As Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) reminded us, America in the 1950s could be an uncomfortable and unpleasant time. Not yet fully recovered from the physical horrors of World War II and deep into the psychological terror that was spread about Communism and the threat of nuclear war, this was a time of paranoia, mistrust and fear. So much so, in fact, that when Samuel Fuller used stock footage of an American nuclear test in the opening credits of Hell and High Water (1954) he was forced by the American government to remove certain colours from the negative in case it revealed secrets of the bombs’ chemical composition to the enemy. I repeat: paranoia, mistrust and fear. But then again Samuel Fuller’s films often dealt with controversial or uncomfortable themes. Known initially for writing and directing Westerns and war films, Fuller often dealt with damaged individuals on the margins of society: criminals, soldiers, prostitutes and mental patients. These were compromised people dealing with compromised situations.
During the Cold War paranoia of the 1950s and 60s, Fuller managed to do his own thing by surviving on the fringes of Hollywood mostly with low budgets. His third film, The Steel Helmet (1951), was made about the Korean War. It was released as the war was continuing, and was thus heavily criticised for being pro-Communist and anti-American. But Fuller based this film on the relevant experiences of returning solders as well as his own experience of World War II. He would continue to draw on his wartime experiences as inspiration for several of his later films, The Big Red One (1980) in particular. Here was an epic in terms of its length and scope. It was shot in Fuller’s trademark style: lean, direct, realistic and hard-boiled. This style, with all its inherent strengths and weaknesses, is also in full evidence in Hell and High Water (1954).
To a modern audience there is something just a little bit Austin Powers to the plot of Hell and High Water. However, in many ways that is exactly what makes it worth watching. The story perfectly bridges the time between the devastation of Japan at the end of World War II to the escalation of the Cold War, which eventually led to ‘Operation Mongoose’ and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even the technology on display in this film is a weird mixture of war surplus and future tech: reconditioned submarines, experimental atomic weapons, machine-pistols, secret-island bases. Of course, given the time of its release, and the fact that this was a Fuller movie, the whole thing is delivered with such earnestness that you cannot help but be swept along.
The plot is classic Cold War stuff. Nuclear scientists are disappearing, which was a common problem at the time. The good guys – that portion of the world not yet behind the Iron Curtain in other words – are worried that those precious scientists are defecting to the Commies. In this world of mistrust, a secret meeting takes place between a group of scientists, businessmen and state representatives. They believe that Communist China is building a secret atomic base on an island to the far north of Japan. In order to obtain proof, they hire Richard Widmark, playing an ex-captain of submarines, and repair an old Japanese submarine to undertake a mission to survey the island and find out exactly what sort of evil the Commies are up to. Of course this being a popcorn movie, a French nuclear scientist and his lovely female assistant come along for the ride, joining with the standard crew of lovable American rogues with hearts of gold. There are naval battles over and under the waves, as well as daring escapes, rescues, sacrifices, and all the while the threat of nuclear war looms over the world. If that isn’t enough for your Saturday afternoon taste buds, then keep in mind that the whole thing is presented in CinemaScope.
Hell and High Water was intended as a vehicle to showcase the potential for CinemaScope. It was used to effect intense claustrophobic settings, like the inside of a submarine for example. Previously it had been mainly used to put huge landscapes onto the screen. Fuller, continuing his quest for authenticity, spent some time inside a working submarine to get a feel for how it all worked and how it might be used effectively in the story. The result is some of the best submarine sequences this side of Das Boot (1981). Okay, so it doesn’t stretch to the grimy realism of that German classic but Hell and High Water might just manage to be the best ‘sub versus sub’ battles ever committed to celluloid.
Submarine movies have always been closely tied to the Cold War spy setting. The Hunt for Red October (1990) managed something epic and grandiose. Crimson Tide (1995) is all shouty tension and sweaty claustrophobia. Ice Station Zebra (1968) is the definitive Cold War submarine caper. Of course on top of that, there are all the movies which deal with submarines and their use in World War II. As I said before, Hell and High Water bridges the gap with a Cold War plot and a post-war setting. But this is also where the film runs into problems. It tries on one hand to be the kind of gung-ho war film familiar to audiences at the time, while also incorporating the mistrust of the emerging era. The combination doesn’t always work. This is most evident in the portrayal of the Communist Chinese who are little more than cartoon bad guys plotting their evil on a secret island. Remember that China was allied to the US in World War II but then suffered internal discord between their Communists and Nationalists.
There is something of a proto-Bond film in the story of Hell and High Water. It lacks the suave central character and instead places a rough and ready submarine captain with his crew of caricatures as the leads. Even the central romance between Widmark and Bella Darvi seems like a forced addition. There is no chemistry between them and there is a lack of meaningful reason for them to get together – this is the least romantic situation they could possibly be in, right? Why do they even get together? Because he’s the star of the movie and she is the only female in it, that’s why. That being said Darvi won a Golden Globe for her role.
There are many ways in which the film has dated, not least being the special effects. However, in every sense Hell and High Water is a film of its time and that is not entirely a bad thing. Its plot and characters would make little sense outside of the time and place portrayed in the movie. The look of the movie, from the CinemaScope interiors to the model work special effects, was all cutting edge for the time. It was nominated for two Academy Awards for special effects. Fuller directs the movie with a hard, gritty realism which later Cold War adventure movies would avoid. Think of the colourful sets and tropical locations of the early Bond films. The combination of director, setting, stars and story manage to make Hell and High Water something almost unique and very watchable…if only for a Saturday afternoon.