Looking Back Friday – The Bedford Incident (1965)
This week, FRC’s favourite guest poster, Jack Deth is back to provide us with another dissection of a classic piece of cinema, The Bedford Incident.
Greeting all and sundry! It is not often that I fall ill to the vagaries and temperature shifts between winter and spring. Though when it does happen, I take the time to enjoy films of varying types and genres. This latest bout left me contemplating the dearth of films from the early to mid 1960s that dealt with the ramifications of The Cold War and what was then (and possibly now) called Mutual Assured Destruction. To that end, allow me to posit a title many may not be aware of, but should.
The Bedford Incident (1965)
A stark and spartan little B&W gem directed by James B. Harris that takes place on an American destroyer, USS Bedford (DLG-113) as it patrols along what would later be the Greenland. Iceland- UK (GI-UK) Gap. Non territorial, free ocean. That in the 1960s was prime turf for Russian subs to cross on their way to, or leaving from surveillance missions off America’s east coast. And vice versa.
The Bedford is somewhere south east of Greenland when it is approached by a Navy helicopter. The ship is at battle stations as intrepid, young Ensign Ralston. Anxiously played by James MacArthur, the original Dan-O from Hawaii Five-O reluctantly lets the helicopter hover inside the fantail and winches down two individuals. A Naval Reserve
doctor, Lt. Commander Chester Potter. Played purposefully by always reliable Martin Balsam. And photo journalist, Ben Munceford. The prototype for countless liberal newsies that would populate the airways for years to come. Played with a silently seeping heart and constantly snapping camera by Sidney Poitier.
The addition of two extra passengers does not bode well. From the Captain, Eric Finlander. Wondrously played with a monstrous ego and desire to relive his heydays of prosecuting and raising enemy submarines by close to whatever means necessary. To the German Liason Officer, Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke. Solidly personified by Eric Portman. An old warrior who had commanded a U-Boat in the Atlantic during World War II. Now aiding the hounds, though his heart is definitely with the fox. All the way down to Sick Bay Corpsman Nemey. Well and quietly played by a very young Donald Sutherland. And Sonar Technician Queffle. A role tailor made for perpetual milquetoast, former Mister Peepers and future voice of Underdog, Wally Cox.
Munceford starts stirring the pot within minutes. Asking questions that are not going to get
answers. Between taking photos of equipment on the Bridge that should never be photographed. Munceford comes within inches of being clapped in irons and tossed in the Brig. Glaring as his camera is opened and its film pulled and tape recorder taken. Doctor Potter fares only slightly better. Being quietly relegated to a cubby hole office. Where he bores those few sailors who might want to skate with tales of the benefits of Isometric Exercise. Certainly not the optimum way of filling in a two week Annual Tour.
Bedford is a ship of war. Even though Congress has not declared one. A concept completely alien as the ship steams close to a Russian trawler and photographs it and what could be a Sail and Periscope just beyond. The game is definitely afoot. Not just in regard to training and testing out the capabilities of the tin can’s brand new shiny toys and Gizmos. Tracts, courses and intentions are plotted as Bedford sails around icebergs and picks and examines the garbage tossed overboard by the trawler by Corpsman Nemey. Potter is just as befuddled as Munceford by all these strange goings on. Though, it’s just par for the course to Finlander. Who’s keeping an eye on young Ensign Ralston after a rather severe dressing down on the Bridge.
It’s determined that Finlander’s quarry is a Russian Diesel Boat. Non Nuclear. Whose torpedoes may have Nuclear warheads. Staying just on the fringe of the US territorial limits and generally making a nuisance of itself after having its fuel and stores topped off by the trawler. A very long game of Cat and Mouse ensues. With Bedford a dollar short and a few minutes late as the submarine either surfaces or Snorkels to recharge its batteries. Days turn into cold, frigid nights as Star Shells explode and illuminate the quarry slinking away.
Finlander comes up with a strategy to let the sub get close inside the Territorial Limits. Then run over its Periscope, Snorkel and Sail on its return trip. Forcing the sub to the surface and quarantining it. Schrepke thinks it’s a bad idea and last grab for glory and hints at it as the sun rises on a glorious, calm day.
