“In my humble opinion, in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself”
Lt Commander Hunter USS Alabama
Whilst watching the BBC’s new submarine drama Vigil, I was reminded of one of my favourite films of all time, Tony Scott’s ‘Crimson Tide’. After a quick Google, I found it streaming on Disney +. Does it still hold up after all the years? I took a re-watch to find out…
What Is Crimson Tide?
Crimson tide was the first summer blockbuster of 1995. Released on 12th May, it is a tense thriller, starring both Gene Hackman as Captain Frank Ramsey and Denzel Washington as executive office Ron Hunter. It sometimes gets confused with other submarine movie ‘The Hunt For Red October’ that was released 5 years prior and is in no way related.
Russia has lost control of a breakaway separatist group. America’s submarine fleet is put on high alert and are deployed into the region. Orders are given that if the separatists obtain nuclear launch codes and are seen fueling the missiles, the next communication will be to fire the subs payload of ballistic nuclear missiles. Thus, starting and ending nuclear war in one go.
U.S. submarine Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) needs a new Executive Officer (XO) and, after reviewing a very short list, signs on a relatively green but highly recommended Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) to the USS Alabama.
It soon becomes clear that the Captain and XO have very different ideologies about the same Navy they serve. The Captain lives his life 1 rule at a time, everything is black and white with no grey areas. The XO on the other hand is a Harvard educated officer. Ramsey quips that the Navy wants him to simply press the button, but they seem to want Hunter to know why. This brief encounter sets the tone of the film and places both Captain and Executive Officer on a collision course. Ramsey’s choice to conduct a weapons test after a fire in the galley only serves to deepen the divide between the two men.
The submarine soon receives an Emergency Action Message (EAM) that orders the Alabama to start nuclear launch procedures. Soon after an attack by a hostile Russian submarine damages the Alabama’s radio antenna, whilst another Emergency Action Message is being received. This results in the Alabama only obtaining a partial message. Following orders to the letter, Captain Ramsey moves to ignore the partial message, stating that a partial message is no message at all. Hunter attempts to argue stating that they need to make sure that the message does not stand them down from launching the nuclear missiles. A war of words ensues and Ramsey and threatens to remove Hunter from his position. The subs Chief of the Boat is angered by this potential illegal action and sides with Hunter. Enough is enough and Hunter swiftly relieves Ramsey of command. Conducting an act of mutiny, Hunter plans to surface the Alabama to confirm the contents of EAM. The stakes are high, if Hunter is correct then he saves the world from nuclear war, if he is wrong the Russians would have launched their missiles first and life is over, oh and he has illegally detained his Captain.
It’s not long until the Russian submarine is back attacking the Alabama, and Hunter has to engage in naval combat. Hunters’ tactics prevail and the rogue Russian sub is destroyed but not without launching a torpedo at the last second that wounds the Alabama.
The sub is downed, and radio comms are shattered. Hunter must rally his men, get the damage under control, get the radio fixed and raise the sub to periscope depth to get the EAM. All this chaos provides Captain Ramsey the opportunity to take back control, lock up hunter and his men thus undoing the mutiny and proceed to launch the missiles as ordered. Suspecting something is afoot Hunter prepares for this and gives instructions to one of his trusted men on how he is to be released if locked up.
While Captain Ramsey prepares to launch the missiles, Hunter manages to escape being locked up and reaches out to Officer Weps to try and convince him not to launch.
Ramsey proceeds to put the launch key into the control but has no response from weapons so decides to go down to weapons and launch the missiles manually. Hunter sees the Captain heading to weapons control and rushes to the bridge to remove the key.
The Captain arrives at weapons control, and Weps does not comply. Still utterly convinced that he is in the right, the Captain takes his takes a gun and threatens to kill one of the submariners. This stand-off relents and the Captain is given control and pushes the launch button…nothing happens…Hunter has got to the key!
