You would think that having Sean Connery's questionable Russo-Scottish accent in The Hunt For Red October stuck in the minds of everyone that saw the film would have marked a sharp decline in the naval warfare genre from that moment on. But as this Top 10 Naval Warfare Movies list will attempt to demonstrate, such small disagreements in acting style cannot possible write off a genre that is actually full to the brim with quality productions; such disagreements cannot even keep The Hunt for Red October out of this list even! So from the relatively recent Master and Commander to a little further back in history with Das Boot and Tora Tora Tora!, this is our pick of top 10 naval warfare movies in rank order.
1. Das Boot
This 1981 is an absolute classic for many; it is a film that was already popular in Germany before it made an impact worldwide. It is best described as a German naval adventure, and one that is quite epic in its nature. One of the main reasons for its popularity is likely that its stance is anti-war, though it conveys these sentiments subtly through its character and plot development, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
Das Boot! has all the classic markings of a film in this genre: the last night on shore for the crew; their subsequent departure; the detailed portrayal of cramped conditions on the vessel and the resulting tension between the characters; you've also got the frequent action scenes. But the ending is particularly bleak, further hammering home the anti-war message of this 2.5-hour epic.
2. The Hunt for Red October
Based on Tom Clancy's best-selling book series of the same name and representing the giant Typhoon-class submarine (see largest ever submarines for more details) , The Hunt For Red October is a big-budget film with a major star at the helm (Sean Connery) and the director of Die Hard overseeing everything. Unfortunately, the film didn't get a great reception on its release and in the subsequent months, but over the years it has gained somewhat of small cult following.
It has to be said that this film does delve into the intricacies of military strategy very well, as well as builds up a tense relationship between its main characters, but for its big budget you would maybe have expected a better accent from Sean Connery.
3. The Sand Pebbles
Released in 1966 and short largely in Taiwan, The Sand Pebbles is a tale that explores tensions between the natives of China in 1926 - a region torn apart by revolution at the time - and the crew of a gun boat, U.S.S. San Peblo, when it arrives on the Yangtze river.
Among all of the political and personal portrayals in the film, it is Mcqueen's portrayal of Jake Holman that stands out here, though Robert Wise should also be praised for his directing brilliance here also.
4. Crimson Tide
A classic Cold War movie with echoes of The Hunt For Red October and Das Boot!, Crimson Tide's style is very much of its time (1995), yet Gene Hackman's portrayal of the hardened commander of the Alabama, Captain Ramsey. Light comic relief from Ramsey's frequent outbursts directed towards his colleagues can be found in his dog urinating on anything it chooses, though this is by no means a film to be laughed at, particularly as second-in-command Lt. Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) enters the equation and Ramsey proceeds to attempt to test him to his absolute limits.
5. Master and Commander The Far Side of the World
If there ever was a modern great of naval warfare, then this film would be it. An intelligently-told and brilliantly executed adaptation of many of the novels of Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was released in 2003 and managed to fantastically represent events taking place in the British navy at the beginning of the 18th century.
As is always the case with films such as these, it is the intensity at sea that manages to act as the perfect backdrop for development and exploration of the characters of those on board. Those at the forefront of the story are the ship's captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe) - a strong leader and a man of action - and the cool, calm intellectual, Dr. Steven Maturin (Bettany), as the film delves into the similarities and differences between the personalities of the two.
6. The Enemy Below
Even though it was made in 1957, The Enemy Below possesses a character and cunning that modern, CGI-laden productions don't even come close to. Portraying a cat-and-mouse battle between an American destroyer and a German U-Boat, this film is a great exploration of character, demonstrated in the comparison of the personalities of both vessels' captains. The portrayal of the U-Boat captain in particular is unique as it was one of the first to display a German character in a sympathetic light.
7. Sink the Bismarck
Sink the Bismarck! is one of the many films released following the World War II era that tell the tale of victory after the victory has been won. However, its portrayal of those working behind the scenes in one of the most pivotal battles of the war against the Battleship Bismarck is commendable. In this film you get to witness the complexity of the planning and execution of the naval side of warfare, as well as the dangers and tensions that are involved with this kind of warfare. Kenneth Moor plays the director of operations here, and does so with a fair amount of restraint.
8. The Sea Chase
This movie was based on Andrew Geer's book of the same name. It has been attacked somewhat by critics for not sticking to the book loyally enough, but it is still a well-told tale that portrays the arrogance of the Nazi war effort at sea. The film deviates from the book's portrayal of the captain as a cold and ruthless man, instead representing the famous freighter's captain as an honourable man attempting to get home to his beloved motherland.
This film is quite heavy on the clichés, demonstrated in the stereotypical portrayal of the pursuing British fleet as stuffy and up-tight, but it is still a romp that deserves a place in this list.
9. K 19 The Widowmaker
Harrison Ford's presence couldn't save this film from receiving fairly average ratings from a majority of critics, but the film does set itself apart from many of those on this list by focusing on a threat closer to home than a war between countries. Tension and drama arises from the portrayal of disaster aboard the K-19 (whose real story can be found here), one which could potentially cause its reactor to melt down and a nuclear explosion to happen as a result.
There are limited things that directors can do with filming in what is supposed to be such a tight space, so considering these limitations, the resulting film is quite impressive. It's also quite refreshing to see the story told through the eyes of foreign characters, with Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford adopting Russian accents throughout for their roles.
10. Tora! Tora! Tora!
This is an example of a movie whose big budget does not necessarily translate to big success. Though fairly watchable, the film gets bogged down in the technical aspects of naval warfare as well as the bureaucracy that films such as these are supposed to gloss over in favour of actual entertainment.
It turns out that you really can't beat the classics when it comes to naval warfare in cinema. Das Boot! easily clinches the top spot, though The Hunt For Red October manages to sail as second best here in spite of it not representing Connery at his best. The bottom of the list deserves to be inhabited by the relatively dead wood that is Tora Tora Tora!, though K-19 is still miles ahead in terms of quality and entertainment value.