The Enemy Below

The Enemy Below is a 1957 DeLuxe Color war film in CinemaScope, which tells the story of the battle between an American destroyer escort and a German U-boat during World War II. Produced and directed by acclaimed actor, Dick Powell, the movie stars Robert Mitchum and Curt Jürgens as the American and German commanding officers. The film was based on the 1956 novel by Denys Rayner, a British naval officer involved in anti-submarine warfare throughout the Battle of the Atlantic. For the audible effects, Walter Rossi received the 1958 Academy Award for Best Special Effects.[2]

The Enemy Below
Directed byDick Powell
Screenplay byWendell Mayes
Based onThe Enemy Below
1956 novel
by Denys Rayner
Produced byDick Powell
StarringRobert Mitchum
Curt Jurgens
CinematographyHarold Rosson
Edited byStuart Gilmore
Music byLeigh Harline
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • December 25, 1957 (1957-12-25) (New York City)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited States


The American Buckley-class destroyer escort USS Haynes detects and attacks a German U-boat that is on its way to rendezvous with a German merchant raider in the South Atlantic Ocean. Lieutenant Commander Murrell (Robert Mitchum), a former officer in the merchant marine now an active duty officer in the Naval Reserve, has recently taken command of the Haynes, even though he is still recovering from injuries incurred in the sinking of his previous ship. Before the U-boat is first spotted, one sailor questions the new captain's fitness and ability. However, as the battle begins, Murrell shows himself to be a match for wily U-boat Kapitän zur See von Stolberg (Curd Jürgens), a man who is not enamored with the Nazi regime, in a prolonged and deadly battle of wits that tests both men and their crews. Each man grows to respect his opponent.

Murrell skillfully stalks the U-boat and subjects von Stolberg and his crew to hourly depth charge attacks. In the end, von Stolberg takes advantage of Murrell's too-predictable pattern of attacks and succeeds in torpedoing the destroyer escort. Although the Haynes is fatally wounded and sinking, it is still battle capable, and Murrell has one last trick up his sleeve. He orders his men to set fires on the deck to make the ship look more damaged than it actually is. Then he orders the majority of his crew to evacuate in the lifeboats, but retains a skeleton crew to man the bridge, engine room, and one of his ship's three-inch (76 mm) guns. As Murrell had hoped, von Stolberg decides to surface before firing his torpedoes, keeping the deck gun trained on the ship. Murrell orders his gun crew to fire first at the U-boat's stern to immobilize it, and then at the deck gun. Murrell orders his executive officer, Lieutenant Ware (David Hedison), to ram the U-boat. With his boat sinking, von Stolberg orders his crew to set scuttling charges and abandon ship.

Murrell, the last man aboard, is about to join his crew in the lifeboats when he spots von Stolberg standing on the conning tower of the sinking U-boat with his injured executive officer, Oberleutnant zur See Heini Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel). Murrell tosses a line to the submarine and rescues the pair. It is clear that Schwaffer is dying, but von Stolberg refuses to leave his friend behind. Ware returns with American and German sailors in the captain's gig to take the three men off before the U-boat's scuttling charges detonate. Later, aboard a ship which has rescued both crews, the German crew consigns Schwaffer's remains to the deep in a traditional ceremony, as the American crew respectfully watches.

Changes from the bookEdit

The movie script differs substantially from the original book. The ship is changed from British to American. More important, the final scenes of mutual respect between the protagonists is not how the book ends. In the book the destroyer captain takes a swing at the U-boat captain while they are in the lifeboat, because the latter claims that the destroyer crew are his prisoners. The movie also vaguely alludes to the "enemy" being evil (or the devil), not particularly the Nazis ("You cut off one head and it grows another..."). This gives the title "The Enemy Below" a double meaning not present in the book.


Curt Jürgens was imprisoned in 1944 by order of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. He was released when World War II ended.[3] Theodore Bikel was a Jew who was born in Vienna, Austria, and taken as a child to America in 1937.[4]


The destroyer escort USS Haynes (DE-181) was portrayed by the USS Whitehurst, filmed in the Pacific Ocean near Oahu, Hawaii. Many of Whitehurst's crewmen acted in the film: The phone talkers, the gun and depth charge crews, the sailor fishing, and all of the men seen abandoning ship, were real Whitehurst crewmen. The ship's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Walter Smith, played the engineering officer. He is the man seen reading comics (Little Orphan Annie) during the lull before the action. In the same scene an enlisted man can be seen reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Whitehurst was sunk as a target in 1971.

The lead ship of the destroyer escort class portrayed in The Enemy Below, USS Buckley, actually rammed a U-boat in combat and sank it on 6 May 1944, capturing many of the German crew. The actual DE-181 was a Cannon-class destroyer escort, USS Straub (DE-181). These ships were scrapped in 1969 and 1974 respectively.


The tune sung by the U-boat crew on the ocean floor between depth charge attacks is from an 18th-century march called "Der Dessauer Marsch". As a more popular song, it's also known by the first line of lyrics as "So leben wir" ("That's how we live"). The burial hymn in the final scene is "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden"

In popular cultureEdit

  • The 1966 Star Trek episode "Balance of Terror" is closely based on this film, with the USS Enterprise cast as the destroyer and the Romulan vessel, using a cloaking device, as the U-boat.[5]
  • The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode "Killers of the Deep" re-used substantial amounts of footage from the film. David Hedison (then Al Hedison), who played Lieutenant Ware, the executive officer of the Haynes, also played Commander Lee Crane on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
  • In the 1995 film Crimson Tide, two USS Alabama officers debate about the cast of The Enemy Below.[1]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p250
  2. ^ "The 30th Academy Awards (1958) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2014-03-15.
  3. ^ Karney, Robyn (1984). The Movie Stars Story. Outlet.
  4. ^ David B. Green, This Day in Jewish History / Singer, actor and activist Theodore Bikel is born Haaretz, February 5, 2014. Retrieved November 16, 2014.
  5. ^ Asherman, Allan (1993). The Star Trek Compendium. New York: Pocket Books. p. 40. ISBN 0-671-79612-7.
  • Rayner, D.A., The Enemy Below, London: Collins 1956

External linksEdit