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Movie Review

The Hunley

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Reviewed by: Brett Willis

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Primary Audience:
Teen to Adult
War Docudrama
1 hr. 34 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Relevant Issues
Featuring: Armand Assante, Donald Sutherland, Alex Jennings, Christopher Bauer, Gerry Becker, Michael Dolan, Sebastian Roché, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director: John Gray
Producer: Mitch Engel, George Manasse, Andrew Adelson, Tracey Alexander
Distributor: Adelson Entertainment/TNT Originals

This is the dramatized true story of the C.S.S. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in war. I was impressed with the historical detailing, the special effects, the human drama and heroism element, the intriguing use of flashbacks, and the filmmakers’ decision to leave the story politically neutral and not toss in an anti-Confederate slant.

As the film opens in 1864, the Hunley (still in test phase) is diving out of control to the bottom of Charleston Harbor and drowning its crew, including its own inventor Capt. Hunley (Cal Johnson). This is the second crew that’s been lost. After the vessel is retrieved, command of the Hunley project passes to Lt. Dixon (Armand Assante). He and Lt. Alexander (Alex Jennings) refurbish the ship and recruit a new crew in a last desperate attempt to break the Federal blockade. From the video’s opening publicity about the project to raise the real-life Hunley (located in 1995), we already know that this crew is going to die also. The only thing in doubt is the details.

The challenges of piloting a submerged fighting ship made from a converted steam boiler, and of propelling her several miles with only a hand crank, are shown in thorough detail. Aside from the main story, the subplot of the relationship between Lt. Dixon and his deceased wife (Caprice Benedetti) is effectively told with the help of flashbacks and dream and fantasy sequences, most of them in black and white.

Assante’s performance is excellent, as are those of Sebastian Roché as Irish recruit Collins and Christopher Bauer as the dim-witted but loyal Simkins. Also worthy of mention is Donald Sutherland as Genl. Pierre T. Bauregard. Though versatile, Sutherland has thrived on playing cold-fish type characters whether heroes or villains. [In the Sci-fi film “The Puppet Masters” it was hard to tell whether Sutherland’s character had been possessed by an alien or not, because his personality didn’t really change that much.] At first it appears that the portrayal of Bauregard will be along those same lines. But eventually, Bauregard shows some very touching human emotion.

Content Warnings: There’s war violence including the repeated shelling of the city of Charleston, the battles between the Hunley and the blockading vessels, and the on-screen drowning of two crews (plus a twist at the end, which I won’t give away). Also some fighting among the Hunley crew, and between the crew and other Confederate Navy personnel. Profanity consists of a few d*, h* and s.o.b., plus one possible f* (slurred). There’s no explicit sexual content. Dixon, still attached to his dead wife, has no interest in other women. Bauregard is also a grieving widower, but unlike Dixon he blocks out his sorrow by skirt-chasing. In one scene, several of the Hunley crew are seen at a bar with prostitutes (but no back-room activity is shown). The strong-as-an-ox Simkins (married) doesn’t want to do what his buddies are doing, but doesn’t have the guts to take a stand either; so he asks Lt. Dixon to order him back to barracks as an “out,” thereby avoiding having to either buy flesh or be ridiculed.

Although the men, like soldiers in all eras, engage in quarrels and outside diversions, they’re strictly business when in battle. They fight for what they believe in, with no regard for their own safety (there should be no question about the courage of anyone who’d go to war in a contraption like the Hunley).

I believe this film was worthy of theatrical release rather than the straight-to-cable-and-video treatment. But action pictures, thrillers and romantic comedies are the top box office draws and therefore get the highest priority; serious dramas and especially period pieces are at the bottom of the pecking order. Had it been released theatrically, the rating would probably have been PG-13. I recommend it for historical interest and as drama.

The real Hunley was recovered and began to be internally excavated in spring 2001, under a strict media blackout in military respect to the crew.

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