The third review in our Cold War trilogy couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Unfortunately, a few days ago, at age 66, author Tom Clancy passed away due to a massive heart attack. By 66 he had written the Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, the Sum of all Fears and others. Each book was made into a commercially successful film. Prior to writing The Hunt for Red October, Clancy apparently sold insurance. Well that was one hell of a first novel, being made into a block buster movie within a couple of years after publication and having a strong cast.
It is also interesting to note that the mutiny portrayed on the Red October was actually based on the mutiny of a Soviet frigate led by the ship’s political commissar, Captain of the Third Rank Valery Sablin, who wished to protest against the rampant corruption of the Leonid Brezhnev era. Though his aim was to seize the ship and steer it out of the Bay of Riga, to Leningrad and broadcast a nationwide address to the people, not turn the ship over to the enemy. In the planned address, Sablin was going to say what he believed people publicly wanted to say, but could only be said in private: that communism and the motherland were in danger; the ruling authorities were hip deep in corruption, demagoguery, graft, and lies, leading the country into an abyss; true communism had been discarded; and there was a need to revive the Leninist principles of “justice.” So while defection was not the ultimate goal of this mutineer, it was the genesis of the Hunt for Red October story.
Back to Red October: in the film Sean Connery plays the Russian Captain Marko Ramius, Sam Neill his executive officer, Alec Baldwin portrays CIA analyst Jack Ryan, James Earl Jones the well-respected Admiral Greere, Fred Thompson the commander of an aircraft carrier fleet and Scott Glen Commander Bart Mancuso, Commanding Officer of the USS Dallas. This is a pretty heavy cast for a first time novel turned movie—and it is well done I must say.
The movie starts a cold dreary port somewhere in northern Russia with Connery speaking to his executive officer (in Russian) Sam Neill about how cold it is and orders the ship to move on its way to start its mission. What no one but Soviet officials know is that this particular sub uses a new form of propulsion that is virtually undetectable by conventional sonar means. It is sort of described as the jet engine of the submarine world. Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) is called to his boss’ office (James Earls Jones as Admiral Greer) rather quickly as new photographs of the sub had been obtained showing unusual ports alongside of the sub. Ryan goes out on a limb and suggests that these photographs are evidence of a new propulsion system that would permit the sub to slip through all the US and NATO safeguards tracking traditional submarines. Alarmed by this potential weakness in US defenses, Greer arranges for an immediate briefing with the President’s national security advisor. Ryan gives the briefing but isn’t told until the last minute. After his summation to the powers that be, an NSA representative reveals that a phone call was made from a Russian Admiral (Ramius’ uncle) which resulted in the immediate dispatch of the entire Soviet Northern naval fleet with orders to pursue and hunt down The Red October.
Virtually all military personnel at the meeting immediately conclude that Ramius is a madman loose with 23 nuclear missiles in an undetectable submarine heading towards the coast of the United States. After a few minutes of deep thinking, Ryan starts laughing and claims “the son of a bitch is going to defect!”
Everyone in the room dismisses his comments, except for the national security advisor who says that he’s “a politician and when he’s not kissing babies he’s stealing their lollipops, but it also means he keeps his options open” and lets Jack explore the possibility of this Soviet defection.
While en route to the United States Ramius tells his men that in order to motivate them, much like Cortez did when he had his men burn his ships upon landing, he sent a letter to the powers that be that they intended to defect with the ship. Soon Soviet forces are dropping sonar buoys, torpedoes and other weapons at the Red October, scaring the crew who are unaware of his plans and begin to think something is very very wrong.
Ramius’ concerns are not the Soviets though but the Americans. He is afraid that if they encounter some “buckaroo” a/k/a cowboy all will be lost. Enter Jack Ryan, who is convinced that Ramius is ready to defect, the only problem is that the Capitan Bart Mancuso, Commanding Officer of the USS Dallas has already received his orders to destroy the Red October. Ryan convinves him that he knows Ramius so well that he predicted which way the Red October would pull a “crazy Ivan” to clear its baffles. Mancuso then ups his periscope to communicate with Ramius directly, but is worried that his Morse code is so rusty that he might be transmitting the “[playboy] playmate of the month’s measurements.” Stunned that the Americans have guessed his plan to defect, both subs move towards a very deep part of the ocean where no wreckage could be found in case they have to fake the Red October’s destruction.
There is one wrinkle; that is, one of Ramius’s former students Tupolev has been hot on his tail and begins to torpedo the Red October. After missing his first chance because the safety mechanisms were on, his second shot is with torpedoes with no safeties. Enter USS Dallas that in a daring move is somehow able to divert the torpedoes into chasing it rather than the Red October and circles around ultimately leading the torpedoes back to their original shooter and destroying the ship.
The game is not over yet though as there is a KGB agent on board disguised as a cook’s assistant who is trying to hotwire one of the nuclear missiles to destroy the Red October before she falls into enemy hands. Ryan is sent in to kill him but not before Ramius delivers a great line warning him to be careful what he shoots at because there are nuclear missiles in there. Naturally Ryan takes care of business and fools the Russians into thinking that the Red October has been destroyed.
Yes I know this has been a long review, but this is an action packed thriller. Its great cast and the film’s central fear of superpowers engaging in nuclear war, while seemingly quaint in light of today’s more insidious terrorist threats, has added resonance given recent revelations about the USSR’s Cold War designs to annihilate us. Politics aside, however, The Hunt for Red October is a thrilling edge-of-your-seat trifle that has admirably withstood the test of time. The film personifies the very real fears of the cold war era, but places itself outside of the dour the Spy Who Came in From Out of the Cold and the somewhat campy Ice Station Zebra. Proof of its resilience is seen in a 96% Rotten Tomato’s rating and the film that in my opinion all future Clancy novels-turned movies are judged against.
This film makes for excellent comfort viewing, hearkening back to an era when all that was American was right and just, Reagan was the father we could look up to, and only a Communist would dare question the inherent gift that God had given to America to rule the earth. All cinema has its agenda, and this film made little secret of it. The Cold War must go on, and justify those enormous ‘defense’ budgets, promote the ideology of the good guy. Though the Bush revolution has had its share of films attempting to pick up where this tradition had left off, they were largely miserable failures, insufficiently blinded by ideology. The days of the 80′s action hero are quite dead.