On May 9th 1941, a long time before the United States admitted that there was a real problem in the world with something called the Nazi regime and a certain Adolph Hitler, HMS Bulldog was on a routine convoy escort patrol in the Atlantic. The ships crew new their jobs well and were well drilled - after all, they had been doing this for over two years now...
Their expertise and bravery were called into action that day when a Nazi U-boat - U110, attacked the convoy. The invisible predator sank some of the convoy - but the crew of HMS Bulldog managed to disable the boat and board her. One of the major finds onboard was the nazi code machine Enigma. The Norwegians had already cracked some the Enigma code - but now the allies had the ability to use deception as they had their own machine.
The capturing of the Enigma machine wasn't the direction changer that everybody thought it would be and it didn't really do anything to change the course of the war. It did, however, save the lives of countless sailors - and it was all down to the courage and know how of the British crew aboard HMS Bulldog...or so history would have us believe anyway.
Hollywood, on the other hand, would like us to believe differently. I'll cut to the end of the film to say that in the closing credits, there is the briefest of credit given to the crew of HMS Bulldog and the other British ships that captured the machines and the code. The Americans actually captured their first machine in 1944 - about a year before the war ended.
Now that's the history lesson out of the way, onto the film.
U571 tells the fictional story of the US Submarine the S33. We join the crew as they are enjoying 48 hours leave - well all but one of them anyway. Lt Andy Tyler (played by Matthew McConaughey) finds out that his Captain (Bill Paxton) has not recommended him for promotion and he feels as though he's been stabbed in the back.
Just as the party is getting into full swing, the Military Police make a timely entrance and break it up. They tell the Captain that the liberty pass has been cancelled and his whole crew is to report back to port immediately..
Rumours are rife - and the men turn to Tyler to find out what's happening. He finds out that a Nazi U Boat has been discovered disabled and that their own boat, the S33, is going to be disguised as a U Boat and take the place of the actual boat that's heading to re-supply the stricken vessel. But rough seas and bad weather leave them running behind schedule and they bump into the real supply boat. Half of the crew gets stranded on U571 - and led by Lt Andy Tyler, their mission has turned from one of capture to one of survival.
Assisted by Chief Of The Boat Klough (played by Harvey Kietel), he has to prove to himself that his Captain was wrong not to recommend for promotion and guide the stricken vessel to a safe port where they can hand over their precious cargo.
So U571 attempts to rewrite history in a way that only Hollywood can. Sure - the film never actually claims to be historically correct - but if you didn't know any better and left the theatre before the final credits rolled, it's Hurrah for the US Navy and back in time for tea - or coffee in their case - and medals.
As a film, a lot of comparisons have been made between this and Das Boot. And I would say that any comparison is pretty unfair. The two stories are completely different for starters. Das Boot tells the story of a U-boat crew and their entire war - summed up in one patrol. U571 tells the story of how the Americans planned a raid on a stricken U-boat and tried to change the war. And no matter how much I look at it, I just can't take U571 seriously.
Performance wise, it's not half bad. McConaughey turns in a respectable performance as the trodden on Tyler, a young upcoming officer who thinks he's actually better than he is. Unfortunately for him, he gets found out to some extent when the going gets tough. He brings a lot of energy to the stage and even after evading depth charges, torpedoes and no sleep for several days, he still manages to look fantastic - as ever.
Harvey Kietel brings some salty seadog charisma to the stage as COB Klough. he growls like Popeye and at one stage I swear blind I saw a tin of spinach in his pocket!
Surprise performance of the film goes to Jon Bon Jovi though. Playing the engineering officer on board the S33, he never really lights the stage like he would when producing a rendition of You Gave Love A Bad Name - but at the same time, he never looks out of his depth up against seasoned pros like Kietel and McConaughey. I'm surprised that more film roles haven't come his way after this...
Director Jonathan Mostow keeps the film running at a decent pace and builds the tension in the depth charge scenes brilliantly. He did well to choose the option of letting the Germans speak their native language and use subtitles. It's always hard for a German actor to speak a foreign language and still portray a sense of fear or anger. The voice just doesn't match the facial expressions and you lose all sense of realism. Watch Das Boot with the English language dub switched on and you'll see what I mean...
Mostow also brings to life the sense of cramped conditions and living on top of one another that the submariners must have endured living onboard. At times it's claustrophobic and the use of hand held cameras whizzing from one end of the sub to the other will have you ducking your head so you don't bang it on the bulkhead...
So - you can probably tell that I would rather have had a true to life version of events of what really happened that day in May 1941. However, it appears that John Mills and Kenneth Moore weren't available so Hollywood just made it up.
If I forget all that nonsense, what we have is a half-decent action film that portrays the struggles and sacrifices of men at war. There are loads of action scenes, lots of stuff gets blown up and heroes come out the other end. I went to see this film on its release at one of the big cinemas in the West End of London. I wasn't disappointed as I left my “Rule Britannia” head in the foyer. If you do the same, I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did.
Just remember to watch those end credits and shout HURRAH as the truth comes out...
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