Making the Squalus Movie Submerged
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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Backstage with director James Keach and the Peter Maas film version of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard submarine accident. We interviewed the director in 2001 just as the made-for-TV movie hit the airwaves. It isn’t Portsmouth, but this straightforward drama tells it like it was.





Behind the Scenes of theFilm "Submerged"

It has been five years since the release of "Submerged", the film about the sinking of the USS Squalus in 1939. Every few weeks since then I’ve gotten an email or a phone call from someone who wants to own a copy of the DVD. I tell them it was a low-budget NBC made for TV movie and, as far as I know, it has never been released. They are disappointed, but then again, so were a lot of Portsmouth-area people who saw the movie on television. The screenplay was based on the Peter Maas book "The Terrible Hours" which was a remake of his own book that appeared decades earlier.

Emily Procter as Frances Naquin on NBC Photo by: Franco BiciocchiSqualus sank mysteriously in 240 feet of cold Atlantic water on a test dive off the Isles of Shoals. Twenty-six men from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard drowned when the engine room flooded. Billed as the only successful submarine rescue in history, the Squalus story centers on Swede Momsen, an iconoclastic Navy engineer who designed the diving suits, escape hatch and diving bell that facilitated the rescue of all 33 surviving crewmen.

Every old timer around here knows the story -- how the submarine was miraculously located by a signal flare in overcast weather, then found using a grappling hook dragged in choppy seas by a towboat. Breathing chlorine gas, at twice normal pressure, the crew survived 27 hours underwater with barely enough air. Momsen's untested diving bell worked in four arduous trips to the ocean floor. During the final dive the cable frayed to a single strand. We know that 114 days later, after three attempts, naval engineers finally raised the Squalus. The refit diesel sub was later recommissioned as USS Sailfish in time for the American entry into World War II.

What people around here don't know is the story behind the film. It took some doing, but I managed to interview director James Keach soon after the film debuted on TV. Keach is a Yale Drama School grad and a classically trained actor, but you probably know him best for his portrayal o f Jessie James in the "Long Riders". His brother Stacy Keach played outlaw brother Frank James. Three Carradine brothers, plus Randy and Dennis Quaid played other outlaw siblings in the film. Keach lives in Malibu with wife even more famous wife Jane Seymour, best known as Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and the James Bond girlfriend Solitaire in "Live and Let Die." The couple has twins. Keach was formerly married to singer Judy Collins' sister. They scored big with last year’s biopic "Walk the Line" with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny and June Cash. Keach played a small role and was a producer. Seymour at 55 still appears frequently on TV dramas and talk shows. But enough gossip.

In Hollywood, work is life, and James Keach works. Besides three dozen screen and TV credits, plus theater work, he writes, directs and produces features that have often included his wife Jane. Keach's producer-friend Stan Brooks purchased film rights to "The Terrible Hours" and shopped it around town. NBC took on the project for $5 million. Brooks' company Once Upon a Dream, hired Keach's company, Catfish Productions. Keach signed veteran actor Sam Neill to play Swede Momsen, and the wheels began to roll.

"I've done a lot of movies with history in them," Keach told me by soon after the release of Submerged. "What we really want to do is honor the men we depict."

Personally, I think Keach succeeded. "Submerged" is a straightforward, not not overly sentimental, telling of this important naval story. The Navy brass and the Squalus survivors who saw an advance screening of the film in Washington DC agreed. "Submerged" tells the tale straight, relying largely on its inherent drama. The plot sails very close to the facts. The film sub looks like the Squalus. Sam Neill's doggedly daring Momsen is a true hero.

Still a number of local armchair film critics and historians I know were less kind. Navy wives and girlfriends, they say, didn't dress up and give their partners a big send-off each time they left for a four-hour sea trial. Momsen was not testing his diving bell (which was more pear-shaped than the one in the film) at the Portsmouth Yard on the day the Squalus sank, as the film implies. Momsen didn't dive into the Atlantic Ocean and hook a rope onto the sinking diving bell. Okay, okay! Obviously these picky people have never read the history plays of Shakespeare who mangled facts like a pitbull when it served his dramatic goals. But when you're shooting pre-WW II submarines at sea with only weeks to deadline, Keach told me, $5 million runs out fast.

