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K-19: The Widowmaker is a 2002 historical submarine film directed and produced by Kathryn Bigelow, and produced by Edward S. Feldman, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Christine Whitaker and Matthias Deyle with screenplay by Christopher Kyle. An international production of USA, UK, Germany and Canada, the film takes place in 1961, and focuses its story on the K-19 submarine.

K-19: The Widowmaker
Harrison Ford glaring at the viewer with angry stare while his and Liam Neeson's names are written above him while the film's title, credits, tagline and release beneath him.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKathryn Bigelow
Produced by
Screenplay byChristopher Kyle
Story byLouis Nowra
Music byKlaus Badelt
CinematographyJeff Cronenweth
Edited byWalter Murch
Distributed by
Release date
  • July 19, 2002 (2002-07-19) (United States)
  • September 5, 2002 (2002-09-05) (Germany)
  • October 25, 2002 (2002-10-25) (United Kingdom)
Running time
138 minutes[1]
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Germany
  • Canada
Budget$90 million[2]
Box office$65.7 million[3]

The film stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson as the main roles alongside Peter Sarsgaard, Donald Sumpter, Christian Camargo, Michael Gladis and John Shrapnel in supporting roles.

K-19: The Widowmaker was released by Paramount Pictures on July 19, 2002 in the United States while on September 5, 2002 in Germany and October 25, 2002 in the United Kingdom. Upon release, the film received generally mixed reviews from critics, which particularly praised the performances and the dramatic atmosphere but criticized the screenwriting. In addition to criticial disappointment, the film became a box office failure with grossing $65 million against production budget of $90 million.



In 1961, the Soviet Union launches its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine, the K-19, commanded by Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), aided by executive officer Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson). Polenin was the crew's original captain, and Vostrikov's appointment is alleged to have been aided by his wife's political connections, as well as Polenin's tendency to put the crew's morale and safety before the Soviet Union's pride. During his first inspection, Vostrikov discovers the reactor officer to be drunk and asleep on duty and sacks him, ordering Polenin to request a replacement, Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard), who is fresh from the naval academy's nuclear program. Bad luck surrounds the launch, as the medical officer is killed by an oncoming truck, and is replaced by command's foremost medical officer, who hails from the army and has never been out to sea, and the bottle of champagne fails to break when it strikes the bow.

The K-19's first mission is to surface in the Arctic to fire an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile as a test, then to patrol a zone in the Atlantic within striking range of New York City and Washington, D.C. as a Soviet deterrent to America. Testing the submarine's limits, Vostrikov orders K-19 to submerge past its maximum operational depth of 250 meters to one closer to its "crush depth" (300 meters), then surface rapidly at full-speed to break through the Arctic pack-ice, estimated at no more than one meter thick. Polenin regards this maneuver as dangerous and storms off the bridge. The test missile is launched successfully.

En route to the patrolling area, a pipe for the reactor cooling system springs a leak and then bursts completely. Control rods are inserted to stop the reactor, but without coolant the reactor temperature continues to rise rapidly. During a review of emergency protocols, the crew learn that back-up coolant systems were not installed, making the protocols useless. K-19 surfaces to contact fleet command but the cable for the long-range transmitter antenna is damaged, possibly due to the maneuver in the Arctic. An engineering team plans to rig a makeshift coolant system, but as the submarine was supplied with chemical, not nuclear, suits, teams are instructed to work in 10-minute shifts to limit radiation exposure. The first group emerges vomiting and heavily blistered; the second and third teams succeed in cooling the reactor, but all are severely ill with radiation poisoning. As radiation levels slowly rise inside the ship, the submarine surfaces and most of the crew are ordered topside. Radtchenko is initially assigned to go as part of the third team, but balks upon witnessing the first team's injuries, and the crew chief joins in his place.

A helicopter approaches K-19. The topside crew first think it is a Mil Mi-4 from their own forces but it is actually Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw of the United States Navy from a nearby destroyer offering assistance, which Vostrikov rejects. In the Soviet Union, the government worries about the condition of the K-19 because it has ceased contact with fleet command but has been spotted by Soviet spy aircraft in the vicinity of the American destroyer. Hoping some diesel submarines will be sent to tow the K-19, Vostrikov ceases the mission and orders a return to port, but the pace could kill the entire crew with radiation sickness. Shortly thereafter, the repair crews' pipework leaks and the reactor temperature rises again, and in an accident, fuel previously removed from a torpedo ignites, causing a fire. Initially ordering the emergency fire suppression system to be activated (which would suffocate anyone inside that area), Vostrikov is talked down by Polenin, who personally assists the fire crew. Two officers use this opportunity to enact a mutiny on Vostrikov. Radtchenko enters the reactor area alone and commences a second repair attempt.

Polenin returns and, after seeing Vostrikov handcuffed to a ladder, deceives the mutineers into handing over their weapons, arrests them, and frees Vostrikov. Unaware of Radtchenko, Vostrikov, at Polenin's behest, explains to the crew he plans to dive to attempt another repair, afraid that an overheating reactor could set off their nuclear warheads and destroy not just K-19 but also the nearby American ship, possibly inciting nuclear war. The crew responds positively, and K-19 dives. Vostrikov goes to the reactor section to discover Radtchenko's repairs were successful, but he received a heavier dose of radiation, having stayed in 18 minutes to complete his repair. Blind and too weak to extricate himself from the reactor chamber, Radtchenko is dragged out by Vostrikov. A meltdown is prevented, but radiation is leaking throughout the submarine due to irradiated steam from the reactor's damage.

