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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Gray Lady Down (1978)

As the seventies inched towards their close, it really did seem every possible mode of transportation had been transformed into a disaster movie. Calamity had struck travelers on land, over sea, and in the air. But a vehicle that travels under the water was one we hadn't seen yet. Submarines are exciting locations and it certainly seems like things could go wrong with them easily. So “Gray Lady Down,” based on the novel “Event 1000” by David Lavallee, would roll in front of cameras. The film was yet another disaster flick produced by Universal Studios and starring Charlton Heston. However, it's an idiosyncratic example of the genre, breaking or ignoring many of the troupes and rules you associate with films of this type.

Deep below the waves, the crew of the U.S.S. Neptune, an American submarine, go about their duties. Captain Paul Blanchard will be retiring after this journey but is reluctant to leave his crew behind. In the early morning hours, the sub is struck by a Norwegian freighter. The damaged submarine sinks 242 fathoms down, coming to rest precariously on a ledge over an ocean abyss. The crew is stuck on the edge of doom. The Navy prepares a risky rescue mission, sending a small submersible piloted by Captain Gates, but it won't be easy.

As far as seventies disaster movies go, “Gray Lady Down” is fairly restrained and realistic. There aren't too many explosions, save for the initial collision between the sub and the boat. There's almost zero melodrama, as the soldiers and sailors all work together without too much conflict. The cast is fairly contained, focusing only on two tight group of characters. Though the story's events are certainly extraordinary, they are not improbable at all. There's a lot of silent scenes, as people grimly attempt delicate procedures. The realistic approach to the material creates a measured, almost reticent film. “Gray Lady Down” is suspenseful but in a terse, quiet way.

Since “Gray Lady Down” is more focused on suspense and destruction, there's very little of the spectacle the disaster genre usually gives us. When the Neptune is struck, we see the submarine's interior spin. The crew is tossed back and forth. Water bursts into certain areas. As the Neptune slides along the cliff, we get other moments of disorientation, even an explosion or two. There's a surprising scene where a chamber fills with water, leading to a heroic sacrifice. However, this is not where the film's interest primarily lies. The focus is mostly on how dangerous the situation is. A porthole, slowly breaking apart under the titanic pressure, is a constant source of concern. The smaller submersible looking for the ship and attempting to rescue those inside is also decent source of suspense.

A positive element of "Gray Lady Down" is the camaraderie between the men in the sub. The scenes of the guys trying to pass the time are interesting. Some panic under the stress, others are more serene. They even watch “Jaws” on a projector at one point. A good cast backs this up. Heston is even more grave than usual, sporting a sea captain beard and frequently steering grimly into the distance. David Carradine gives a very solid performance as the pilot of the smaller sub, appearing serious but with some attitude. Ned Beatty, following his appearance in “The Big Bust,” is Carradine's somewhat goofy sidekick. Stacy Keach and Ronny Cox also have decent supporting roles, as the man in charge of the rescue mission and an especially nervous crewman. (Sadly, Cox and Beatty have no scenes together, preventing a proper “Deliverance” reunion.) Christopher Reeves is highly touted on the DVD case, despite only appearing in a few scenes, as Keach's assistant.

Much like “The Cassandra Crossing,” “Gray Lady Down” knows it has to give the audience a big disaster. This obligation, however, runs counter to the story's tension. The conflicting goals result in a downbeat ending. Then again, that matches up with “Gray Lady Down's” more grounded approach to the material. Instead of getting a big, crowd-pleasing, special effects movie, it's a slow and suspenseful voyage into the deep. The film almost acts as a deconstruction of the disaster genre for those reasons. It's an interesting watch, though not nearly as satisfying as the films that came out around it. [7/10]

[] Awards Bait Ballad
[] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast


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