Veterans threaten to torpedo Ford's submarine drama

Preview by Jack Foley

FORMER Box Office Golden boy Harrison Ford has had something of a topsy turvy run of late, flitting between flops such as Random Hearts and smashes such as What Lies Beneath.

It seems the days of guaranteed money-spinners have long since passed for the Indiana Jones star and his latest, K-19 The Widowmaker, has done little to improve the star’s fortunes.

The true story of a Russian submarine crew’s 1961 battle to prevent a nuclear meltdown in the Atlantic, which cost eight lives, K-19 was one of the summer’s first box office casualties when it was released in America earlier this year, while it has courted its fair share of controversy.

In truth, Kathryn (Point Break) Bigelow’s movie is a tense and exciting, albeit overlong, submarine drama in the Das Boot/Crimson Tide tradition; but it has re-opened the debate about Hollywood’s tendency to take artistic liberty with historical fact.

After reading a draft script, veterans’ groups in Russia blasted the film’s portrayal of the sub’s crew as ‘a bunch of alcoholics and illiterates’, while seven crew members sent an open letter to this week’s Venice Film Festival saying that they were saddened and surprise by the decision to show it.

The letter states: "It is unthinkably painful to us that this film... will be considered a reference upon which the new generation of film-goers including our own children will form ideas about us and our comrades."

Worse still, a report in Russia’s Izvestia daily newspaper revealed that some K-19 survivors have threatened to sue the filmmakers, claiming that the movie is not so much a film about Russians, ‘but about how Americans want to see Russians’.

And the submarine's former lieutenant-commander, Yury Mukhin, 71, accused the film of making his crew look like pirates more than sailors, while also taking objection to on-screen references to their Vodka-drinking habits and their need to consult handbooks in an emergency.

"This was the Soviet Union's first nuclear submarine, and the crew consisted of professionals of the highest quality, not layabouts," he said.

The letter, in particular, forced both Ford and Bigelow to defend the movie’s content upon arrival at the annual Venice festival, while the producers have assured veterans that all references to drunken incompetence have been removed.

Bigelow argued that the submarine epic was a chance to humanise former Cold War enemies, while Ford - who has been criticised for his portrayal of the sub’s captain as a ‘soulless militant’ who regularly clashed with his second in command (Liam Neeson) - insisted that there had been efforts to explain the aims of the film to veterans.

He said that the producers had met with many of the survivors during the making of the film and that the movie ‘represented our intention to acknowledge the sacrifice that those men made’.

Bigelow, too, maintained that not all the survivors have complained about the script and claimed to have spent a lot of time between 1995 and 2000 meeting with survivors while producing the script.

She is quoted as saying: "Many times in my meetings I would find myself embraced by them with tear-stained faces saying you must tell our story."

She believes the movie should be applauded for finally taking the Russian point of view, while she describes the most inspiring element of the picture as its humanity which, she claims, is ‘able to cross all geopolitical lines’.

Her comments were endorsed by Ford in Venice, who referred to ‘the international language of film’ as emotion, adding: "Our common humanity is exercised by seeing how people react to a situation that may be tragic."

As a further gesture of goodwill towards the survivors and families of those who served on K-19, a one per cent share of the box office proceeds is to be donated to them, according to Gevorg Nersesyan, director of the Russian company distributing the film.

But given that K-19 has so far amassed only $34m (£22m) at the US Box Office, placing it in 51st place among this year's releases (according to the Box Office Report website), this may come as scant consolation.

The film drew a mixed response from US critics. See below for details. Alternatively, click here for Indielondon's verdict...

What the US critics thought:

Entertainment Weekly was among the most scathing, saying that the film ‘may not hold a lot of water as a submarine epic, but it holds even less when it turns into an elegaically soggy 'Saving Private Ryanovich’. They awarded it a C.

The Boston Pheonix, meanwhile, went one step further, declaring that it ‘sinks under its turgid solemnity’.

But the Hollywood Reporter said that K-19 ‘earns the right to be favorably compared to ‘Das Boot’, arguably the greatest of all submarine movies’, while the New York Times referred to it as ‘a tense, swift drama of mechanical catastrophe and dueling egos’. said that it was ‘a satisfying summer blockbuster and worth a look’, while the Chicago Tribune said that it is ‘absorbing and honestly scary in a way movies like this rarely are’.

Of a more mixed nature were the likes of E! Online, which stated that it ‘keeps itself above sea level. Barely’,

The New York Post, meanwhile, described it as ‘Cliché-ridden but moving’, and awarded it two and a half out of four stars, while Variety stated that it ‘obediently follows the verities of the submarine movie and its true story origins but without the imagination needed to refresh the genre’.

The final word in this critical overview, however, goes to LA Weekly, which (flying in the face of the criticism levelled upon the film by the Russians), felt that K-19 is ‘so unnervingly square, that it seems eerily like Party-sanctioned Soviet filmmaking’.

The movie opens in UK cinemas on October 25.

GUIDE TO LINKS: Click on right hand link for the National Geographic website on the K-19, or click on the left hand link button for the movie's official website...

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