Monday, February 4, 2013

From the Rental Vault: The Frogmen (1951)

The United States Navy Sea, Air, Land (SeAL) forces were the subject of movies long before Kathryn Bigelow chronicled a version of their most recent success in Zero Dark Thirty.  Back in 1951, Lloyd Bacon directed Richard Widmark, Dana Andrews and a cast of talented up-and-comers in The Frogmen, a story centering on the work of the Navy's Underwater Demolition Team during World War II. The UDT teams -- called "frogmen" -- were the ancestors of today's SEALS.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Lawrence has taken command of UDT 4 after its previous commander was killed. Lawrence is not a particularly genial sort, and his square-rigged by-the-bookishness rubs the easygoing frogmen the wrong way. His team questions his courage after a mission disaster and his apparent unwillingness to expose himself to danger for his men. Lawrence's response -- crack down harder on discipline -- seems to have exactly the opposite effect to what he wants, and the men seek a transfer out of his unit. He has to prove both his courage and his humanity to them in order for their major strike against a Japanese submarine pen to succeed without casualties.

Widmark, usually cast as a more-or-less genial sociopath on the wrong side of the hero spectrum, does an excellent job as the conflicted Lawrence. He wants to build a camaraderie with his men, but he wants even more to complete missions successfully, and feels that completions and commendations should be a sufficient common ground with the team he's supposed to lead. When they're not, he finds himself without tools to handle situations the book never seemed to anticipate. Dana Andrews, as the senior noncommissioned officer on the team, at first tries to help Lawrence but is himself alienated by the commander and winds up as distant from him as the rest. Jeffrey Hunter, Gary Merrill and Harvey Lembeck offer excellent support in the well-known roles of team daredevil, wise old sage and wisecracking Noo Yawker, respectively. Robert Wagner and Jack Warden show up in early-career bit roles, kicking off long runs on large and small screen.

Much of The Frogmen's action was filmed underwater and the studio worked closely with the Department of Defense and the Navy in order to improve technical accuracy. It's kind of stunning to realize that reconnaissance on enemy-held beaches was conducted by men wearing board shorts, equipped with nothing more than a swim mask, flippers, a recording slate and a knife. And it's little wonder that the men who entered battle so lightly equipped developed into today's SEALs, equally as confident in their own abilities no matter how great the obstacle. Current and past SEALs, in fact, sometimes cite a viewing of The Frogmen as an incident that sparked them to seek out their service.

Although it's not any kind of great cinema, The Frogmen wraps a tight, no-frills story with fine performances, realistic personal conflicts and well-filmed action set pieces to make a solid offering well worth an hour and a half of anyone's time.

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