When it’s on: Thursday, 14 June (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
Back in my University days, I did a Politics module about international relations during the Cold War that gave us a decent grounding in the big picture but failed to provide much insight into the sensibilities of the atomic era. This has been filled in by popular culture from the time and even in more recent, 1980s efforts when East-West relations took a chilly turn and the likes of Threads and When the Wind Blows tapped into the real dangers of what might happen if one side took a single step over the line.
It’s certainly difficult these days to imagine the real fear felt by ordinary people in the decades following World War Two, let alone what went through the minds of those patrolling the faultlines. The latter is explored in The Bedford Incident, a thriller made in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. The eponymous USS Bedford is a destroyer hunting Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic. Shot in black and white and given a documentary feel with little use of music, the film focuses on two central characters. The first is Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark), the Bedford’s captain. Facing him is Sidney Poitier’s urbane reporter, Ben Munceford, on board to profile Finlander and get a feel for Cold War engagements.
The film is told principally from Munceford’s perspective. Though Poitier isn’t in every scene (that said, he’s often lurking in the background, quietly taking it all in), it’s made clear that what we see of Finlander and his crew is from the point of view of an outsider. Life on the ship is made out to be strange and different. Munceford is airlifted in with the ship’s new doctor, Chester Potter (Martin Balsam), who marvels at the fact none of the crew ever take time off sick. A research team – which includes a brief appearance from a young Donald Sutherland – constantly pores through waste deposited in the sea by Russian ships for clues. What emerges is a captain who runs his boat and everyone on it with an iron fist. A true cold warrior, Finlander continually berates crew members who make a mistake and, when the threat of a nearby sub arrives, pushes everyone to the limit in pursuing it.
Whilst Poitier is perfectly fine in a role that doesn’t challenge him, Widmark owns the film from the minute he appears. It’s obvious his character inspired the sadistic marine commander played by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. As I watched Finlander, Nicholson’s famous rhetoric about needing him on that wall stuck with me, only the captain’s even more dangerous because he’s on ‘the wall’ at the very moment Munceford arrives on his ship. He clearly despises his reporter guest. The withering look Widmark produces whenever Munceford asks him anything is utterly delightful – these are men from absolutely different worlds, with nothing at all in common. The film doesn’t even need to make anything of Poitier’s colour, simply filming the pair of them to add that extra layer of cultures colliding.
The ‘incident’ in the title refers to the culmination of the Bedford’s submarine hunt. This dominates the running time, with very little happening for swathes of the film as the ship relies on nothing but its sonar for traces of the Soviets. The pursuit through the ice, during which there’s a very real possibility the submarine has given Finlander the slip, is visually arresting, as are the brief appearances of its periscope. Relentlessly chasing and teasing a nuclear vessel creates its own tension, which builds as the submarine needs to surface, the Bedford closing in like a school bully. This is suspense that will either lapse like the missile crisis or get worse, and with two boats perfectly capable of obliterating each other we’re left with a powder keg of trouble.
I wasn’t prepared for the film’s end, a bold finish that actually pays off those many minutes of men stood around, staring at screens or the freezing waters, the camera returning sporadically to the clock to show the passing of time during which Finlander keeps his men effectively on red alert. Tony Scott’s submarine thriller from the 1990s, Crimson Tide, carries shades of The Bedford Incident, but it’s a sign of the thirty year gulf in audience expectations that the latter carries more gloss, swearing and violence whilst having much less to say for itself.
The Bedford Incident: ***