Film: The Time-capsulse that is “Above Us the Waves” (1955)

One of the ways I define myself is that I am a historian. History is one of my earliest passions, and is so far enduring. The past fascinates. However associated with this right from the beginning (thanks the Michael Wood’s six-part documentary “In Search of the Trojan War” back from 1985 – which I first watched a year or two after broadcast) is an interest in historiography. If history is the enquiry into the past, historiography is the study of history and the historians, archaeologists, and other researchers who are all involved in the study of the past.

As I started to watch Above Us the Waves recently, a British war film from the 1950s that tells the tale of the midget submarine attack on KMS Tirpitz in 1943, I could feel my historiographical nerves twitching all over. The film itself I will discuss in a moment is a fine enough film, but almost more fascinating for me was picking up details of how the war was being portrayed in the 1950s. In many respects films like this strike me as time-capsules shedding light on earlier times.

As to the film, it has two distinct halves. The first half deals with the statement of the objective – to sink the powerful German battleship Tirpitz which had taken shelter in the Norwegian fjords and thus was well protected, the selection of a team of men and the first failed attempt. The second half of the film portrays the second attack, using three X-craft midget submarines.

This attack is the main event of the film, and the action is entirely concentrated on three submarines. For what seems like a very long time the camera-work is almost entirely from within the confines of the three submarines, showing the cramped, claustrophobic conditions these men operated in. One immediately thinks of comparing it to submarine epic Das Boot, but in reality these are very different craft making the Type VII U-Boats appear almost luxurious. Like Das Boot though the tension of being almost blind, vulnerable, both hunter and hunted is excellently portrayed. Especially in the increasingly haggard looks of the faces of the men as their mission progresses.

If one is expecting flamboyant, demonstrative acting you will not find it here. There is a quieter form of acting here, relying more on cast of face or tone of voice. A submarine at the best of time is no place for histrionics. There is heroism here shown for us, the heroism that occurs under the greatest of pressures (and on a submarine pressure has one very literal meaning one can never forget). That said there are some quite obvious stereotypes here – the raffish Australian for example and reserved commanding officer.

What strikes me most is that not only is this a British war film, but that it is a naval war film. Britain’s self-image is of a nation of the sea. Unfortunately for this self-image World War 2 offered relatively little material for naval war films. There is the Battle of the River Plate (made into a film of the same name), the hunt for the Bismarck (made into Sink the Bismarck!), the sinking of Scharnhorst (no film as far as I know), and as far as the Germans are concerned that is just about it for the surface war. The gruelling Battle of the Atlantic – excellently portrayed in The Cruel Sea – is a different sort of film. This film offers another little way for the Navy to get positive footage against the more obvious heroism of the A0rmy and Air Force.

Note that I was only able to restrain my historiographical impulses for three paragraphs.

From a little cursory research it appears that this film is fairly accurate. There are a few small anachronisms, and some simplifications – and also some guesswork about what happened with one the midget submarines that took part in the attack.

Overall I can recommend this as a good war-film from an older time. While it tells a great story, however, I think it is almost more interesting as a window on the time it was made.


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