Thursday, October 20, 2022

No Longer the Enemy: The Pro-German Message of The Enemy Below

By Zac Cunningham
School Programs Educator

A classic of the submarine film genre, The Enemy Below depicts an intense battle between the U.S. Navy destroyer escort USS Haynes and a German U-boat in the South Atlantic during World War II. Robert Mitchum plays the destroyer’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Murrell, and Curt Jurgens portrays the U-boat’s commander, Kapitän zur See Von Stolberg. The fictional USS Haynes is portrayed in the movie by the real life USS Whitehurst (DE 634), a Buckley-class destroyer escort that saw substantial action in the Pacific during the war. Based on the 1956 novel of the same name by British naval officer Denys Rayner, the film was directed by Dick Powell and released by 20th Century-Fox on Christmas Day 1957.

The Enemy Below theatrical poster (20th Century-Fox)

USS Whitehurst (DE 634) portrayed USS Haynes in the film (NHHC)

In the film, the veteran officers portrayed by Mitchum and Jurgens ferociously fight to destroy each other and their ships but, during the battle, each man gains a respect for the other's courage, audacity, and intellect. Both men hate war and what it forces them to do. (Jurgens’ character has no sympathy for Hitler and the Nazis.) Nevertheless, they wage their war to the best of their abilities because they have no other choice.

Robert Mitchum as Murrell and Carl Jurgens as Von Stolberg (

The Enemy Below has proven fairly influential as a submarine film and features some of the genre’s familiar tropes. Haynes ramming the German submarine echoes the ramming a Q-ship by the American sub in the 1951 John Wayne movie Operation Pacific. The German crew’s singing overheard on sonar is echoed when the Russian crew is similarly heard singing in The Hunt for Red October. Most notably, The Enemy Below inspired a foundational Original Series episode of Star Trek. Titled “Balance of Terror,” the episode aired in 1966 and featured the Enterprise and Captain Kirk in the destroyer role and the Romulans (in their first appearance in the series) with their cloaking device in the role of the U-boat.

What’s more interesting than The Enemy Below’s influence on the submarine film genre is the movie’s decidedly Cold War-era pro-German message.

In the mid-1950s, the U.S. and its allies were ending their punitive postwar occupation of West Germany and working to integrate the country into their anti-Soviet alliance. In 1955, West Germany once again became a sovereign nation officially recognized by the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, and other Western European nations. At that same time, West Germany joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Then, in 1957 – the same year that The Enemy Below was released – West Germany joined with France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg to form the European Economic Community, the forerunner of today’s European Union.

Symbols of and allusions to the Cold War-driven rehabilitation and integration of West Germany are prevalent in The Enemy Below, especially in the movie’s final ten minutes.

As the film moves towards its close, the destroyer and U-boat are both fatally wounded and the two crews, Americans and Germans together, end up in a shared lifeboat. They leave the battle behind them and are now all safe even though the sea burns around them. The subtext here is that the United States and West Germany must put the Second World War behind them and become allies in a dangerous world where the fire of communism is spreading everywhere.

A lifeboat full of American and German crew members flees the sinking destroyer and U-boat as the sea burns around them. (20th Century-Fox)

As the crews escape, Murrell literally throws a rope to Von Stolberg and the American and German captains unite to try and save the German's executive officer and best friend. The friend dies anyway, symbolizing the Soviet Union’s subjugation of East Germany.

After rescue, the German and American crews are shown together again and all wearing the same uniforms (Hey, we're on the same side now!) as they bury the dead German officer at sea. The American ship's doctor sees this cooperation as a reason to hope that the world is not destined for total destruction and death.

German and American crews come together to bury a German officer. (20th Century-Fox)

In the movie’s final scene, the Mitchum and Jurgens characters share a cigarette as Von Stolberg observes, "I should have died many times, Captain, but I continue to survive somehow. This time it was your fault." West Germany survives thanks to the United States. Murrell suggests, "Next time, I won't throw you the rope," but the German knowingly replies, "I think you will." The film is saying that the U.S will save West Germany if the Russians invade because Americans are a decent people who would honor their promises.

Von Stolberg (Jurgens) and Murrell (Mitchum) share a cigarette (20th Century-Fox)

Ultimately, The Enemy Below is as action-filled and suspenseful a movie as you'll find among submarine films. More importantly, it is an excellent artifact – and a decently sophisticated one at that – of Cold War cultural efforts to rehabilitate the Germans and Germany in the eyes of the American people.


Ernie Nucup said...

This movie had better than average acting and decent actors, and one of the best sea service themed movies. And this blog brings reality by juxtaposition of real events and ships with the fictional ones on the movie. BZ!

John Roc said...

Really i like the way of your blog post content, it's a good information..

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