Gray Lady Down, 1978, 111 mins, Cable TV (Great! Movies Action)
Back in the mid-eighties, when I first saw Gray Lady Down on a Saturday night network showing (likely its British TV premiere), I found it quite enthralling. But then again, I’ve always been a sucker for any film concerned in any way with the ocean and its unseen depths. I think we’re all individually predisposed to react to certain films, but I put it down to watching Jaws at the tender age of ten in a scary cinema. After that any ‘perils of the ocean’ movie triggered all sorts of responses in me, like being scared witless by A Night to Remember and its depiction of the Titanic tragedy.
Gray Lady Down has not aged particularly well, to be brutally honest, especially after James Cameron’s The Abyss and Titanic pushed underwater visual effects to new levels. Mind, I dread to think how bad Raise the Titanic‘s miniature shots look like on my up-to-now unwatched Blu-ray copy, but in any case, the underwater/miniature shots of Gray Lady Down typify what studios thought they could get away with in visual effects back then. Or maybe Chuck’s toupee took the majority of the special effects budget.
It’s not that the film is bad, its certainly still watchable, but there’s something very staid about this film, perhaps there’s too much focus on the hardware and not enough on the characters or the pacing. The film proudly credits the navy for its assistance making the film, and one wonders if the producers were so indebted for the Navy boy’s help they thought they’d put a recruitment reel in for good measure. Its kind of funny when the film just literally stops to linger lovingly over the hull of the DSRV being prepped and then later again when it turns up at the disaster site.
Even the gravitas and screen presence of Charlton Heston cannot save the film, which perhaps indicates the problems the film has, because honestly, Chuck’s largely wasted as he has very little to do. The premise is great and could/should make an unbearably tense movie; certainly James Cameron must have thought so, as much of what happens in this film informs similar events in his The Abyss, but this feels more like a 1970s TV-movie of the week than a full-blown motion picture. Its probably telling that the films director, David Greene, worked extensively on television movies and made very few theatrical films at all, and I think it definitely shows in just how much of a TV-movie it looks and feels like: even some of the cuts between scenes seem like pauses for commercial breaks. I also think a part of it might be the ill-fitting Jerry Fielding soundtrack score that feels perfunctory at best, cringeworthy at its worst and does the film no favours at all. I can well imagine how much more tense the film might have been with a Jerry Goldsmith score, for instance.
What Gray Lady Down excels at is its cast; underused it may be but it nonetheless it really is impressive. As noted, Charlton Heston stars, and he is ably supported by Ronny Cox, Stacy Keach, David Carradine and Ned Beatty, and its something of a treat to watch them do their ‘thing’. These days though the film is likely most notable for featuring the film debut of Christopher Reeve, here in a minor role which doesn’t indicate at all the massive starring role he would have later that same year, in Superman: The Movie. Its funny how, watching him as a naval officer and seeing him channelling Clark Kent one moment, Superman the other- its in his demeanour, his jawline and eyes, one can see indications of what he would bring to his performance in that classic superhero movie in scenes in Gray Lady Down, but one would never imagine him making that major transition evidenced in his minor role here: makes one wonder at the sorcery of casting directors.
There are intimations of familiar disaster tropes (the 1970s, after all, was the decade of disaster flicks and Gray Lady Down was at the tail end of that trend) including some we would see later in films like Apollo 13, such as shifting attention to the submariner’s wives back on the mainland. This turns out to be a momentary diversion that fails to go anywhere- indeed, it possibly suggests an entire b-plot was excised from the film completely, because other than one scene I don’t believe the film ever cuts back to the mainland to see the wives again at all. However, it would have been a valid mechanism for the film to use to ramp up the tension- cutting back to nervous, stressed-out wives waiting to hear news of their husbands, something Ron Howard wasn’t afraid of resorting to in his film and yet Greene, despite his TV-movie credentials, seems to have chosen to avoid that. Seems an odd choice when the film flounders in it’s scenes of submariners waiting for rescue.