DVD: Above Us the Waves (1955)

July 11, 2017 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  VCI Entertainment

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  May 17, 2011

Genre:  War / Drama

Synopsis: Strong, claustrophobic docu-drama of Britain’s midget submarine program and the plot to sink the mighty Nazi battleship Tirpitz.

Special Features:  (none)




Based on the 1953 best-selling book by Charles E.T. Warren and Thornton Warren, this dramatization of Britain’s midget submarine program to sink Nazi Germany’s Tirpitz battleship proved very successful at the box office, and was reportedly a pet project of producer William MacQuitty.

The Tirpitz was as big (and a little heavier, due to heftier guns) than the Bismarck; deadly with her mass and guns, but also a giant target that wasn’t so easy to hide. Over her lifespan from hull construction in 1936 to completion in 1941, she endured several attacks until she was sunk in a 1944 air battle, after which she lay nestled in a Norwegian fjord until salvage units scrapped her.

MacQuitty’s film covers Operation Title, in which a trio of X-Craft subs were tugged to Norway’s marine border, and advanced from separate angles to reach the Tirpitz and leave timed munitions under her belly. Not unlike Fox’s The Frogmen (1951), the drama is almost exclusively on the teams who train, ready, and execute their underwater bombing missions. Both films enjoyed navy cooperation, and in the case of Above Us the Waves, the cast is often seen in real locations using actual gear and sub reproductions to track the evolution from jovial recruits to nervous soldiers, cramped in tight quarters with zero radio contact capabilities.

A few tense sequences precede the Tirpitz mission, including the changing of crews as the small subs are tugged through rough waters, and the sudden appearance of a mine that’s repelled in a most unusual manner by a crewman – a real-life medal-awarded act of heroism. Once the men head for the battleship, Above becomes an intensely claustrophobic drama, especially since the only means of verifying their position is a small periscope; lose the eyes and if forced to remain underwater, a craft becomes dead in the water.

One by one they approach anti-sub and anti-torpedo nets before reaching the massive craft, and ingeniously plant their charges before heading out. Not everything goes to plan, and that’s where the details magnify the danger of the mission, as the men are literally reliant on basic mechanics and quick wits  and action to save themselves from drowning and other truly awful terrors.

John Mills is the headlined star, but Robin Estridge’s script is fairly democratic in giving each crewman screen time and important business, including a young Anthony Newley, future composer of the famous Goldfinger theme. Also spotted in the cast playing a schnapps-offering German is Walter Gotell (The Spy Who Loved Me), and co-starring along Mills is John Gregson (Genevieve) and James Robertson Justice (Moby Dick) as Admiral Ryder.

MacQuitty reportedly supervised the tense, finely detailed underwater scenes, but Ralph Thomas (Doctor at Sea) balances intense scenes with small bits of occasional dry humour, and some inventive interior sub setups that convey the tiny subs’ movements as they whir, glide, dive, and surface like tiny air balloons fighting gravity and pressure.

Ernest Steward’s cinematography is gritty and always bears a documentary quality, while Arthur Benjamin’s score never dips into overt heroic theme statements, sticking to screen action and adding to the danger of the underwater drama. Augmenting the documentary feel is having all Nazi soldiers converse in proper German (not gibberish), without subtitles.

VCI’s transfer is a bit of a mixed bag, because while the source print is nice and the details are clean, the PAL to NTSC conversion has that awful strobing effect whenever the camera pans across vertical figures and objects, or there’s left-to-right character movement. The flaw’s tolerable only because the film is so good, but this is a transfer in need of a redo, preferably accompanied by extras that contextualize the historical drama, the mission, the film’s exceptional production, and shaky rear projection segments excepted, fairly impressive visual effects.



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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