U-571

Official uboat.net Review

by Tonya Allen

The Good: cool special effects, lots of action
The Not-So-Good: mediocre plot, some technical errors
The Ugly: a scene in which the German U-boat commander orders the execution of a lifeboat full of British sailors.

First off, I am pleased to say my worst fears were not realized. This movie is not a retelling of the capture of the Enigma machine from U-110 with Americans substituted for British. The only thing the historical incident and the movie have in common is that both include an Enigma machine and a U-boat.

The basic premise of the movie is this: It is spring, 1942. (Although not stated explicitly in the movie, this coincides with the implementation of the 4-rotor Enigma machine and the subsequent intelligence blackout which proved quite inconvenient for the Allies.) Allied intelligence learns that a crippled U-boat is awaiting a rendez-vous with a supply submarine. An American World War I S-class submarine and its crew are disguised to resemble that supply submarine, with the goal of boarding the U-boat and seizing the Enigma. Naturally the operation does not go as smoothly as predicted. The American boarding party ends up trapped on the U-boat and must figure out how to get home with their prize.

The special effects, including sound effects, are good, and there are lots of satisfying explosions and interesting underwater camera views. The plot is a bit predictable, and seems to owe a lot to many previous submarine movies, including Das Boot. There are a few technical issues that purists will notice; for example, American S-boats were not actually equipped with radar, an awful lot of bullets were sprayed around the interior of the U-boat without appearing to damage anything vital, and the plan to open the torpedo tubes at a depth of 200 meters seemed ill-advised, to say the least.

One scene was disturbing, however. Early in the film, the U-boat comes upon a lifeboat full of British sailors. The U-boat commander orders his gunner to kill them all, because "The Führer has ordered us not to pick up survivors." It is disappointing to see the myth of U-boats executing occupants of lifeboats perpetuated yet again. Luckily, you need look no further than our own site to read the truth about the Laconia order (which did forbid picking up survivors but did not specify that they be shot, simply that they not be rescued or aided), as well as the only case on record in World War II in which a U-boat purposely fired on survivors in the water.

In general, this is a good action film. It's no Das Boot, but then we knew it wasn't going to be. For one thing, it lacks the emotional impact and suspense of Das Boot; also, the grim wartime mood that pervaded Das Boot is absent from this movie. In fact, for U-571 the World War II setting seems almost incidental, as the plot could be adjusted easily to fit any other twentieth century war, real or fictional, involving submarines.

Even so, the movie ends with a dedication to all the men who served the Allied cause. Lt-Cdr David Balme of HMS Bulldog was credited as a historical consultant, and at the end of the film were listed the three major historical captures of Enigma and/or its codebooks, from U-110, U-559, and U-505.

In sum, this is not really a World War II movie. It's a submarine movie with nonstop action and plenty of explosions. Definitely worth a trip to the theater.

29 April, 2000: One more thing which needs to be mentioned. In an interview in the 23 April Washington Post, the director, Jonathan Mostow, states that the movie Das Boot was "based on a lie" because "[...] it pretended that the captains and crews were submariners first, and only incidentally Nazis. They were dedicated Nazis; they had to be to fight that hard."

As anyone familiar with U-boat history knows, this is nonsense. It is well known that the U-boat arm was the least political of any of the German military branches in World War II. While some U-boat men were indeed confirmed Nazis, many were not. Men fight hard in every war, not for reasons of ideology, but for reasons of personal survival and out of a sense of duty and obligation to their group or unit. Mostow's opinion on this particular topic is just that - an opinion, apparently not founded on any knowledge of U-boat history or military psychology.


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