The sub is caught on Sonar by a nearly burnt out Quiffle. Who relays it to the Bridge. Battle Stations are dialed up and Bedford loops around and out of sight to intercept. All stations report Manned and Ready. The ship’s ASROC Anti-Submarine missiles are warmed up as the quarry gets closer and closer to free oceans. Bedford glides up with a foaming bone cresting its bow as it rakes across loudly. Damage Control is spooled up as Bedford prepares for a minor victory. The sea is stained with Diesel as Bedford slowly pivots and prepares for another run.
The submarine refuses to surface. It’s own sonar painting Bedford quite brightly as keys are turned and buttons are readied to be pushed….
I’ll leave it here, lest I delve too deeply into Spoiler Territory.
What Makes This Film Good?
A solid Alumni and partner of Stanley Kubrick getting premium Bang for the Buck in a B&W offering that barely dips the nib of its pen into the Black Comedy that Kubrick sloshed around in with Dr. Strangelove. Delivering a believable, tense tale of the day to day Brinksmanship employed for years throughout the Cold War. In a film that has the raw look and feel of Sam Fuller. In a gem shot in the North Sea and at Shepperton Studios.
Model work is superb, as it should be. Backed up by a soundtrack conducted by Gerard
Schurmann and a full orchestra. Bringing drama, tension and foreboding when required. With barely a lighthearted note during its 102 minutes. The adroit Cinematography is deftly handled by Gilbert Taylor. Who had the same task in Dr. Strangelove. Masterfully using diffused and sharp shadows as Bedford tracks through Arctic waters and her crew goes about its tasks. Bringing a sense of authenticity in a film already steeped in it.
James Poe’s screenplay rings true, sounds equally believable, though not particularly of its time. Giving the cast many topics to chew on. Especially the discussions between Captain Finlander and his Greman opposite number, Schrepke. Revealing that The Game hasn’t changed. Just that the politics and policies have become for obscure over time.
What Makes This Film Great?
A different perspective from Lumet’s Fail Safe and Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove. Where the battle is much more contained and intensely personal. Harris lets his cast feel the ship’s cramped, lacking in privacy and personal space confines be worn like a second skin. Heightening tension and mood in a close to enclosed world were ‘Calm’ is as distant as the shore.
All under the thumb of Richard Widmark’s Captain Finlander. Overbearing? Certainly! Though more so with his Officers than his enlisted crew. In charge of a ship covering one heck of a lot of ocean. With back up or assistance about a day’s sailing time away. Given a task that’s important, though not really noteworthy. Finlander walks a taut tightrope of getting the job done safely. And maybe bending the rules to raise another sub and perhaps, a shot at Admiral. So, yes. You can add Obsessive to Finlander’s list of faults.
Does it detract from his character? Only slightly. Finlander’s occasional dressing down of young, eager to please Ensign Ralston are pivotal. Deserved, though more relegated to Captain’s stateroom and out of ear shot.
James MacArthur gets high marks for playing his character of Ensign Ralston with just the right amount of anxious
energy you’d expect from a pup. Or very recent graduate of Annapolis. Possessing all the knowledge required of that fine Academy. Though constantly tripping over and second guessing himself in an environment that doesn’t forgive mistakes. He’s perfect! Especially during the last minutes of the film.
Sidney Poitier offers his growing talents that would later come into fruition with In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a nosy, above it all journalist who has never heard of ‘Need To Know’ or Security Clearances. His Ben Munceford has a medium sized chip on his shoulder. Does not play well with others. And constantly wonders, ‘Why?’. He’s a treat to watch when he climbs upon his Soap Box before the Captain or crewman.
Martin Balsam delivers a splendid ‘Fish out of Water’ performance as the often ignored Lt. Commander Potter. Who’d spent his time in the last war well and comfortably and has trouble adjusting to this new, modern Navy, Kudos also to Donald Sutherland in a very early, though small role. And Wally Cox for delivering the1960s quirky prototype of a large portion of today’s revered Navy Sonar Men. Regardless if on a ship or submarine. Sonar is their eyes and ears.
All in all a great little film that delivers a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. Nominated for a BAFTA Award for Arthur Lawson’s meticulous detailed Art Direction in 1966. The Bedford Incident is a fine addition to fill out the Triumvirate Cold War/Doomsday films opposite Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. Well worth the efforts of seeking out for a Double or Triple Bill!
Have you seen this film? Do you share the views of Jack? Comment below…