In 1977, the German film makers who owned the rights to Lothar-Günther Buchheim's epic submarine novel Das Boot approached Hollywood with an idea of co-sponsorship, to help share the costs and gain the technical effects of American studios. The conditions of such cooperation, however which included more action sequences and the machine-gunning of survivors in the water convinced the Germans they were better off making their own film. The success of Das Boot with American audiences validated their decision; U-571 proves it again.
U-571, set in the spring of 1942, allegedly concerns the capture of the naval Enigma machine and accompanying cryptographic documentation from a German U-boat, enabling the Allies to break German naval ciphers and help turn the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic. The historical events alluded to in the film's closing dedication the seizure of an Enigma from "U-110" in May 1941, the retrieval of key documents from "U-559" in September 1942, and the capture of "U-505" at sea in June 1944 are ably described in such works as David Kahn's Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes, 1939-1943 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), and F. H. Hinsley et al., British Intelligence in the Second World War, Vols. I-II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979-81). But the Enigma machine in this film serves only as what Alfred Hitchcock described as the "MacGuffin," the object over which the protagonists are fighting yet whose nature is essentially irrelevant to the film. When seen, the Enigma machine and the accompanying red-colored documentation are authentic reproductions, as are (for the most part) the cramped interiors for both a German U-boat and an American submarine. Regrettably these qualities exhaust Director Jonathan Mostow's best efforts at historical verisimilitude.
The film's early stages strain but do not excessively violate historical credulity. Somewhere in the North Atlantic a U-boat is disabled by a destroyer attack, and all its engineering personnel killed (no reference to their off-watch comrades who would have replaced them). While the Germans await assistance from a resupply U-boat, a U.S. Navy S-class submarine is swiftly converted into a replica of a Type VIIC U-boat (the outlines are similar, but not the bows) and sent to rendezvous with the stricken U-boat in the guise of the resupply submarine. The Americans precisely locate the U-boat in a driving storm (a remarkable feat in the pre-GPS era), and communicate with the U-boat via signal lamp (the first thing they would have had to flash were the appropriate recognition signals, which they could not have known). A team of Americans with concealed weapons then board "U-571" to kill or capture the crew and seize the Enigma machine, staging a running gun-battle throughout the boat (great theater, but a U-boat's interior is far too packed and cramped to provide unobstructed shots).
U-571's most basic flaw shortly thereafter becomes evident: the premise that ten men can operate a World War II submarine. To execute a combat dive requires more than that number in the complex process of uncoupling the drive shafts from diesel engines to electrical motors, venting and flooding ballast tanks in a precise sequence, operating the hydroplane and rudder controls, and maintaining trim, all within a matter of seconds. Maneuvering and firing torpedoes while submerged required even more personnel. Submarine crews averaged 45-50 men for a Type VIIC U-boat for a reason.
This fact notwithstanding, Mostow adds the additional twist that ten Americans, without special training of any kind, can operate a German U-boat. The several weeks of training necessary for a full German crew to learn their trade as a team are here replaced by one German-speaking Yank who translates the labels on U-boat machinery into American counterparts. As all submarine equipment is presumably universal and interchangeable, within a couple of minutes the Americans can make an allegedly damaged U-boat dive, maneuver, and destroy another U-boat in an underwater exchange of torpedo firings. By film's end, only seven Americans are necessary to operate the craft (of course, they now have more experience).
If this premise is accepted, then Mostow's vision of the Battle of the Atlantic appears less implausible. German single-engine (!) reconnaissance planes and destroyers roam free over the North Atlantic (presumably fueled by air and water), torpedoes and deck guns achieve direct hits without necessity of aiming, fuel-sprayed crewmen burst into flame (although diesel oil does not have the flammable qualities of high-octane gasoline), and ships disintegrate in a fiery cauldron after being struck by a single torpedo (as one astute reviewer noted, had the Kriegsmarine actually possessed torpedoes of such destructiveness the seizing of an Enigma machine would not have mattered).
Reversing the images of German crewmen portrayed in Das Boot, U-571 returns to more comfortable stereotypes of wartime propaganda. German submariners are cruel murderers but inept seamen. Thirty minutes into the film the U-boat captain orders his men to machine-gun survivors in a lifeboat, an atrocity as gratuitous to the plot as it is historically inaccurate: Among over 2400 recorded sinkings by German U-boats in World War II, only one known incident involved the killing of survivors, and U-boat Commander-in-Chief Admiral Karl Dönitz directly opposed Hitler's proposal in September 1942 to adopt such a policy. Aboard U-571, the crew cannot repair a damaged diesel engine, but an American mechanic fixes it easily and comments on the Germans' incompetence. A handful of Americans with tommy guns overpower the U-boat crew with relative ease, an otherwise realistic assessment in view of the few small arms kept aboard a U-boat (or any submarine); but in Mostow's U-boat virtually every German crewman keeps a pistol or submachine gun in his bunk, thus rendering the running gun battle "a fair fight." And in obvious homage to Hitchcock's Lifeboat, the Americans rescue the U-boat captain from the sea, for which they are rewarded with murderous treachery; at last, like Lifeboat's survivors and Saving Private Ryan's Corporal Upham, they belatedly learn the folly of misguided mercy and dispatch the Hun.
Symbolic of the film's disinterest in the German antagonists is the misspelling of the city of Koblenz (rendered `Koblentz') in the subtitles of a German-language exchange. If the screenwriters can't bother to check a map, is it surprising they did not examine historical sources?
Malignant as is their characterization, the Germans are at least present in the film. Almost entirely absent are the British, Canadian, Commonwealth, and other Allied naval and air forces that shared in the victory. (It was in fact a Royal Australian Air Force Sunderland that sank the real "U-571" by depth-bombs on 28 January 1944.) The irony is heightened as the two most significant Enigma captures involved only Royal Navy ships and seamen, two of whom drowned aboard "U-559" in the effort to salvage a cipher machine. The significance, tragedy, and self-sacrifice of this event require no pyrotechnics to heighten its drama, and may yet provide the basis for an excellent film.
That Mostow falls so short in historical accuracy is not entirely his fault. In choosing a naval topic that conforms to Hollywood war film conventions, he is obligated to depict a handful of Americans battling overwhelming odds but inevitably victorious against a cruel, implacable yet flawed enemy. The real elements that fashioned victory close cooperation among the Allies, and the systematic development of their combined human and natural resources to produce an irresistible material and technological superiority do not translate well in cinematic terms, and more importantly do not reflect American popular culture's archetypes and self-images. In replicating these conventions and populating his crew with familiar stereotypes (e.g., the young officer too close to his men, the salty chief petty officer who educates his superior), U-571 has achieved success, reigning for two weeks as the No. 1 film in the United States.
This paradoxical blend of bad history and mass appeal may concern today's historical profession, but future historians may well be indebted to Mostow for his snapshot of American values and attitudes toward World War II at the turn of the millennium. If not, they will at least be in his debt for a good laugh and a renewed appreciation of Das Boot.