In case you hadn't noticed, submarines have been in the news a bit lately. Not so much movies about submarines, although there are a lot of them, going back more than a century. It's not surprising, perhaps, that submarines exert a peculiar fascination: like aeroplanes, they take us to a place we couldn't go otherwise, in a way not for the claustrophobic, and with the threat of a horrible death ever present. All it takes is one little leak. The tension and torpedoes make up for the confined setting.
Given recent political events which are amply covered elsewhere, it's apt that a Frenchman created one of the most remembered literary - and later cinematic - submarines.
That sub is the Nautilus, introduced in Jules Verne's 1871 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: A World Tour. It was named after Robert Fulton's (real) submarine, first tested in 1800, which in turn was named after a kind of mollusc.
Verne's work inspired many films over more than a century, but the most remembered is probably the 1954 Walt Disney production 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that won Oscars for its special effects, film editing and colour art direction (the last particularly notable in Nemo's living quarters, including an organ, on which he plays a Bach piece often associated with villains and madmen).
In Verne's book, the Nautilus was cigar-shaped and battery-powered. In this film, the Nautilus was nuclear powered and had a more elaborate design: some who saw it thought it was a sea monster. In one of the film's best sequences, the Nautilus is attacked by a sea squid during a storm.
The Nautilus and Nemo reappeared in Verne's The Mysterious Island (1875) which has also had multiple screen adaptations.
The Proteus inthe Cold War sci-fi yarn Fantastic Voyage (1966) was shrunk to microscopic size and injected into the body of a Soviet scientist so the miniaturised crew could repair a blood clot in his brain. And if that's not challenge enough, they only have an hour until they return to normal size (if they failed to leave by then, it wouldn't be a pretty sight). Unsurprisingly, there are no detours below the belt. Fantastic Voyage won Oscars for its special effects and art direction.
The animated Yellow Submarine (1968) took its title and songs from The Beatles. The story has the music-hating Blue Meanies attacking music-loving undersea world Pepperland and Young Fred sent to get help in, yes, the Yellow Submarine. Try to keep the chorus out of your head.
Submarines were used a lot in World War II so it's not surprising there are quite a few war movies where the vessels feature. Several were released in 1943 including Destination Tokyo and We Dive at Dawn. The former starred Cary Grant as the skipper of the USS Copperfin, sent on a dangerous intelligence mission (no prizes for guessing where) and the latter starred John Mills in a story about the Sea Tiger's mission to sink a new Nazi battleship, the Brandenburg.
The sub sub-genre remained quite popular through the 1950s. One film was Hellcats of the Navy (1957) starring future US president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Davis (as she was billed) in their only film together. Another film the same year, The Enemy Below (1957), was about the battle between an American destroyer escort and a German U-boat - captains played by Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens, respectively.
The Enemy Below was based on a 1956 British novel by Denys Rayner but this would not be the only time a Hollywood movie changed key elements from British to American. The most egregious example of such fiddling was probably U-571 (2000).
Although it was a fictional film and gained some favour as such, U-571 ruffled British feathers - even unto the House of Commons and prime minister Tony Blair - because of its story about the US Navy stealing a Nazi Enigma decoding machine. Americans - and Canadians - did capture Enigma machines, one each, but not until 1944: the British had captured their first Enigma machine in 1941, before the US entered the war, and would obtain more over the years. There was a title crediting the British with their Enigma achievement, but for some it wasn't enough.
A German U-boat film was Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot, which premiered in 1981 and would eventually be released in a few different versions. Based on a novel by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim (who had been a war correspondent on U-boats) it followed the crew of U-96 as they experienced the tedium and terror of patrolling and fighting.
Not all submarine stories were serious. The Blake Edwards comedy Operation Petticoat (1959) was set during World War II and again starred Grant as a submarine captain, but this was a much lighter tale, with Tony Curtis as a scrounging supply officer, lots of female nurses, and with the Sea Tiger painted pink (mixing its red and white primer paints and with no time to apply the grey top coat). The sub ends up in Darwin.
And then there's whimsy in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), in which the title oceaographer (Bill Murray) is on a Captain Ahab-like quest to avenge his best friend, who was eaten by a jaguar shark.
Speaking of nuclear submarines, let's not forget The Hunt for Red October (1990), based on Tom Clancy's novel. This Cold War action drama has Sean Connery as a Soviet nuclear submarine commander (with a Scottish brogue, naturally) wanting to defect with his crew and his advanced vessel, Red October
There are many more submarine movies, of course, including the mutiny story Crimson Tide (1995) with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman and uncredited script doctoring by Quentin Tarantino.
However, it seems appropriate to end with one that's both relatively recent and French. The Wolf's Tour (2019) is an action movie in which nuclear war is a threat.
Did Australia miss out on something like the Titan submarine seen here? We will probably never know.