Looking Back Twenty Years – Crimson Tide (1995)


Capt. Ramsey: Those sailors out there are just boys… boys who are training to do a terrible and unthinkable thing, and if that ever occurs the only reassurance they’ll have that they’re doing the proper thing is gonna derive from their unqualified belief in the unified chain of command. That means we don’t question each other’s motives in front of the crew. It means we don’t undermine each other. It means in a missile drill, they hear your voice right after mine, without hesitation. Do you agree with that policy, sailor?

Hunter: Absolutely, sir.

Capt. Ramsey: We’re here to preserve democracy, not to practice it.

That was a dialogue between Gene Hackman as Captain Frank Ramsey and Denzel Washington as Lt. Commander Ron Hunter as the XO of the submarine, the USS Alabama. This 1995 film was called Crimson Tide and it is the latest in my Looking Back Twenty Years film series.

Structurally the film is so much like so many other naval films. There’s usually an up from the ranks Captain. He’s almost always an older man, he may be crusty or even cantankerous, or someplace in between. He is set in his ways, can be petty, mean-spirited, and selfish, He doesn’t brook any dissenting opinions from his subordinate officers who are always younger, smarter as in better educated, and have different philosophies on everything from commanding men to taking orders.

You already know some of the main players in this genre – Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian from Mutiny on the Bounty, Captain Queeg and Lt. Steve Maryk from The Caine Mutiny, Cmdr Rich Richardson and Lt. Jim Bledsoe from Run Silent, Run Deep, and to keep the list manageable, Lt Commander Morton and Lt J.G. Doug Roberts from Mr. Roberts.

Some of Hollywood’s biggest names have appeared in films about the naval warfare and men under stress during those conflicts. James Cagney, Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Mel Gibson, Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Henry Fonda to name just a few. Of course in Crimson Tide, Hackman and Washington get above the title star billing. But this film also featured the then relatively unknowns James Gandolfini and Viggo Mortensen. as well as George Dzundza who also appeared in The Deer Hunter and No Way Out.

As the film begins, NBC News correspondent Richard Valeriani is aboard a French aircraft carrier somewhere in the Mediterranean.

The news is alarming, Russian rebels have overtaken some key areas including a Russian Naval base that houses nuclear weapons. They threaten not just the US but the entire world with a nuclear holocaust if so much as one of their troops are killed.

There’s but one solution – a preemptive nuclear strike from an American submarine within striking distance, or one that can launch a missile that has a sufficient range to take out the targets. Literally the fate of the world is at risk as the clock ticks down.

On board the US submarine Alabama, an EAM (Emergency Action Message) is received. In fact there were multiple messages received. The first being to Prepare, the second being to Launch. There’s even a third message that is received but it is incomplete and the authentication code is missing.

There’s a whole lot of protocols that need to be followed regarding authentication, target packages – much of which is pre-loaded on the submarine and kept locked in a safe.

In the various levels of the protocols for authentication and so forth, there’s usually a requirement for concurrence of the affirmations. In fact the ultimate decision – whether to launch missiles or not, cannot be made without both the Captain of the Ship and the Executive Officer agreeing that the orders are not only authentic but also the latest in the chain of issued orders.

And there is the set up for the film. Captain Ramsey believes he has orders ‘in hand’ authorizing the preemptive nuclear missile launch. The XO believes that they should wait because the last EAM received had been incomplete and may have countermanded any and all previous orders.

To make things more exciting – the Russian rebels have begun fueling their own missiles = which takes a specific amount of time. Once the fueling is complete those Russian missiles or ‘birds’ could be launched. As XO Hunter would say their birds would pass our birds in the air, and the net result would be mutual destruction. So yeah, the clock is ticking.

That’s problem number one. Problem number two is that there’s a Russian Akula sub in the area who wants to take out the American submarine. We hear the words that no submariner wants to hear, words of actions by the enemy. Torpedoes are in the water! Soon so are the counter measures. One of the torpedoes aimed at the Alabama comes close enough that upon detonation, even without a direct hit – the American sub sustains water damage which knocks out the radio.And then it gets worse – the submarine loses its propulsion and begins to sink. The hull can only withstand so much depth. If the sub sinks to a depth of 1850 feet, their fate is doom.

Hunter refuses to concur. Ramsey wants him arrested for insubordination. The COB (Chief of the Boat) is stuck between the two. Hunter relieves Ramsey of command in a by-the-books procedure. Ramsey is locked up in his cabin. But not all the officers side with Hunter.

George Dzundza, the COB - Chief of the Boat

George Dzundza, the COB – Chief of the Boat

James Gandolfini as Daugherty, the Supplies Officer

James Gandolfini as Daugherty, the Supplies Officer

Will Ramsey be able to get back into control?

Viggo as Ince, the Weapons Officer

Will the Weapons officer open the safe so that the launch codes can be accessed. Will Hunter escape from his confinement. Will the missiles be launched. Is the end of the world – as we know it – imminent.

This is Crimson Tide. The future of the world is at stake and Hackman and Washington do the classic mano v mano dance. This is a navy film that offers gripping drama, tension, and manages to come off as believable as well as offering some super performances.

Check out some additional dialogue below

Capt. Ramsey: You’re presuming we have other submarines out there, ready to launch. Well as Captain, I must assume our submarines could’ve been taken out by other Akulas. We can play these games all night Mr Hunter but uh, I don’t have the luxury of your presumptions.

Hunter: Sir…

Capt. Ramsey: Mr Hunter, we have rules that are not open to interpretation, personal intuition, gut feelings, hairs on the back of your neck, little devils or angels sitting on your shoulder. We’re all very well aware of what our orders are and what those orders mean. They come down from our Commander-in-Chief. They contain no ambiguity.

Hunter: Captain…

Capt. Ramsey: Mr Hunter. I’ve made a decision. I’m Captain of this boat. NOW SHUT THE FUCK UP!

The trailer is below:

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