by Symeon J. Thompson
There’s an old military adage repeated in different forms – “amateurs talk about tactics, while professionals study logistics”.
This gets to the real heart of the matter when it comes to war. If you cannot ensure your people are supplied, then there’s only so long they can last, no matter how good their training and equipment is, or whatever other natural strategic advantages they have. In fact, one of the main categories of military strategy is exhaustion – eroding the will and ability of the enemy to fight by denying them access to things they need to survive.
A classic example of this is the unrestricted submarine warfare practised by Germany in both world wars. Teams of U-boat hunter-killer submarines would target supply convoys from America heading to Europe via the Atlantic Ocean. At a certain point known as the “Black Pit”, the convoy would be too far from shore for air cover and they would be reliant on the escort ships to keep the supply ships safe.
This is when the wolfpack would strike. The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign of World War II and the one with the most impact. The Germans sank 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships, leading Churchill to remark he was more worried about U-boats than about the Battle of Britain.
Now streaming on AppleTV+ is the taut and terse Greyhound, starring, and written by, Tom Hanks. Based on C.S. Forester’s – of Horatio Hornblower fame – 1955 novel, The Good Shepherd, the film depicts the nerve-wracking February 1942 Atlantic crossing of a convoy under the protection of the USS Keeling, which had the call sign “Greyhound”, commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks) in his first wartime command.
We first see Krause on his knees in prayer, with the first words spoken by an actor in this film those of entreaty to God for protection. This is a different sort of war film, with a different sort of hero. Krause is a quiet, deliberate man, decisive without being overbearing, compassionate without losing his martial edge, troubled without being overwhelmed.
The film itself is extraordinary in its minimalism. Unlike most war films, which build their emotional and intellectual impact on backstories and explanations, it is a near-mechanical ballet of event after event, explained with as little exposition as possible. Apart from a brief flashback between Krause and his love interest Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue) all we see takes place at sea and a large portion of it has the Commander front and centre.
It is an action film but not one that glories in destruction and stunts. Instead, its focus is on the personal toll of command, as seen in the faces of the men themselves.
This creates a narrative and emotional economy that focuses the audience on the experience of being on the ships, and more specially being with Krause himself. The effect is as close to a first-person narrative as a film can get without turning to voice-overs. Details here and there reinforce the deeply personal focus, like Krause switching to the leather slippers Evelyn gave him as a going-away present because he has not rested throughout the attacks.
The problem with such an approach is that it requires a lot from its viewers. Since the film dispenses with most exposition, the audience must remain alert, and it helps if they have some familiarity with the Battle of the Atlantic and its significance.
Although the film is fictional, most of what it depicts is reasonably accurate, so much so that U.S. Navy veterans have commended the film. The biggest discrepancy is the mocking radio messages from the wolfpack. The U-boats didn’t bother with such theatrics.
A key takeaway from the film is the genuine decency of Krause and the example he sets. He is the good man, the good sheepdog defending his flock from the predations of wolves.
But at a geostrategic level, the film is a reminder of the importance of seaborne shipping. Most international trade goes by sea, and so freedom of the seas is necessary for the freedom of the peoples on land.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).