"It's all cost connected," he said. "Making movies is expensive, as you know. You have to be insane to shoot something in the open ocean. You have no control. When you're in a tank you create the waves. I'd like to shoot in Portsmouth -- if you had a tank."

The tank Keach was referring to is a massive watery movie set. Keach shot his ocean scenes in three tanks at Mediterranean Studios in Malta. The sets are so close to the ocean that, from the right angle, the actors appear to be at sea instead of in a giant swimming pool. The movie submarine Keach used was recycled from the Hollywood production, "U-571" starring Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel. The interior shots used recycled sets from the same film in a nearby studio in Rome. That's why the opening scene of "Submerged" looks nothing like Portsmouth. It isn't. That too made the local critics wimper.

"The budget for the party for the movie 'Pearl Harbor' cost as much as our whole film. Really!" Keach said. "That film cost more than the Japanese spent on the invasion itself."

Flawed as it may be, "Submerged" joins a small hallowed group of fair-to-middling films drawn from real-life Seacoast New Hampshire history -- but shot somewhere else. That list now includes: The Last Detail, Freak the Mighty, Weight of Water, Northwest Passage, To Die For and others. Only "A Separate Peace" adapted from the John Knowles novel about Phillips Exeter Academy, was actually filmed locally -- and it was a critical flop.

"We all know that Momson was somewhere else," Keach said in response to the Portsmouth history nit-pickers. "In order to tell the story, If you have too many locations, it becomes too episodic and you lose any sort of story sense."

It's the same with characters, he says. A hundred, maybe 200 people were involved in the Squalus story, counting the crew, families and rescuers. But drama is the condensation of people, events and ideas into a flow that audiences can follow. Aristotle makes that clear in his ancient writings on the nature of theater. The same goes for TV. The Squalus story, Keach notes, is actually three stories. The wives wait for news at the officer's club while the men wait aboard the sub to be saved, while Momsen's team tries to solve the puzzle and overcome amazing obstacles. Then there is the fourth story of the news media coverage, which Keach's budget did not allow for.

"The thing that really bothers me is that we didn't have numbers of boats in the water and that the story wasn't all over the news. To get 30 or 40 boats in the water? I said that's what I want. I really wanted more, and they said -- James, we cannot afford to do it. OK, I said. All right."

If you want to keep working in Hollywood, you bring the movie in on budget. A television docu-drama of this size, according to a Hollywood production assistant I spoke with, takes at least two months to post produce. That's the phase where all the titles, footage, computer graphics, music and sounds are glued together. "Submerged" was assembled in two weeks. That's because NBC decided to run their made-for-TV-movie against two other made-for-TV movies in what is called "sweeps" week. That's when the viewer ratings are tested and the winner gets the advertising gravy. It's a bloody battle for numbers. "Submerged" was up against a retelling of the Anne Frank story, a Mary Tyler Moore film, the Sopranos on HBO and the birth of Scully's baby on X-Files. According to Variety, the Hollywood bible, Keach's film fared admirably against the competition. It didn't win, but it didn't get hammered either.

Then like the Squalus, "Submerged" sank quickly from view. The day after its May 1971 premiere on NBC TV, the movie was nowhere to be found, even in the network's own Internet database. But it has resurfaced time and time again since. The USA Network purchased rights to broadcast it five times. Whomever owns it now, runs it fairly often on cable, and every time they do – I get email.

At the Washington screening of "Submerged", Squalus survivor Gerald McLees of Portsmouth sat next to Keach's wife Jane Seymor.

"He was really cool!" Keach said. "My son Kailin played him in the movie. All through the screening he was saying -- That happened. That didn't. That happened. That didn't. He was great."

"When you get to make a good story," Keach told me, "it lives on. The network says we had 12 million viewers. That's a lot of people!"

That’s a lot of people who now know what happened on May 23, 1939, just a few miles off the Isles of Shoals. I knew the story, but the film helped me visualize it better. A $5 million film by a good solid director is so much better than no film at all. Movies are an extremely good way to bring history, especially for our kids, and even when Kittery, Maine looks a lot like Malta.

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.