Directed by David Greene
Written by Frank P. Rosenberg, James Whittaker, and Howard Sackler (based on the novel by David Lavallee)
1978's Gray Lady Down feels like it gets forgotten, even when the subject is 70s disaster flicks; certainly it's not in any meaningful sense "obscure," but it seems to have been overshadowed anyway, so that when it is remembered, it's usually just as quintessential Sunday afternoon TV fodder for half-asleep dads. (Incidentally, even if it is sometimes useful, "dad movie" might be my single least favorite addition of the 2010s to the film writing lexicon. My dad likes Merchant Ivory movies.) Some of Gray Lady's faded legacy, I'm sure, is simply that it came during the dying of the fad; and no doubt some would be that its March release date put it in dangerously close proximity to the one truly high-profile disaster movie of the late 70s, whose spectacular failure inevitably dominates any conversation about the genre as it stood in 1978. Regardless, it's a movie that has existed quietly for forty-three years and in that whole time it seems that nobody's demanded that its story be told—Shout! Factory often presents itself as a Criterion Collection for genre trash with its blu-ray releases, but Gray Lady's is surprisingly bare-boned for the beloved home video house—and so I'm only speculating when I say that producer Walter Mirisch (whose run of prestigious 60s classics like The Apartment was now over a decade in the past) and director David Greene (a TV guy who only ever directed features you think you've heard of but actually haven't, like a screen adaptation of Godspell) made a conscious, deliberate decision to do something different with Gray Lady's aggressively stripped-down approach to its genre. But while I suspect that this approach may well be the reason that the film never dug itself especially deeply into the cultural memory, it's also the reason I kind of adore it.
As far as being stripped-down goes, then, consider how simple this disaster story is: on its voyage back to port on the eastern seaboard, the crew of the USS Neptune (portrayed, variously, as a Skate-class SSN, when it's represented as an underwater—or "underwater"—model, or as a Tang-class diesel sub, when it's on the surface, real, and represented by stock footage) are celebrating the last tour of their captain, Paul Blanchard. Blanchard is sad to leave but glad that the Navy has taken his recommendation to entrust the boat to his XO, Cmdr. David Samuelson (Ronny Cox). Unfortunately, as they surface into a nasty fogbank, a Norwegian freighter fails to sight them, and the two vessels collide, tearing an ugly hole in the aft section of the Neptune. A third of the crew die before they can seal off the flooding engineering compartment, and the sub sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where it precariously rests on the edge of an undersea canyon, constantly at risk of tumbling down the side and into the oblivion below. Even if it doesn't, they're already below the Neptune's crush depth now, and it's a miracle they're not dead already. Topside, Capt. Hal Bennett (Stacy Keach) organizes the rescue effort, but his plans are stymied until he reluctantly brings in Capt. Don Gates (David Carradine) and his subordinate Mickey (Ned Beatty), inventors of a special minisub and apparently both drawing a salary from the Navy despite operating largely outside its chain-of-command. Even with this cutting-edge advantage, however, the Neptune is leaking, a lot of its crew are wounded or cracking under the pressure, and the earthslides keep making it even less likely that they'll ever see sunlight again.
If all you did was glance at the logline, it could seem like the major difference between this and, say, The Poseidon Adventure is that now the sinking conveyance is a submarine, but the recasting of the one-note-characters-in-trouble-this-time as members of a military hierarchy, rather than a collection of randomly-colorful strangers thrust into a pressure cooker by catastrophe, makes an enormous difference in how it plays its disaster movie beats. As a result, Gray Lady is an extraordinarily sober example of its genre, dedicated to mapping out process to a degree that may not be to everyone's taste but is nearly unique, with an emphasis on the step-by-step problem-solving undertaken by Blanchard in the immediate aftermath of the collision, with character agency moving almost exclusively to the surface as the Neptune crew exhausts their options—Blanchard and his men spend nearly the whole back half of the film basically just waiting to see whether they'll live or die, powerless to affect their own chances of survival—until, at last, the climax demands quick-thinking and heroism from everyone above and below.
Human-scale drama is not entirely banished—it probably couldn't be entirely banished in a story about the drawn-out elimination of a submarine crew—but Greene and his cast keep a surprisingly tight lid on it, so that when it boils over it's downright bracing. (Of course, by definition it forswears the usual disaster movie trick of endangering women and children to draw your sympathy. In fact, while there are a couple of Navy wives introduced early on in the film, they appear to exist mainly to prove that the principals aren't virgins; Gray Lady forgets about them almost as quickly as they've shown up. It's even for the best: sure, it's weird for them to vanish, because they would obviously have feelings about the situation, but it would have been even weirder for this particular movie to spend any more time with them than it does, for Gray Lady is far too efficient a machine to actually care about anybody except those trapped inside a collapsing metal tube and the people who might yet save it, and therefore it's honestly gratifying that it doesn't pretend to. I also kind of love the odd narrative structure its realism obliges it to take: to the extent we have "a protagonist," it's either not the main character, or else the main character doesn't appear till roughly the fifty-minute mark of a 111 minute film.)
