Combine the trauma of war with the terror of the deepest, darkest ocean, and you have submarine movies. Whereas if you survive a bombing from enemy planes on land, you may be able to crawl away with at least your life intact, but if your submarine gets bombed or hit with a depth charge and you aren’t immediately killed by the explosion, you must suffer the morbid dread of drowning to death in cold, wet darkness.
Submarines of one form or another have existed all the way back to one year before the American Revolution—in 1775, a one-man military submersible named the Turtle was designed by an American named David Bushnell. During the Civil War, the USS Hunley became the first military submarine to sink an enemy ship.
Although submarine warfare played a small role in World War I, it was pivotal to the “Battle of the Atlantic” in World War II, the longest naval battle in world history where German U-boats sought to destroy American vessels delivering supplies to the English and other allies.
Nuclear submarines gained an ominous prominence during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, where one mere mistake or the malicious push of a button from a nuclear sub could have triggered a cataclysmic war that ended life on the planet.
What follows is a guide to some of the best submarine movies ever made.
Released in France as Les Maudits, this film was released shortly after the end of World War II. The plot involves a group of Nazis and sympathizers toward the end of the war who are trying to evade capture by taking a submarine from Norway to South America. En route, one of the main passengers is heavily injured, so the submarine heads to France, where they kidnap a French doctor to attend to the wounded passenger. The doctor is at first under the impression that his stay on the submarine will only be temporary—but he is wrong, leading to massive tension.
American Navy Captain Murell (Robert Mitchum) is a former merchant marine who witnessed his own wife being killed by Germans when they torpedoed Murell’s ship. Captain Von Stolberg (Curd Jurgens) is a wily German submarine commander who questions his nation’s involvement in World War II. Both ship commanders meet in the South Atlantic during the war and must find a way to outwit one another. Gradually, they earn one another’s respect.
In one of his last screen appearances, legendary Hollywood star Clark Gable stars as a submarine commander whose sub was sunk by the Japanese during World War II, relegating him to a desk job in the Navy. But a year later, he is given the opportunity to commandeer another submarine, and he makes it his singular obsession to track down and sink the Japanese ship that previously sank his sub. He gets the job instead of another capable captain, Burt Lancaster, who not only resents being passed over for the job—he thinks that Gable’s character is dangerously focused on only one Japanese ship. This results in a clash of egos, but the men mend their ways in the face of imminent danger.
U.S. Navy Admiral Harriman Nelson is considered a scientific genius by some and a dangerous lunatic by others. He has designed and built his own experimental nuclear submarine, the Seaview. While cruising the depths of the ocean, the Seaview is suddenly besieged by ice chunks the size of boulders, which Nelson blames on the fact that the Van Allen Radiation Belt surrounding the Earth is on fire. Other scientists insist that the Belt will burn itself out, but Nelson is certain that there’s only a limited time before it destroys the Earth via rapid global warming. So he sets the Seaview toward the Mariana Trench, where he plans to fire a nuclear missile at the Van Allen Belt and explode it. But he has the entire United Nations and the world’s military forces trying to stop him.
In the midst of the Cold War, a United States submarine called the Tigerfish is tasked with rushing to the North Pole to rescue the workers at Drift Ice Station Zebra, an arctic weather station staffed by workers from various countries. Aboard the submarine is David Jones, a British citizen who seems to be keeping some sort of secret. Also aboard is a genial Russian named Boris Vasilov. But as they proceed on their mission, it becomes clear that they may have been deceived as to exactly what their mission is—and that someone on the submarine is trying to sabotage everyone.
This German-made film tells the tale of the U-96, a German U-boat that prowls the waters of the North Atlantic during World War II. The boat is led by Capt.-Lt. Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, who has agreed to let a German war correspondent come along for the ride so he can detail the day-to-day lives of Nazi sailors. But mostly the film is about human persistence amid extremely claustrophobic settings—for example, the sub is so cramped that men have to share beds, with one sleeping while the other works. There’s also the unimaginable terror of having interminable boredom intermittently interrupted when you’re being attacked by ship torpedoes while underwater.
In this James Cameron film, a civilian diving team which includes a recently divorced husband and wife who have yet to work out all their issues is teamed up with a group of Navy SEALs who are tasked to find out exactly what happened to a US nuclear submarine which appears to have crashed into a cliff and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. En route, they realize that the abyss is populated with giant sea creatures—but they have to act fast in order to avert a Third World War.
