The Atomic Submarine (1959)
by Steve Habrat
In the heyday of saucer men science fiction movies from the 1950s, most of the films saw the extraterrestrial visitors descending from the stars and roaming the dry landscapes of earth. They landed their shiny UFO right smack dab in the middle of Washington DC in the thoughtful The Day the Earth Stood Still and they sneakily attempted to turn American citizens into mindless clones in the chilling Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Heck, we even visited their home planets in such Technicolor classics like This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet. In 1959, director Spencer Gordon Bennet aimed to change the aliens-on-land mold with his low budget B-movie effort The Atomic Submarine, a serious-minded aquatic adventure that finds its spacemen seeking shelter and attacking earthlings from under the sea. While it certainly doesn’t rank with the classics mentioned above, The Atomic Submarine is still quite an impressive effort for a low budget science fiction outing. It features some heady political debates, some grand special effects that include underwater UFOs and a Cyclops alien complete with slimy tentacles, and a cast of veteran actors that keep the drama and tension high inside the cramped hallways of their Tigershark submarine.
The Atomic Submarine begins by explaining that a handful of ships and submarines have been mysteriously destroyed as they pass through the North Pole. In a frenzied attempt to halt the destruction, the authorities quickly close off the North Pole to any ships or submarines that may be passing through. An emergency meeting is called at the Pentagon between Commander Dan Wendover (played by Dick Foran), Secretary of Defense Justin Murdock (played by Jack Mulhil), and scientist Sir Ian Hunt (played by Tom Conway), who all begin debating how to handle the situation. A plan is devised to send the atomic submarine Tigershark out into the disaster zone and track down what is causing all the attacks. A crew is soon assembled, which includes Lt. Commander Richard “Reef” Holloway (played by Arthur Franz), Dr. Clifford Kent (played by Victor Varconi), and pacifist scientist Dr. Carl Neilson, Jr. (played by Brett Halsey). Shortly after setting out, the crew stumbles upon a saucer shaped underwater craft, which they quickly assume is an Unidentified Flying Object. The order is given to attack the UFO, but to the astonishment of the crew, the torpedoes that are fired do nothing to the ship. With no alternative options to bring the saucer down, the crew begins devising a way to destroy the ship, but their situation becomes even graver once they learn of the extraterrestrial’s plot to invade Earth.
Made with a measly $135,000 dollars, The Atomic Submarine is a science fiction film that doesn’t shy away from showing off for the viewer. The early sequences are minimal, with a group of guys stuffed into a room talking strategy with a bunch of flashing monitors and buttons behind them. Bennet will occasionally cut to the outside of the Tigershark as it glides proudly through a valley of icebergs. At times, it is glaringly obvious that Bennet is simply showing us a close-up of a child’s model submarine submerged in a swimming pool, but these close-ups do add a grand scale to the high tech piece of underwater machinery. As the film progresses, Bennet works up to a sleek UFO complete with a single glowing window on the top that leads the crew to nickname the ship ‘Cyclops.’ The UFO is unique in the sense that it is a living organism that can deflect bombs, a science fiction first! By the end of the film, the few members of the Tigershark crew manage to make their way inside the UFO and snoop around the inside of the ship. They are not met with alien monitors, neon lights, or other ornate decorations, but rather pitch-black open spaces with a single walkway cutting through the darkness and a weapon that can burn the guys to a crisp. Then there is the alien himself, which looks like a bigger version of the extraterrestrials that prowled the deserts of It Came from Outer Space. He truly is nifty and the filmmakers did manage to make him pretty intimidating.
What ultimately separates The Atomic Submarine from the rest of the other science fiction films of the 1950s is the slew of veteran actors gently guiding the film. Dick Foran is quietly in control as the no-nonsense Commander Wendover, a man ready to give the order to fire rockets straight at their extraterrestrial antagonist. Arthur Franz is the true star here as Lt. Holloway, the brave playboy who detests the pacifist Dr. Neilson and has a shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude towards the situation that they find themselves in. Franz also nabs the film’s best line when he comes face to, um, face with the alien menace at the end. Halsey is subdued as the young Dr. Neilson, the liberal-minded son of one of Holloway’s closest friends. Halsey is probably the youngest actor in the entire film and barely given the chance to save the day, strange considering that the fresh faced all-American is usually the one that is sticking it to the invading alien force in these types of B-movies. The other interesting aspect of The Atomic Submarine is the fact that there isn’t a damsel in distress anywhere near the action. In fact, there is barely a female face to be found outside of the blonde bombshell Joi Lansing. She shows up near the beginning as Lt. Holloway’s smoldering distraction for a drunken evening.
It is no secret that the science fiction films of the 1950s warned us of the dangers of the bomb, radiation, mutation, and the Reds while always reminding audiences to keep an eye on the sky. The Atomic Submarine is certainly no different than most of the other B-movies of this era in terms of coming with a message, but it seems to shake its head at some of the liberal mindedness that these films were remembered for. Midway through the film, there is a heady confrontation between Dr. Neilson and Lt. Holloway about how to approach the alien ship. Neilson argues that violence shouldn’t be the first response while Lt. Holloway is ready to bring the firepower. It is certainly a show stopping debate, but it’s especially interesting because it seems to be tapping into the tensions that were leading up to the counter culture movement, something that was only a few short years away. Overall, while it certainly won’t be remembered as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, The Atomic Submarine is without question one of the more unique, measured, finely acted, and thought provoking B-movies that filled out a cheapie double bill. Come for the impressive underwater UFO and stay for the unsettling final showdown.
The Atomic Submarine is available on DVD. It is available in the Monsters and Madmen set by the Criterion Collection.