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Down Periscope

I have to admit that I enjoy silly movies. Call it a failing, if you like, but it's true.

And Down Periscope certainly qualifies as a silly movie. The premise is simple enough. Lieutenant-Commander Tom Dodge (Kelsey Grammer) is a competent, but somewhat offbeat, submariner who has been passed over for command. A gruff old Vice-Admiral (Rip Torn), wanting to test the ability of the modern nuclear Navy to defend the U.S. against attack by a renegade power using a diesel submarine, gives the job of attempting to breach the defenses to Dodge.

But the odds are stacked against him. Bruce Dern, as the rear-admiral in charge of the exercise, doesn't like Dodge, and "hand picks" a crew of hopeless misfits. One planesman arrives shoeless, after losing his footwear betting on a sure thing. Another crewman arrives, escorted by a pair of SPs, fresh from the brig, and declaring that Dodge will throw him off the boat within a week, since he's a "dedicated pain in the butt."

As for the boat itself, the U.S.S. Stingray (played by the U.S.S. Pampanito), is a recommissioned rust bucket, whose executive officer (Rob Schneider), says, "I feel like a I need a tetanus shot just from looking at her. The only thing holding her together are the bird droppings."

Just to make the crew complete, Lauren Holly arrives aboard as Lieutenant Emily Lake, Stingray's new dive officer. (People who originally watched the movie on VHS complained that Holly arrived wearing submariner's dolphins, despite never having served in a sub before, but the better quality picture on the DVD version settled that issue. She's wearing a surface warfare qualification badge, which women had been earning for some time, not dolphins.) For some unknown reason, Lake is quartered in a hammock in the after torpedo room, instead of in one of the presumably empty staterooms in officers' country. (There appear to be only four officers aboard, so there's no reason she couldn't have a private stateroom.)

The crew are mostly "types." There's the overweight cook, the previously mentioned anti-social foul up, played by Bradford Tatum who, perhaps inevitably, turns hero in an emergency, and a sonar operator (nicknamed, Sonar), played by Harland Williams, who has such acute hearing that his former commander considered him a security risk. (He's good enough to be able to tell the denomination of the coins dropped by a man on another submarine that's hovering above Stingray.) And the ever-dependable Harry Dean Stanton is along as the engineering officer, though the impression he presents is more of a crusty old chief motor machinist's mate than an officer. He seems to know everything anyone could ever need to know about the operation of the boat's 50-year-old Fairbanks-Morse diesels. (Except, possibly, that you're supposed to close the crankshaft covers when they're running.)

Okay, you'd no more want to use this movie as a guide to how submarines work than you'd use Under Siege as a primer on the operation of 16" naval guns, but it's not intended to be anything more than light comedy, and it succeeds very nicely at that. (And, for that matter, they get more things right than U-571, which certainly did have pretensions of seriousness and technical accuracy.)

It's a good comedy. And, as a bonus, the closing credits run over a Village People video of "In The Navy," with the crew thoroughly involved in the action.

An article in a recent issue of Proceedings (April 2003), incidentally, has suggested using this film as an example of effective leadership techniques.

Some comments by various on-line reviewers have suggested that the widescreen version on the DVD isn't the theatrical version, but a widescreen created by cutting the top and bottom edge off the "pan and scan" full screen version. It wasn't. Like many films today, Down Periscope was shot using a "flat" process that creates the widescreen image by masking part of the frame during the printing process. The unmasked area is the part of the film the director uses to compose the picture. One side effect of this process—popular because the "flat" format works better with digital effects than the "squeezed" image created by anamorphic lenses—is that the easiest way to create a full screen version is to simply include the areas at the top and bottom of the 35mm image that were masked in the widescreen. The “golf” joke really only works in the widescreen version, because removing the mask prematurely reveals Dodge’s trousers.