Sean Connery stars as Marko Ramius, a Russian submarine captains who helms a nuclear sub with a new experimental engine that runs almost completely silently, enable it to sneak up off any coast and fire missiles toward land without detection. He ignores orders and heads toward the American coast, leading Russian officials to suspect he is a rogue who’s going to start a nuclear war. But CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) rightly suspects that Ramius is actually a defector and is heading toward America to ask for refuge. While Russian ships and planes are going all-out to destroy the rogue Russian sub and kick off an apocalypse, Ryan seeks to persuade American officials that Ramius’s intentions are pure.
Denzel Washington stars as Officer Hunter, a new entry to the Navy with a good education but little hands-on experience. Gene Hackman portrays Ramsey, a crusty captain who worked his way up the ranks through sweat and loyalty. Together they are on the nuclear submarine USS Alabama when informed that renegade Russian forces have taken control of some ICBMs and receive a message to head toward the missile base and fire at the Russians. They then get a second message that winds up garbled and unclear. While Ramsey insists that they follow the first order, Hunter advises they wait until they receive the second message—which may have advised them to cancel their mission—again before possibly starting a nuclear war. Most of the film’s tension centers around the disagreement between these two men.
In the midst of the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II, the Germans have an advantage due to their “cipher machine” that Allied forces have yet to descramble. But when a German U-boat sends out an SOS signal, the men on an American ship seize the opportunity with a novel idea—they’ll decorate their boat as if it was a German ship on a rescue mission. They board the U-boat and capture the cipher machine, but the very moment that they attempt to return to their own boat, it is sunk with torpedos by an actual German relief submarine. They find themselves stuck on an enemy submarine with nowhere to go.
Based on the true story of the USSR’s first nuclear submarine, the K-19, this film tells the tale of a malfunction which nearly led to a meltdown and triggered World War III in 1961. As in many submarine movies, there is tension between the main captain and his subordinate as together they struggle to avert a catastrophe which may end all life on Earth unless it is quickly resolved.
Part submarine thriller and part horror movie, Below is set in August 1943 and revolves around the USS Tiger Shark, a submarine involved in fighting the Germans in the Atlantic. The sub rescues three people from a sunken ship, only to gradually realize that one of them is a German who may be alerting his compatriots to locate and sink the Tiger Shark. After the sub’s captain kills the German refugee, mysterious things happen—people see ghosts, hear voices, and the Tiger Shark, seemingly of its own will, turns around and heads toward the ship where they originally completed the rescue.
Bill Murray stars in the title role as a celebrity oceanographer in the vein of Jacques Cousteau. His career is sagging, his ex-wife hates him, a young man who may be his illegitimate son confronts him, and he claims that his main partner was killed by a 30-foot sea creature that Steve calls a “Jaguar Shark.” He cobbles together a ragtag crew to seek out the Jaguar Shark and kill it, all of it to be filmed for a movie that Steve hopes will revive his career. But on the way, many on the crew suspect that Steve made up the whole thing about a Jaguar Shark.
Jude Law stars as a cynical ex-submarine captain who has recently been relieved of his duties after spending ten years at a salvage company. When he is informed that there is a sunken German sub in the Black Sea that is rumored to contain millions in stolen Nazi gold, he gathers together a crew that is half composed of Englishmen and half of Russians. He commandeers a rusty old sub in his quest to uncover the sunken treasure, only for the submarine to crash underwater and send the group’s dynamics into chaos.
After the USS Tampa Bay disappears while tracking a Russian submarine in the arctic, a relatively unexperienced US submarine captain teams up with Navy SEALs on a sub called the USS Arkansas to investigate. When they reach their destination at an arctic naval base, they are shocked to discover that a renegade Russian defense minister has staged a coup and kidnapped the Russian president. Their mission is quickly diverted away from finding the missing submarine and toward rescuing the Russian president in the service of averting a nuclear war.
Released in France as Le chant du loup, this film centers around a young submariner who has an exceptionally well developed sense of hearing which enables him to recognize and pinpoint any sound better than any machine is able to do. While on a French nuclear submarine, though, he makes just one mistake that causes him to lose the confidence of the rest of the crew. But in his quest to win back their trust, the situation spirals out of control and France finds itself in a crisis where they may accidentally start the Third World War.
