You thought I was out of Charlton Heston disaster movies, didn’t you! Nice try. Here’s yet another one, Gray Lady Down from 1978, all about the rescue of a US Navy submarine (the USS Neptune) that’s been disabled more than 1400 feet below the surface. The hatch is covered with sand and debris, there’s a limited amount of air left and, at any moment, the entire thing could either implode like an empty can or slip further down a crevasse into certain oblivion.
Stalwart captain Heston is on his very last voyage prior to retirement, preparing to hand over the reins to second-in-command Ronny Cox. As they near New London, Connecticut, Heston takes the vessel to the surface in order to ride it in topside. Seemingly out of nowhere, amidst some dense fog, the sub is struck by a Norwegian freighter and goes careening downward where it is tenuously situated near an undersea cliff.
Heston and Cox start off as friends, but eventually develop an adversarial relationship with differing viewpoints on the scenario. Naturally, Heston is the one who takes ultimately takes charge. Also on board are crewmen played by Stephen McHattie, Dorian Harewood and Michael O’Keefe. The rest of the seamen are either stuntmen posing as actors, hunky mannequins with little or no experience or overly hammy actors trying to stand out amidst the sea of blue shirts.
Topside, Stacy Keach plays another captain trying to affect a rescue. (His right-hand man is played by a newcomer named Christopher Reeve, who would soon make a stupendously successful appearance as Superman.) Stymied at every turn, Keach eventually has to take a chance on a new and controversial approach to getting the men out.
David Carradine and his pal Ned Beatty have a mini-sub called The Snark, which they have been perfecting. They are enlisted, amid some degree of controversy, to dive below and help clear off the escape hatch. Portly Beatty is not the very first person one might expect to see manning a tiny vessel like this, but there he is. Incidentally, though it may look that way in this photo, Carradine is not riding on Beatty’s back, but rather is sitting in a seat above Beatty, who must lie on his belly. (Beatty, having already survived Deliverance, couldn't seem to get out of this stance early in his career!)
While the men above the surface worry about how best to rescue the submariners, the seamen in the sub, for reasons known only to the scriptwriter, play backgammon and watch the movie Jaws on their projector while death waits impatiently from several angles! Occasionally, to shake things up, the submarine shifts or rotates upside down, adding a dash of chaos to the often-dull proceedings.
One major set piece involves the opening of an air tank in order to right the position of the sub. There’s an unnerving scene in which Heston must decide whether to allow some men to die in order to protect the majority or risk drowning everyone in order to save two lives. It's a gripping sequence followed by an uncharacteristically haunted Heston. Mostly, however, there is no short supply of tedium as the rescuers try and fail repeatedly to retrieve the survivors and many, many, MANY tracking shots of various vehicles and crafts are shown.
Heston managed to enlist Rosemary Forsyth, one of his old leading ladies (from The War Lover), to portray his wife in this film. For her trouble, every scene of hers was eliminated from the final cut except for one brief excerpt in which she gets to say exactly five words with less than 30 seconds of screen time! Thus, her contractually retained seventh billing on the poster (eighth in the end credits) should be a real head-scratcher for the casual viewer. Seventeenth-billed voiceover actress Melendy Britt is given slightly more to say and do.
The opening collision is marred by some shoddy editing, fuzzy photography and questionable special effects work. It's also made confusing by a lack of clarity about where some of the men are and how they evacuate certain areas. The use of miniatures is also of varying quality. Sometimes they are passable, other times they are startlingly obvious. As a fan of rushing water, though, I always enjoy scenes that include it bursting through ruptured hulls and so on.
Jerry Fielding’s score is appropriately dirge-like at times and eerie at other times, though certain musical elements from his work here were later interpolated into his mostly ghastly score for Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.
Granite-jawed Heston was a natural for authoritative roles like this in films of this nature and, perhaps, audiences were growing tired of the same sort of thing. At least this time he had a beard, which was one minor difference! He does a solid job, underacting for the most part, and gets to deliver one memorable line: “I feel like a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest!”
Helping to brighten up some of the antagonistic scenes between overly intense (and, thus, unintentionally funny) Keach and the more laid-back Carradine is Beatty’s amiable and appealing persona. His endearing presence gives the movie a gift it probably doesn’t deserve.
The fact that scarcely a year had gone by since Airport ’77 offered a similar (and superior in many ways) sort of story may explain the soggy box office returns for this film. It was not a hit. It was twelve years before another major submarine film was produced, The Hunt for Red October. What really did it in, though, was a focus on the technical in lieu of attention to human drama. It’s hard to get worked up over people sitting around playing board games. It does score points, though, for refusing to artifically insert a female character into the submarine, though it might have held my attention more had there been Barbara Eden, Dina Merrill or even Marilyn Hassett flailing around! One's tolerance for the stars and for the genre will help determine how palatable the film is.
One unintentionally amusing aspect of the film is the endless concern for and preoccupation with the injured when every one of the people on board could be dead any instant! Not that you can’t administer first aid and give ‘em a sip of water, but it sometimes strains credibility here in light of what else is happening. Also, there are moments of certain people cracking up under the strain and those types of scenes are always in danger of providing a chuckle if they aren’t handled well. Occasionally here, they aren't...
Heston had only three more big screen leading roles left in him after this until it was off to television and the stage for a while before coming back as an occasional supporting actor. The disaster genre of the 70s was also on its last legs. Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman and other, more fantasy-related effects-based films would take center stage from now on, though there was a hearty, CGI-influenced aftershock of disaster retreads in the 90s. Though some of those were successful, not one of them contained the elusive sort of campy fun that the 70s flicks had.