Back on the bridge both men have one final brutal stand off before the radio is restored, Ramsey has no choice but to wait to receive the message. A message that will either show mankind has been destroyed or that Ramsey was wrong, either way someone’s world has ended.
As for what the message says… you will have to watch the film to find out.
Trailer: Crimson Tide
Stand Out Casting
Back in 1995 it was the two A-list leads that stood out: Hackman and Washington, but more on those two in a moment…
A Crimson Tide also helped along the careers of the supporting cast.
People like Viggo Mortensen, who played ‘Weps’ the weapons officer. Mortensen went on to have a super successful career most notably as Aragorn in the Lord Of the Rings franchise.
The late James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame also pops appears as Lt. Bobby Dougherty.
Rocky Carroll as Lt. Westergaurd went on to play Leon Vance in various iterations of NCIS.
Crimson tide though, is centred around two leads.
Gene Hackman as Captain Ramsey
Captain Ramsey is a demanding character, someone with intimate knowledge of military history, as adept at name dropping historical figures such von Clausewitz as he his quoting the Naval Rule book. He’s an experienced Captain, and one of the few remaining that has actually seen some action. Casting Gene Hackman was the right call. Back in 1995 Gene Hackman’s name was high, coming off the back of a string of excellent films such as the Superman films, Class Action, Unforgiven and Wyatt Earp. Hackman brings all this experience and gravitas to this role. I believed every snarl, every verbal attack, every military command that Hackman gives as Ramsey. Even Tony Scott’s trademark close -up shots don’t give anything away, Hackman’s face is focused and full of rage. Hackman’s performance does not falter or slip throughout the film. You can tell how invested he is in this part. I honestly think that this is Gene Hackman’s career best performance.
Denzel Washington as Hunter
There is no doubt in my mind that Washington is one of the greatest actors of all time. Seriously name a film that Denzel is the worst actor in, or is a bad film?
Throughout his career Denzel’s MO has been to pick parts that are character driven to provide the focal point on him. It’s a strategy he started early in his career with films like Glory, Malcom X, Much Ado About Nothing, Philadelphia and Crimson Tide.
Lt Commander Hunter is a well-educated officer, equally adept at philosophical debate, decision making, and combat. He is man that believes in following the rules but can also reason against the rules for the greater cause. His personality is summed up in his response to Ramsey about war:
“In my humble opinion, in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself”
It’s easy to see why Denzel signed on for the role.
Denzel’s performance is visceral just like Hackman you believe every word, every action he says. He can go from a light-hearted officer helping with morale to full rage in seconds. Towards the later part of the film there is a scene where Hackman punches Washington in the face, Tony Scott keeps the camera on Denzel who is giving the look of a caged animal that is trying really hard to hold back. It came out after the film was released that that look of anger was in fact real as Hackman had inadvertently landed the punch. Hackman said of the moment that it created a tense atmosphere.
The other reason why Washington’s performance is so good in Crimson Tide is Tony Scott and the producers Simpson and Bruckheimer. Whilst in pre-production they visited a US submarine USS Florida. Whilst in board they captured video of Executive Officer Lieutenant Commander, William Toti, (the Florida’s real Ex O), performing many of the same functions that Denzel Washington carries out in the film. They then gave the tapes to Washington to study and Denzel adapted his performance to emulate Toti.
It’s a performance that made Washington a MTV Movie Award [Nominee] for Best Male Performance (1996)
Crimson Tide Production Values
Sound & Score
Crimson Tide is presented in Dolby PCM 5.1 although not the highest quality Master Audio it has got a superb mix to it. In fact, out Yamaha receiver was able to create a virtual 5.1.2 mix that sounded stunning. The scene where Ramsey assembles his men outside in the midst of a thunderstorm is powerful. The rain lashing down and the subwoofer giving a deep rumble each time it thundered. Once In the submarine the centre channel comes alive with dialogue. However, we get so used to lots of dialogue the once any deep frequencies are called for the bass kicks in and its slightly jarring. Luckily this is only a few scenes. The Surround channels are used sparingly and really add a sense of depth (pardon the pun) to the sound when needed. The Sound was nominated for an Academy Award in 1996 and it is a well-deserved nomination.