The major "character conflict" aboard the Neptune, then, manifests as Cmdr. Samuelson's almost immediate collapse into resentful whining, and even this is less "drama"—it never once threatens to actually interfere with Blanchard's authority—than it is just the most salient acknowledgment that even in the US Navy not everyone has the psychological resources to handle such outsized stress calmly, and Heston's most effective screen partnership in the whole movie is with the leaking metal hatch that he keeps having shot/reverse-shot staring contests with. The downside for the film, of course, is the same as its upside: it spends a lot of time devoid of any characterization beyond a greater or lesser resilience to calamity—it almost always has a half-dozen or more people on screen, and dozens of speaking parts in its secondary cast, but virtually no stand-outs, and of the ones who do stand out it's either because you recognize them and you're shocked they're in such nothing roles (like Christopher Reeve) or because they come off like time travelers from a WWII sub movie (like Antony Ponzini, i.e. "the Italian one").
Heston, for the most part, simply deploys his screen persona in service to a stern-but-comforting father-figure—and this absolutely works, even if about the only shading Blanchard gets is a scraggly beard that makes him look more like a u-boat commander than an American officer—though in extremis Heston does get some capital-A Acting to do after all; I've referred to all of his disaster film roles as "minor Heston," and this is still mostly true, but Gray Lady comes tantalizingly close to making itself "major" when our stoic captain reaches his boiling point. In a long, mobile scene of wordless physical acting—one that's privileged by Greene and editor Robert Swink with enough time to let it curdle and start to make you uncomfortable—Heston finally brings to the fore his career's evergreen theme of cosmic anguish against an uncaring universe, though he's tuned it to this Heston character's particular frequency, in that this time he's implosive rather than explosive, almost entirely silent rather than howling into a void.
But it does take most of the movie to get to this point. It's almost not until the second hour that the screenplay injects much of any personality into the film at all, and this almost exclusively by way of an inordinately louche and productively-destabilizing turn from Carradine, whose slacker physical carriage and smart-ass attitude distinguishes him from the lumpen masculinity on display in Keach, even before their characters come to loggerheads over their particular strategies about getting all those guys out of the sinking sub (whereupon Capt. Gates registers his maverick temperament with one of the single rudest thumbs-ups in cinema history).
Greene's direction mirrors the no-nonsense (or at least nonsense-lite) screenplay, tough and taciturn and unafraid to be slow, and he depicts the procedure of rescuing a wrecked submarine with great clarity, as well as an infectious admiration for the military-industrial complex it glorifies—Greene and Swink invest full minutes of screentime on the second-unit's semi-pornographic documentary footage of the logistics of getting a DSRV out to the ocean, and I'll admit it, I love that Greene was willing to soak in it, because it is, ultimately, some very cool hardware. (The main surface vessel, incidentally, is the USS Cayuga, plausibly the US Navy's biggest star of the late 1970s. Here it plays the fictional USS Nassau, presumably in order to prevent anyone from thinking that Universal was creating an Airport cinematic universe.) It's a handsomely put-together film for the most part: the basic fact of a cramped submarine has saved much worse direction than this, and Greene makes it feel claustrophobic and doomed indeed, really taking advantage of the gimboled sets and automatic dutch angles of the Neptune's orientation to produce a sense of unease (not to mention a sense of immediate and visceral danger on the occasion when the sub begins to tumble and those gimboled sets make themselves known in a very big way). Somehow, the most overtly stylistic exercises come elsewhere, notably in a bizarre cherry red room where Carradine and Keach hash out their differences, though Greene and cinematographer Stevan Larner probably had the most fun (or, alternatively, the most difficulty) with Gates's minisub, which is small enough to virtually remove any possibility of shot choice, necessitating weird low-angles and, given the Panavision frame, a slightly-surrealist, split-diopter heavy approach to putting both Carradine and Beatty properly in the shot. This "surrealist" aspect is underlined even further by candy-colored interior lighting that I expect they opted for just to make it as visually distinct as possible from the fluorescent naturalism of the Neptune.
The disaster itself gets its due—I'm especially impressed by the boiling water that melts off a guy's face—though the ongoing nature of it means that it's never quite over, and the finale hits home with some legitimately upsetting images of drowning. The biggest complaint I have is that, for a film as disinterested in character as this is, it still finds time to blatantly identify most of those it intends to kill—hey, Stephen McHattie, don't you know you're just asking for it if you spontaneously offer up your backstory, let alone if you demonstrate a unique skill like playing the flute? and of course Samuelson is marked from the very beginning, though the way his end comes at least feels unpredictable even if, truthfully, it shouldn't—but this isn't the worst sin a disaster movie can commit. The smaller complaint—maybe, because it is a big part of the movie and therefore is a constant distraction—is that the modelwork here is just straight-up terrible for a major studio movie released a year after Star Wars; it isn't quite "kids playing with toys in the bathtub" but it does come dangerously close, topping out at "basically adequate" while the typical effects shot isn't even convincingly underwater, or, astonishingly, even just convincingly in motion in real time. I'm also a little cool on Jerry Fielding's score, which has its finer points (and concludes with a fittingly-melancholy march) but sometimes slightly fumbles the mood by getting too energetic and coming off inappropriate, almost jaunty. But besides those rather small quibbles, Gray Lady Down is never less than investing, and for a disaster movie this impassively methodical, that's a genuine accomplishment.