of World War I. They’re not as prolific as films about World War II but that’s part of their appeal. They’re hidden gems and you never know when you’ll uncover a good one.

Abel Gance’s WW1 epic J’ Accuse (1919)

There are some very popular WW1 films to be sure. Lawrence Of Arabia, Paths of Glory, Sgt York, The Big Parade, All Quiet On The Western Front, La Grande Illusion, Dawn Patrol , Wings, Hell’s Angels and, one of my personal favorites, Abel Gance’s jaw dropping WW1 epic J’Accuse(possibly the greatest film about WW1 ever made). But there are a whole slew of rarely seen WW1 films that don’t get the press of those other more well known movies. Films like Leslie Howard’s Captured!(1933), the terrific Richard Dix film Ace Of Aces(1933) and the subject of this particular post, the 1933 film Hell Below.

Robert Montgomery in Hell Below

You couldn’t do much better in the way of casting. Walter Huston as the no nonsense submarine commander, Robert Montgomery as his hot tempered second in command, Robert Young as the loyal friend, Eugene Pallette as the gruff engineer. And a young Jimmy Durante and Sterling Holloway for comedy relief. The film also has some absolutely terrific Submarine action, aerial attacks and real footage of ships sinking. They even use a real WW1 sub for many of the scenes. Hell Below was the template for all submarine movies to follow, including films such as Das Boot.

Robert Montgomery and Walter Huston in Hell Below

The story starts with Huston taking over command of a sub that has just seen some heavy action. But before the next mission begins, the crew gets a well deserved shore leave. Montgomery and Young are the officers and are ordered by Huston to go to a party to pay their respects to the commanders in attendance and their wives. Just before Montgomery and Young plan their attempt to escape the dull party to have some fun, they meet pretty Madge Evans. After some playful rivalry between the two friends for the honor of dancing with her, Evans decides on Montgomery. They leave the party for a nearby carnival but their fun is spoiled by a spectacularly destructive air raid. Montgomery and Evans take refuge in a nearby flat and things heat up. But it turns out that Evans is married. Her husband is a kind British soldier who was injured and is now paralyzed from the waist down. But a paralyzed husband isn’t enough to throw cold water on Montgomery and Evans passions and this does not sit well with Evan’s father and Montgomery’s commander Walter Huston. Huston isn‘t about to let the affair stand. There’s a great scene where Huston, Montgomery and Evans are sharing a drink together and Huston gets a chance to do that thing that he does so well, make a major impact in the most subtle way. Huston raises his glass, gives that great disapproving scowl of his and says “To discipline. There’s nothing like it. And nothing without it.“ Montgomery raises his glass back and says “To discipline, it leaves almost nothing.”

Hell’s Angels (1930).  A classic WW1 film. 

Huston and Montgomery continue to but heads as the missions become exponentially more dangerous. In one of the most gripping and suspenseful scenes of the film, a bombshell comes loose and starts rolling into the torpedoes. Holloway, new to the sub and very inexperienced throws himself in the path of the rolling bomb and his leg is crushed. Above, Montgomery detects a chlorine gas leak. Unable to pump any oxygen in, disperse any of the gas or surface to ventilate the ship for fear of being shot by German ships, the crew starts to give in to panic. As Huston and Pallette try to repair the ship they hear Holloway yelling. Seems he was left behind when they had to seal up several compartments to seal off the majority of the chlorine gas. It’s an incredibly intense scene as Huston and Pallette try to fix the engine as Holloway begs to be let out, the crew quietly looking on in horror. Before the film is over, we’ll get panic induced suicides, a court martial, a tense game of cat and mouse with German ships and a spectacularly violent finale that only pre-code Hollywood could deliver.

Jean Renoir’s WW1 opus La Grande Illusion. 

The film also has some very interesting camera work. Lots of “points of view” shots, cannons exploding into the camera. Some great overhead shots of the crew in the sub and out. The scene with Holloway getting crushed by the shell is shot in a very creative fashion with interesting lighting. The use of location footage aboard real subs and battle ships give the film a great authenticity.

Montgomery at the periscope in Hell Below

In spite of all my gushing, the film isn’t flawless. The shore leave scenes are too broadly comedic as pals Pallette and aspiring dentist Durante get into brawls and woo French girls. Durante is even tricked into boxing a kangaroo at the circus. These scenes tend to break the flow of the larger story and almost feel like they belong in another movie entirely. Luckily they’re at the beginning of the film and don’t seriously affect the films tone once the story proper begins. If they had been in the middle it would have been a big problem and would have undermined the pacing and drama. As it is, it’s simply a small bump on the road to an otherwise superb and suspenseful action/drama that had a lasting influence on future films of the genre.

Montgomery and Madge Evans between scenes on the set of Hell Below.

Turner Classic Movies will show Hell Below on Saturday at 6:00 AM eastern, launching TCM’s always entertaining Memorial Day Weekend Movie Marathon. Don’t miss it!

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