Another Oscar nod was for the score. The venerable Hans Zimmer was given the job of scoring Crimson Tide and he rose to the occasion. He created one of the 90’s most recognisable scores, not only that he managed to weave the score in perfectly with the action on screen and the dialogue. Everything was thrown at the score, choirs singing when sailors lined up, through to militaristic pomp and ceremony in scenes in board the Alabama. Just like the film the score starts off slow and ramps up the dramatics as it goes on. Although Hans did not win an Academy Award he did win a much deserved Grammy Award Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television. Well Done Hans!
The Score ‘Crimson Tide’ by Hans Zimmer is available on most platforms to buy/ stream and worth a listen.
Hans Zimmer – Crimson Tide (Live In Prague)
Back in the 90’s I watched Crimson tide on good old blurry VHS tape! Since then, the film has been released on DVD, Blu-Ray, and is now streaming on Disney +. Whilst it has no 4K conversion, Disney’s HD stream is looking excellent, its sharp, the colours are popping, and the detail is there. This is all down to the talents of two men, the first, director Tony Scott, a man famed for his framing of shots from glorious wide shots to his 1/4 zoomed in close ups. Crimson Tide really does play to Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker. Submarines though, pose a big problem; they are dark slabs of metal with no natural light. So how do you film such an interior without the picture being dull, grainy and hard to watch, without having digital cameras that could work in low light? Well, you employ the talents of a great cinematographer, in this case it’s Dariusz Wolski.
Wolski’s only major credit before Crimson Tide was ‘The Crow’, he was a relative newcomer to Hollywood at the time of Crimson’s production. However, the collaboration worked extremely well, Wolski uses the subs ambience to great effect. In Scott’s close up shots Wolski simply used reflections of the subs lighting system to light the faces – m,ostly Green or Red and whilst on paper this sounds horrendous actually it is a genius move. Primarily using one colour to light the subject means the film stock can expose better as green or red wavelengths work extremely well in low light, also coupled with Scott’s direction, the scenes where light is used in this way really immerse the viewer into the Submarine and build up the tension. Its something the American Society of Cinematographers acknowledged in 1996 with a nomination to Wolski for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases. It is a shame I have not been able to locate any 4k restoration, as it is crying out for one.
The interior shots of the sub look excellent, conveying a small claustrophobic space. However, the outside shots of the Alabama look like an obvious model digitised into graphics. Its more mid to late 80’s Hollywood than mid 90’s. Don’t forget by this point Terminator 2 had already come out and turned a man into liquid metal. The producers could have opted for more enhanced effects. However just like Shakespeare it’s the dialogue that is the star of the show and not the effects. Just as well really.
In true Bruckheimer style the inspiration for this submarine movie came not from a Hollywood studio but from a documentary. In fact, it was a Discovery Channel, 4 part series about Russian Submarine B-59.
In midst of the Cold War B-59 lost contact with Russian commanders and considered firing nuclear missiles at the American fleet. However, Russian protocol dictated that 3 officers needed to approve of the launch. As they all did not concur, no weapons were fired.
Producers Bruckheimer and Don Simpson set about turning this gem of an idea into a Submarine movie, enlisting the help of the US Navy. Michael Shiffer was brought on board to write a screenplay. The initial idea being worked on was to make the sub movie about the crew battling with a rogue computer, intent on launching Trident missiles. However after a research visit to USS Florida inspired a rethink, Schiffer reworked the story enlisting Naval thriller specialist Richard P. Henrick. They brought the story closer to the events of B-59, rather than recreating Kubrick’s 2001 on a sub.