A Soviet diesel submarine finally reaches K-19. It relays orders from fleet command to confine the crew on-board until a freighter can pick them up, but as it is too dangerous to stay, Vostrikov orders the crew to evacuate, knowing he will likely lose his command and be sent to a gulag. The crew returns to the Soviet Union. Vostrikov is tried for endangering the mission and disobeying a direct order, but Polenin and the other officers and crew come to his defense.


Epilogue text indicates that charges against Vostrikov were dropped, but that the former crew of the K-19 is ordered to maintain silence regarding the incident, and Vostrikov is never given command of a submarine again. All seven men who went into the reactor chamber to effect repairs died of radiation poisoning days after returning home, and twenty other crew members later died from radiation sickness. It is not until the fall of Communism nearly three decades later that K-19's crew could openly discuss what happened.

In 1989, an aged Vostrikov meets Polenin on the anniversary of the day they were rescued, entering a cemetery where K-19 survivors have met since the incident. Vostrikov is visibly moved as he greets the men and informs them that he nominated the crewmen who died from radiation poisoning — 28 in total — for the Hero of the Soviet Union award, but was told the honor was reserved for combat veterans. Remarking that "what good are honors from such people," Vostrikov toasts the survivors and the deceased crew who sacrificed their lives.



"The Widowmaker" nickname was used only in the film. In real life, the submarine had no nickname until the nuclear accident on July 3, 1961, when it received the nickname "Hiroshima".[4]

K-19: The Widowmaker cost $100 million to produce,[5][6] but gross returns were only $35 million in the United States and $30.5 million internationally.[3] The film was not financed by a major studio (National Geographic was owned by National Geographic Partners, a joint venture with 21st Century Fox and The National Geographic Society), making it one of the most expensive independent films to-date. K-19: The Widowmaker was filmed in Canada, specifically Toronto, Ontario; Gimli, Manitoba; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The producers made some efforts to work with the original crew of K-19, who took exception to the first version of the script available to them.[7] The submarine's captain presented an open letter to the actors and production team, and a group of officers and crew members presented another. In a later script, several scenes were cut, and the names of the crew changed at the request of the crew members and their families.

The most significant difference between the plot and the historical events is the scene that replaces an incident where the captain threw almost all the submarine's small arms overboard out of concern about the possibility of a mutiny; the film instead portrays an actual attempt at mutiny.

The Hotel-class submarine K-19 was portrayed in the film by the Juliett-class K-77, which was significantly modified for the role. HMCS Ojibwa portrayed the Soviet Whiskey-class submarine S-270. HMCS Terra Nova portrayed USS Decatur. The Canadian Halifax Shipyard stood in for the Sevmash shipyard of northern Russia.

Klaus Badelt wrote the film's late-Romantic-styled score.


K-19: The Widowmaker received mixed reviews with a total of 61% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. It is summarized as being "A gripping drama even though the filmmakers have taken liberties with the facts."[8]

When K-19: The Widowmaker was premiered in Russia in October 2002, fifty-two veterans of the K-19 submarine accepted flights to the Saint Petersburg premiere; despite what they saw as technical as well as historical compromises, they praised the film and, in particular, the performance of Harrison Ford.[9]

In his review, film critic Roger Ebert compared K-19: The Widowmaker to other classic films of the genre, "Movies involving submarines have the logic of chess: The longer the game goes, the fewer the possible remaining moves. 'K-19: The Widowmaker' joins a tradition that includes Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October and goes all the way back to Run Silent, Run Deep. The variables are always oxygen, water pressure and the enemy. Can the men breathe, will the sub implode, will depth charges destroy it?"[10]



  1. ^ – The Widowmaker' (12A)."[permanent dead link] British Board of Film Classification, June 18, 2002. Retrieved: January 20, 2013.
  2. ^ – The Widowmaker' (12A)." The Numbers. Retrieved: April 28, 2017.
  3. ^ a b "K-19 The Widowmaker (2002)." Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  4. ^ Huchthausen 2002, p. 167.
  5. ^ "K-19: The Widowmaker (2002).", March 14, 2009. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  6. ^ "Hollywood's biggest names- Are they still worth their price?" Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  7. ^ Gentleman, Amelia. "Hollywood infuriates Russian veterans." The Guardian, February 23, 2001. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  8. ^ "K-19: The Widowmaker Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
  9. ^ Titova, Irina."K-19 Film Premieres at Mariinsky Theater." The St. Petersburg Times, 2002.
  10. ^ Ebert, Roger. "K-19: The Widowmaker Movie Review (2002).", July 19, 2003. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.


  • Huchthausen, Peter. K-19, The Widowmaker: The Secret Story of The Soviet Nuclear Submarine. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7922-6472-9.
  • K-19, The Widowmaker: Handbook of Production Information. Los Angeles, California: Paramount Pictures, 2002.

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