Kristen Stewart stars as an engineer who is employed at a deepwater drilling and research on the ocean floor at the bottom of the Mariana Trench off the coast of Japan—the deepest part of the ocean on the planet and a full seven miles below sea level. While she’s brushing her teeth, she notices that there’s water leaking from the submarine’s ceiling—moments later, the vessel is rocked by a massive underwater earthquake. She finds a few surviving members, and they all realize that their only hope is to don high-pressure diving gear and walk along the ocean floor a full mile to a nearby facility. But other explosions, as well as previously undiscovered and openly hostile sea creatures, impede their journey.
Based on the bestselling novel The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, which was so detailed that it was used as a manual for battle strategy by the US Navy for years, Greyhound tells the nail-biting story of a US Navy Commander who must lead an allied convoy of 37 merchant ships delivering supplies to England all the way across the Atlantic while being hounded by a wolfpack of German U-boat submarines. Even worse, the commander realizes that he will be without air cover for four days, making them especially vulnerable to attack by the Germans as he leads them through the treacherous “Black Pit” of the mid-Atlantic.
More Submarine Movies
- Crash Dive (1943) two men en route on a submarine mission to fight the Nazis suddenly realize they’re in love with the same woman.
- Destination Tokyo (1943) stars screen idols Cary Grant and John Garfield as US Navy men on a submarine mission in Tokyo Harbor.
- We Dive at Dawn (1943) a group of British sailors on a weeklong retreat are abruptly called back to duty in order to fight Nazis in the Baltic Sea.
- Gung Ho! (1943) a Navy colonel is assigned to discipline a ragtag crew of misfits and ne’er-do-wells on a submarine ordered to raid a Japanese-held island.
- Submarine Command (1951) a commander on the USS Tiger Shark experiences personal struggles as he reminisces about his naval career.
- Operation Pacific (1951) John Wayne stars as a sub commander who has taken it upon himself to singlehandedly defeat all of the Japanese armed forces.
- Hell and High Water (1954) in this epic by director Samuel Fuller, an ex-Navy officer is hired to trace a nuclear explosion north of Japan and seek to avert a potential Third World War.
- Above Us the Waves (1955) is based on the real-life attack of a German battleship by British submarines in Norway during World War II.
- On The Beach (1959) stars Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in this apocalyptic tale of a World War II that was won by no one because most of Earth has been ravaged by nuclear devastation.
- Hellcats of the Navy (1957) Ronald Reagan, in his only screen appearance with what would become his wife Nancy, stars as a US sub commander tasked with charting minefields in Japanese waters during World War II.
- Torpedo Run (1958) an American sub commander makes it his mission to destroy the Japanese ship which hosted planes that bombed Pearl Harbor during World War II.
- The Atomic Submarine (1959) a nuclear submarine is sent to the Arctic Circle to investigate why so many other submarines are disappearing there.
- The Bedford Incident (1965) Richard Widmark stars as the captain of a US destroyer who is gunning to obliterate a specific Soviet submarine regardless of the risks.
- The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) is a Cold War comedy about a Russian submarine that accidentally runs ashore on an island off the New England coast.
- Murphy’s War (1971) is about the PTSD experienced by the only survivor of a WWII German U-boat attack.
- Gray Lady Down (1978) a Navy captain (Charlton Heston) attempts to rescue a submarine stuck on an ocean ledge.
- Down Periscope (1996) a Navy lieutenant is assigned to take over an old rusted submarine whose crew consists of misfits.
- Crash Dive (1997) a nuclear submarine rescues alleged victims of a boat disaster who turn out to be terrorists instead.
- Hostile Waters (1997) is the retelling of a true incident when US and Soviet submarines collided in 1986 off the US coast.
- Phantom: The Submarine (1999) released in Korea as Yuryeong, this tells the story of South Korea’s first nuclear submarine and a crew that may or may not exist.
- The Hunley (1999) is the true story of a hand-powered submarine the South used during the US Civil War.
- In Enemy Hands (2004) a German U-boat captures a US destroyer in the Atlantic at the height of World War II.
- Last Operations Under the Orion (2009) is a Japanese film that tells of an underwater naval conflict during the Second World War.
- Kursk (2018) is a German film that was released with English dubbing as The Command and focuses on a real-life submarine disaster from the year 2000.