The script the team created is dripping with both dramaticism and realism. To a non-naval person it appears that the cast know their Navy jargon; talking about EAM’s, One SQ’s down bubble. I have no idea what any of it means but I believe what they are saying and that’s the sign of excellent writing. The other tour deforce of the script is the two protagonists in the film. Washington and Hackman have the most dialogue and a true war of words. Shiffer has managed to distil two distinct personalities with no ambiguity between the two. One uses brash words and is hot headed verging on the point of mania, the other reserved, more considered in his thought process. Its cleverly written and would work as well on stage as well as it does on film. In fact, it’s a wonder no one has ever adapted it.
Thoughts On Crimson Tide
I started rewatching Crimson Tide after being reminded of its existence by BBC Drama Vigil. Vigil shares similarities in plot points:
- Death on board – ✔
- Comms down – ✔
- Messages not received – ✔
- XO – VS Captain – ✔.
But the similarities end there, whilst Vigil looks like a submarine with acres of space and a bridge as big as the enterprise the Alabama in contrast is a cramped, uninviting, intense war machine.
Tony Scott brought together award-winning cinematographers, sound designers, a cast that all bring their ‘A’ game and created a gripping thriller. The word Mutiny is used in very much a throwaway line in Crimson Tide and that’s how it should be. This is a film that is not about mutiny, it’s a film about differing Ideologies that share the same basis. Both men could destroy the world by how they interpret the rules laid down by the Navy. One with such a narrowminded view he is unable to accept any input, the other seeks to understand, so is happy to question the grey areas of what’s being asked of him.
And that’s just it, both men are correct in how they view the rulebook and interpret the rules. Officially there is no right or wrong answer, unofficially they both create one hell of a mess.
It’s a tour de force from Scott on how you can take the smallest of environments and tell a gripping story.
The US Navy provided USS Florida until they found out the story had changed from rogue computer to mutiny,. The french then helped out!
Warren Beatty, riding on success of Dick Tracy and Bugsy and 1992 Oscar winner Al Pacino had been top of the list to play Captain Ramsey. So glad they didn’t work out!
Tony Scott managed to get some footage of the Alabama and the footage may have snuck into the film without Navy consent!
Age Rating 15
Release Date 12, May 1995
Running Time 1 hr 56 min
Director Tony Scott
Writer Michael Schiffer
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer
Producer Don Simpson
Composer Hans Zimmer
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski
Denzel Washington as Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter, Executive Officer (XO)
Gene Hackman as Captain Frank Ramsey, Commanding Officer (CO)
George Dzundza as Chief of the Boat Walters (COB)
Matt Craven as Lieutenant Roy Zimmer, Communications Officer (COMMO)
Viggo Mortensen as Lieutenant Peter Ince, Weapons Officer (WEPS)
James Gandolfini as Lieutenant Bobby Dougherty, Supply Officer (SUPPO)
Rocky Carroll as Lieutenant Darik Westerguard, Operations Officer (OPS)
Jaime P. Gomez as Officer of the Deck Mahoney (OOD)
Michael Milhoan as Chief of the Watch Hunsicker (CPOOW)
Scott Burkholder as Tactical Supervising Officer Billy Linkletter (TSO)
Danny Nucci as Petty Officer Danny Rivetti, Sonar Supervisor
Lillo Brancato, Jr. as Petty Officer Third Class Russell Vossler, Radio Operator
Rick Schroder as Lieutenant Paul Hellerman, Damage Control Officer
Steve Zahn as Seaman William Barnes
Mark Christopher Lawrence as Leading Culinary Specialist Rono
Ryan Phillippe as Seaman Grattam
Eric Bruskotter as Bennefield
Daniel von Bargen as Vladimir Radchenko, Russian ultra-nationalist leader
Jason Robards as Rear Admiral Anderson (uncredited)
Jim Reid Boyce as Diving Officer
Editor for Silver Hedgehog JJ
Images Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
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