We have only so much time on this earth, and so what we do with it is important. We can spend our time making junk, or watching junk, or we can give our time to some more serious films – past and present – that come our way. One such film is James B. Harris’s The Bedford Incident, a 1965 US/UK production from the novel by Mark Rascovich that toplines Richard Widmark as the unbalanced and resolutely hawkish captain of the destroyer the USS Bedford, which, on a routine reconnaissance mission, detects the presence of a Soviet submarine off the coast of Greenland, and unrelentingly gives chase. As a contributor to Wikipedia astutely notes,
“The American destroyer USS Bedford (DLG-113) detects a Soviet submarine in the GIUK gap near the Greenland coast. (Specifically, they are in Greenland territorial waters at the entrance to the J.C. Jacobsen Fjord, which is due northwest from Iceland.) Although the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are not at war, Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) harries his prey mercilessly, while civilian photojournalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) and NATO naval advisor, Commodore (and ex-World War II U-boat captain) Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman), look on with mounting alarm.
Because the submarine is not powered by a nuclear reactor, its submerged run distance is limited, critical when it also needs breathing air and to recharge its batteries. This gives Finlander an advantage, but also means the Soviets will be more desperate. Also aboard the ship are Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), an inexperienced young officer constantly being criticized by his captain for small errors, and Lieutenant Commander Chester Potter, USNR (Martin Balsam), the ship’s new doctor, who is a reservist recently recalled to active duty.
Munceford is aboard in order to photograph life on a navy destroyer, but his real interest is Captain Finlander, who was recently passed over for promotion to rear admiral. Munceford is curious whether a comment made by Finlander regarding the American intervention in Cuba is the reason for his non-promotion, perhaps betraying veiled aggression. He is treated with mounting hostility by the captain because he is seen as a civilian putting his nose where it does not belong and because he disagrees with Finlander’s decision to continue with an unnecessary and dangerous confrontation. Finlander is hostile to anyone who is not involved in the hunt – including the doctor, who will not stand up to the captain and advise that the pressure on the crew be reduced.
The crew becomes increasingly fatigued by the unrelenting pursuit during which the captain demands full attention to the instruments. When the submarine is found and ignores Captain Finlander’s demand to surface and identify itself, Finlander escalates the situation by smashing into the submarine’s snorkel, calling it ‘floating debris.’ Finlander then orders Bedford to arm weapons and withdraw a distance, where he will wait for the submarine’s crew to run out of air and be forced to surface. He reassures Munceford and Schrepke that he is in command of the situation and that he will not fire first, but: ‘If he fires one, I’ll fire one.’
Ensign Ralston mistakes Finlander’s remark as an order to ‘fire one’ and launches an anti-submarine rocket, which destroys the submarine. Their sonar then detects a salvo of four nuclear-armed torpedoes coming at the destroyer. Finlander initially gives basic orders to evade, then goes outside. Munceford follows him, frantically pleading, but Finlander does nothing more to save his ship, perhaps because he recognizes that there is no way to escape and believes that it’s justice that his ship be lost, since his own actions brought about the unnecessary destruction of the submarine and crew. The film ends with still shots of various crewmen “melting” as if the celluloid film were burning as Bedford and her crew are vaporized. The last image is an iconic, towering mushroom cloud from the torpedo detonations.”
Described by a number of observers as “near science fiction,” this Cold war parable is made all the more effective by the obvious commitment of everyone in the film, especially star Richard Widmark, who co-produced the film with Harris. An expert in playing unsympathetic roles, going all the way back to his debut in Henry Hathaway’s crime drama Kiss of Death, Widmark took on the project both because he believed that the threat of a nuclear accident was very real, and also because it provided him the chance to work with Sidney Poitier as Munceford, the journalist who sees that everything is spinning out of control, but is powerless, as a civilian, to stop it.
But perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Eric Portman’s ex-Nazi U boat captain, Wolfgang Schrepke, who seems much more sane that Captain Finlander, perhaps because he has seen too much violence and death in World War II. His world-weary yet clear-eyed view of Finlander’s mounting mania is the clearest indicator of where The Bedford Incident is ultimately heading – like similar films of the 1960s that dealt with the threat of nuclear destruction, such as Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, one gets the feeling from the outset of the film that the entire affair will end very badly indeed, and that there will be no happy ending tacked on as a sop to the audience. That Schrepke’s role is now that of a bystander, a NATO advisor, does not diminish his importance within the narrative for a second.
Dr. Strangelove, of course, played the whole concept of mutually assured nuclear destruction for grim laughs, but The Bedford Incident, with its claustrophobic mise en scene – taking place entirely on board the destroyer, with no escape for either the audience or the crew members – is perhaps the grimmest project of the lot, because even after the final frames of the film have melted away, one knows instinctively that the destruction of a battleship and a submarine won’t be the end of the conflict; that indeed, this one small incident will in all likelihood trigger an all out nuclear war, which we will never witness (thankfully), because we have, in a sense, perished along with the crew of the the Bedford.
Shot in cold, efficient monochrome by the supremely gifted Gilbert Taylor, The Bedford Incident is the kind of thoughtful, high-stakes film project that has been pushed aside in the comic book era by the latest DC or Marvel project, films that play with the same concepts explored in this film, but never with anything real at stake, and the assurance of upbeat “narrative closure” always taken as a given. So The Bedford Incident has several strikes against it, which prevent it from being seen more often; it’s thoughtful, it’s unforgiving, it’s intelligent, and it’s frightening as hell – and, of course, it’s in black and white. Which it should be.