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Military March: The Frogmen (1951)

We’re off to war this month. Every Friday in March we will look at a classic World War II film. This week Adam and Samantha discuss Fox's tribute to an Underwater Demolition Team.

SAMANTHA: The Frogmen is the story of a small group of the navy who work underwater scouting and destroying defenses that might make it impossible for American troops to land in enemy territory. The all-male cast includes Richard Widmark who is in charge of a group of men who don’t respect him; he struggles to earn their loyalty. Dana Andrews is the most belligerent, so naturally they find themselves forced to work together to diffuse a dud torpedo. Gary Merrill, Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner are other recognizable faces in the cast. Wagner got the role after another up-and-coming actor took a suspension when he refused the part. That actor’s agent called Wagner and told him he would be a fool to take the role, hoping he could hold out for his client to get more money. Wagner took the part, and told Screenland magazine he learned a lot on the film, and got a lot of encouragement from Widmark which bolstered his confidence.

ADAM: Every cast member is so good here that after watching I found myself researching them one-by-one to see who served in the military and who did not. Although the uniform seemed to fit Widmark especially well, I had to be reminded that a damaged eardrum kept him out of the service. Conversely, the silver screen’s most swoon-worthy Jesus, Jeffrey Hunter, did indeed serve in the Navy for a year.

Besides the actors you mentioned, it’s worth praising Harvey Lembeck as the requisite wisecracking Brooklynite. I was also pleased to see the great Jack Warden (who served from 1938-46, ultimately attaining the rank of Staff Sergeant) pop up in the opening scene as the belligerent sailor hosing down these prima donnas of the Underwater Demolition Team.

S: This is an entertaining film and the close camera work makes you feel as if you’re there along with these guys on their missions. We don’t get especially intimate with any of the characters or learn much about their backstories, but we like them. It helps having recognizable actors in the roles.

A: It plays like a heist film with its focus on covert missions done by egotistical experts. This group were predecessors to today’s equally mythologized Navy SEALS. Their motto is: “Fearless! Red-blooded! Death-defying! He-men!” Widmark browbeats the ragtag group but it’s obvious from the beginning that they will live up to their promise. The missions are suspenseful and shot with precision. The way they deploy the men by rolling off a raft and subsequently lassoing them back into boat is shown in documentary-style detail which points to the fact that this film was made with the “active cooperation” of the Department of Defense and the United States Navy. These sequences are clearly a combination of filmed military drills, location shooting with the actors, process shots, and scenes done at water tanks in a soundstage. It’s a marvel of post-production by 20th Century Fox’s editor William Reynolds.

S: Don’t watch this movie if you get seasick. The camera is constantly rocking, even in the interior scenes.

A: You mentioned earlier that this movie has an all-male cast, but it should be emphasized that there are absolutely no women in this movie. The other oddity about The Frogmen is the lack of land. Except for one brief moment, it takes place entirely on or in the water. So, if you have an aversion to women and solid ground, this is the movie for you!

S: This movie would look very different if it was made today. Men looked like real people back then. They were young and fit but not artificial. Today they’d all be gym-rat muscular with lots of tattoos. These guys have varying degrees of chest hair. They’re thin and some of their chests are flabby. These men are a thousand times more attractive than the bloated science experiments of today. Give me the good old days!

A: I appreciated how these guys looked almost indistinguishable from real soldiers. Jeffrey Hunter’s character even has a tattoo of an eagle on his arm which looks like it could have been done on a Naval base circa '43.

S: The underwater sequences are exciting and interesting, but they’re also slightly dark. This film would have benefitted from being shot in color. The final mission is almost entirely silent, aside from the sounds of the water, which makes it much more intense and perilous. Andrews told a Photoplay reporter the water was freezing and the shoot was uncomfortable, but the locations look tropical and warm. Norfolk, Virginia and the Virgin Islands stood in for the South Pacific.

A: Maybe its because I used headphones while watching this, but I was especially struck by the sound design. The shifting back and forth between the above-water sound and the otherworldly underwater sounds is effective. How could an average moviegoer know what mortar shells exploding in the distance sounds like underwater? It took a staggering mixture of creativity and technical skill to reproduce and mix all these sounds in a studio to make this immersive experience. I recommend going back to just listen to the scene where they’re diffusing the torpedo. The tension is fully maintained by the sound: the rushing water, the wrenching noise of removing the cover, and that snap that ends the scene. This is all due to an unsung master technician on the Fox lot, Roger Heman Sr. He was also responsible for the brilliant sound in Niagara, which we just watched a few weeks back. If you want some next-level trivia, Heman’s son followed in his father’s footsteps and was rewarded with an Oscar for his sound design on Jaws.

S: Trade magazines recommended theaters set up peep-hole displays where patrons could see enlarged images of the frogmen wearing their flippers and helmets behind glass fishbowls, kind of a kitschy way to advertise a serious film.

A: They should have recommended putting Navy recruiting stations right outside the exit of the theater. It’s solid as an action picture, but I surmise The Frogmen was produced with the intention of drumming up interest in a military career for a new generation of recruits. With that purpose in mind, the Department of Defense was more than willing to loan out their “props” to Darryl Zanuck. There is no kissing, no crying, and no scenes of worried mothers. This Spartan movie concerns itself with coral poisoning, explosives, and underwater trip wires. It’s really cool! A solid three-stars.

S: An entertaining and satisfying way to spend an hour and a half, The Frogmen earns 3 stars from me.

Be sure to join us Fridays in April for April Fools, a series featuring comedy characters.

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