On the first of October, the world received the news that Tom Clancy, American author whose works inspired several films and video games, passed away. I am by no means an expert on his works, but even I have felt the legacy he has left on the world of military/thriller fiction and films. What better way to honour him, I thought, than by writing on one of my favourite films, based on his first and arguably most famous novel – The Hunt for Red October.
Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) is the Captain of the Russian nuclear submarine ‘Red October’, equipped with a newly developed silent propulsion system. This will allow the sub to run virtually undetected by any other sub, even those from its own fleet. Ramius has a plan – defying orders, and aided by his hand picked crew, he steals the sub. Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), a CIA analyst, is tasked with tracking down Ramius, who he believes may be trying to defect. Who will find Red October first; and can a war be prevented?
I can already hear you scoffing at Sean Connery’s Scottish accent, which is admittedly out of place for a Russian naval captain. But hey, Tim Curry plays the ships Doctor, and he doesn’t even bother trying to hide his British accent. Take a deep breath and let me explain why the accents don’t matter. The film begins, and the Russian characters are all speaking in, well, Russian. Captain Ramius enters his cabin, to meet the ships political officer (played by Peter Firth). Political officer Putin begins reading a passage from a book Ramius keeps – a biblical passage speaking of the end of the world. As the camera zooms slowly towards his mouth, then back out again, he transitions from Russian to English. Within the narrative, they are all still speaking Russian, but this transition simply allows for us to hear them in English without reading subtitles the entire time. Later, when Americans and Russians are in the same room together for the first time, the Russian crew are again heard in Russian. A simple, elegant solution to what is a really minor problem. Are we all good now? Moving on.
In all seriousness, they don’t make political/military thrillers like this anymore. In today’s high-tech, fast moving world, everything is about the use of flashy screens and technology. Bigger guns, more explosions, make sure the lead gets his shirt off! More often than not, a sense of intrigue and tension is sacrificed for an on screen spectacle. The Hunt for Red October has the best of both worlds. It uses pacing to its fullest effect. We are aware of Ramius’ intentions fairly early on, and we know what the American government wants, and we know what the Russians want. Everything slowly builds towards the climax, when all three forces come crashing together in a spectacular final showdown, that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time, while only using TWO TORPEDOS AND MINIMAL BULLET FIRING. Every single shot counts.
I think if I had to discuss every scene with ‘action’ in this film, I’d end up with a shot by shot breakdown of each scene followed by the phrase ‘and that’s awesome!’ Let me just assure you that these scenes are an amazing combination of editing, build-up, tension, and release, with an absolutely perfect use of music. Often times, the music doesn’t even come in until the last moment, the film using sound design and atmosphere only to build up tension (I’m thinking of the Red Route 1 scene in particular here). But as much as it’s about the action, it is also about the script, which uses clever, sharp dialogue that isn’t dumbed-down in any way, but yet isn’t so dense that you can’t follow what’s going on. It’s also one of the most quotable movies ever made, and those one-liners freakin’ rock! “The hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch.” I rest my case.
The claustrophobic environments of the submarines – the October and the USS Dallas, are used to their full effects. Tight shots make us feel as though we’re crowded on the sub with the separate crews. Sound design and moody lighting – lots of reds and blues, distinguishing the two environments, add to the overall atmosphere of being miles underwater.
And finally, the casting. When you cast James Earl Jones as a badass Admiral with the CIA, you’re doing something right. When you cast Sam Neill as Sean Connery’s second officer, and the two together bring a surprising level of emotion to help create one of the films most memorable, highly charged scenes, then you’re doing something right. And when you cast Alec Baldwin, in what turned out to be a huge breakthrough for him, as the intelligent, determined hero who uses his wits rather than his muscles to save the day, then you’re doing something right. He doesn’t fit the picture of what most of us would consider an action star these days, but he has this sense of ‘everyman’ about him, and it just works.
I have seen The Hunt for Red October countless times, and watching it now almost brings a sense of comfort and familiarity. However, it never loses that sense of excitement or its edge, and there are little subtle movements and actions in every shot that I am continually rediscovering on re-watch. It’s just fantastic filmmaking.