Monday, June 25, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Bedford Incident" (1965)

Here's something that occasionally happens, and I'm not sure if it speaks well or ill of me. I'll start watching a movie, usually a classic one, that I think I've never seen. After a while -- sometimes as much as halfway through -- I'll start to realize that I have watched it before, and somehow banished the experience from memory.

Usually, of course, that means that I didn't particularly appreciate the movie the first time around, otherwise it would have stuck in the mind.

That was my experience with "The Bedford Incident," a 1965 Cold War cautionary tale that warns against the dangers of deterrence and mutually assured destruction, the two principles that largely guided U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union and its other adversaries. An overly aggressive destroyer captain played by Richard Widmark pushes an enemy sub into a desperate situation where nuclear weapons are eventually unleashed, and everyone on both vessels are killed.

This line of argument is what's known in Latin as reductio ad absurdum, i.e. an attempt to show a line of thinking is faulty by following its implications to an absurd conclusion. It's generally a silly exercise that proves very little, other than presupposing some exceedingly unlikely outcomes.

Captain Eric Finlander (Widmark) clearly is supposed to be a modern Ahab, chasing his white whale with obsessive zeal. Of course, one doesn't generally rise far in the military by repeatedly disobeying orders and bending the rules, but that's exactly the sort of commander Finlander is. Recently passed over for promotion to admiral, we wonder how he ever made it past ensign.

"Bedford" is based on a book by Mark Rascovich, with a screenplay by James Poe. This was the first directorial credit for James B. Harris, who had been Stanley Kubrick's producer for a number of years before they had a falling out. Kubrick would go on to make "Dr. Strangelove" in 1964, an absurdist comedy with similar themes about the Cold War.

If you've never seen "Fail-Safe," you should check it out. It's a virtual carbon copy of the plot of "Strangelove," about a rogue plane erroneously sent on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia, and the American president must decide whether to shoot down its own plane. Except, of course, it's a straight, dour drama.

"Bedford" is a close cousin to "Fail-Safe," and about as effective in a stodgy sort of way. It's notable for Widmark's performance as a twisted man who sees himself as heroic, a bully who squashes other in the name of duty. In terms of dramatic tension, though, it's something of a bust.

The film starts with the arrival of two people on the U.S.S. Bedord: the new ship's doctor, Chester Potter (Martin Balsam), a long-retired reservist recalled to active duty; and Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier), a famous newsmagazine journalist. Potter is excited about returning to ship duty, but it's soon quashed by the indifference and contempt of Finlander, who sees no purpose in even having a doctor aboard his ship. After all, his men are too cowed to ever report to sick call, and the aluminum construction of the Bedford makes it unlikely to survive long in a firefight, anyway.

The role of Munceford in the story is hard to fathom. Given the star power of Poitier in 1965, one would think he's set up as the protagonist with Widmark as the heavy. In execution, though, Munceford is a rather passive character who mostly just hangs around in the background, snapping photographs and taking notes. He and Finlander have a couple of blow-ups early in the movie, then an "interview" that's fairly adversarial. But most of the time, he's below decks or out of sight and mind.

Finlander rarely lets his guard down, and rides his men hard. He's particularly brutal toward Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), a green young officer who was a star athlete. Finlander believes he must be chopped down to size in order to improve, but ends up turning the kid into a quivering mistake waiting to happen. Indeed, Ralston dooms them all while working the weapons control and mistakenly hears Finlander order him to "fire one."

Strangely, the one seaman whom Finlander does appear to coddle is a nerdy, skittish type named Queffle (Wally Cox) who's his best sonarman. Queffle expertly tracks the Russian sub for 24 hours straight, until his brain finally overloads and he has to be taken to sick bay.

Also notable is Eric Portman as Wolfgang Schrepke, a German WWII U-boat commander who's aboard as an adviser to Finlander, who clearly regards him with some level of hero worship. He acts as the captain's Svengali, whispering in his ear and attempting (unsuccessfully) to moderate his thinking and actions.

I'm not sure why "The Bedford Incident" did not make an impression on me the first time I saw it. It's a well-acted drama that's never really dull, even if it feels utterly predictable. Still, Widmark's a treat in his role, so lovably hateable.

2.5 stars out of four

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