With Kursk the latest deepwater disaster to hit the big screen, we plunge into a history of claustrophobia, creaking hulls and deadly phallic warheads


Hot on the heels of HBOs five-parter about the Chernobyl catastrophe comes another story of a tragic accident sparked by cost-cutting and exacerbated by political prevarication. In August 2000, during a Russian naval exercise in the Barents Sea, north of Murmansk, a faulty torpedo exploded in the Kursk a nuclear-powered submarine named after the Russian city that also lent its name to the largest tank battle in history.

Stop reading now if you want to avoid real-life spoilers. The blast instantly killed all crew members in the front two compartments of the submarine, which was sent to the bottom of the sea. Two minutes later, although the nuclear reactor shut down safely, elevated temperatures from the fire detonated as many as seven more torpedos in an explosion that registered 4.2 on the Richter scale as far afield as Alaska, blowing a hole in the bow of the vessel. Of the 118-man crew, 23 survived the explosions and took refuge in the ninth compartment, in the stern of the vessel.

The fate of these men is the subject of Kursk: The Last Mission, an English-language Franco-Belgian co-production directed by a Dane (Thomas Vinterberg), adapted by an American (Robert Rodat, who wrote Saving Private Ryan) from Robert Moores book A Time to Die, and starring a Belgian (Matthias Schoenaerts) as the senior surviving officer. Other nationalities in the pan-European cast include French (La Seydoux as Schoenaerts wife), Austrian (Toni Erdmanns Peter Simonischek) and British (Colin Firth as a Royal Navy CO who looks on in dismay as his offers of help are rejected), as well as assorted Russians, Germans and Scandinavians. Among this last subset is the much-missed Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, two of whose last three films, before he died in 2017, were submarine movies: Kursk and Hunter Killer, a preposterous yarn starring Gerard Butler as a US captain tasked with saving the Russian president from a coup dtat.

John Mills (front) in In Which We Serve, one of his many nautical outings on screen. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox.


Kursk couldn’t be any more different from Hunter Killer, and yet when you make any kind of submarine movie, even a gritty-realist one, its hard to avoid dipping into the genres repertoire of thrilling tropes: claustrophobia, fire and flood, creaking hulls, dwindling oxygen, an unstable crew member. Other tropes not present in Kursk include periscope POV, playing possum, depth charges, silent running, the yell of Dive! Dive! Dive!, giant squids and the actor John Mills, whose several submarine outings include Morning Departure (1950), which depicts fictional events eerily similar to those in Kursk.

Kursk begins in a 1:66 ratio on land before opening out into 2:35 when the action moves out to sea. For the subaquatic scenes, British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who has collaborated with Vinterberg several times, conjures a strange green underwater world. Submarines are nicely suited to widescreen by virtue of their shape, though Ren Clment made outstanding use of the square-ish Academy ratio in Les Maudits (aka The Damned, 1947), a huis clos set at the end of the second world war about a gaggle of Nazis and collaborators fleeing to South America in a U-boat. The film features an extraordinary extended reverse tracking shot in which a kidnapped French doctor is hustled the length of the cramped submarine 34 years before Wolfgang Petersens breathtaking Steadicam-style sprints through the belly of Das Boot (1981).

The phallic symbolism of submarines is fitting for scenarios that tend towards the manly. The pitfalls of introducing women to the equation are well illustrated by Samuel Fullers Hell and High Water (1954), one of the first submarine movies filmed in widescreen, even though it did make the interiors look unfeasibly spacious. The lady scientist (Bella Darvi) makes her entrance in tight skirt and heels, causes fights between crew members, and the story grinds to a halt while she and Captain Richard Widmark indulge in horizontal snogging manoeuvres. In real life, women began serving on US submarines in 2011, and there’s at least one token female crew member in Hunter Killer, but Ill wager we wait a few years before someone gives us a female-centric version of Crimson Tide.

Captain, my captain Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive


After the Kursk sank, the Russian navy waited 11 hours before declaring an emergency, refused help from Norwegian and British rescue teams, and tried to blame the accident on a collision with a foreign vessel. But over the following week, news of the struggle to reach survivors leaked out and caught the imagination of the world. Unlike the rescues of the Chilean miners or the Thai footballer team, however, there was to be no happy ending. There is debate about how long the 23 submariners survived (estimates range from a few hours to several days) but no one made it out of the Kursk alive.

Fatally faulty equipment and attempted cover-ups are not exclusive to Russia, of course, though we have yet to see blockbuster movies about, say, the USS Thresher or Challenger space shuttle calamities. But the Soviet era, in particular, seems to lend extra dramatic tension to scenarios such as Chris Gerolmos Citizen X, HBOs superb 1995 film about the hunt for the serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, or Kathryn Bigelows underrated K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), a submarine disaster that has more in common with HBOs Chernobyl (albeit on a much smaller scale) than with Kursk tragedies amplified by politics and nationalistic pride but also marked by astonishing acts of heroism and integrity.

Kursk does well to present the grim facts from the viewpoints of the doomed crew and their families, but it pulls its punches. The disaster was a PR nightmare for Vladimir Putin, then just three months into his presidency, who was on holiday at his Black Sea villa and failed to return to Moscow until four days after the accident. Six days later, his meeting with the bereaved families lurched out of control when he was yelled at by grief-stricken relatives. One dead mariners mother who refused to be quiet was forcibly sedated and dragged away, an event caught on film, though edited out of broadcasts in Russia.

Kim Jong Un
Going nuclear Erwin Leder in Das Boot. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia/Sportsphoto Ltd


The incident is recreated in Kursk but instead of Putin being put on the spot, it is Max von Sydows Admiral Vladimir Petrenko. Putin, though he featured in Rodats original screenplay, is conspicuous by his absence. One theory is that the production company, Luc Bessons EuropaCorp, was worried about being hacked, mindful of what happened to Sony in 2014 after the unflattering portrayal of Kim Jong-un in the Seth Rogen comedy The Interview. Following the Kursk tragedy, Putin furiously denounced TV and newspaper coverage, and tightened his grip on Russian media.

Meanwhile, for anyone curious about the everyday reality of submarine life, I recommend the fascinating Redditors who have served in submarines thread, which tells you everything you always wanted to know about hot racking and pressurised toilet blowback. The most surprising revelation is that the most realistic submarine movie is not, as you might have expected, the gritty masterpiece Das Boot, but the 1996 slapstick comedy Down Periscope, starring Kelsey Grammer as a captain with Welcome aboard tattooed on his penis.







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