Directed by James B. Harris
Written by James Poe, from a novel by Mark Rascovich
Starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, James MacArthur, Martin Balsam, Wally Cox, Eric Portman
You would have thought that the tensions of the Cold War would have lent themselves to some interesting films back when it was going on. Yet there were surprisingly few films that dealt with it directly. Most used a fantastic element (science fiction films about giant ants) or made it into a background for general derring-do (James Bond), or used it for black comedy (Dr. Strangelove, The Mouse that Roared). Serious dramas were rare, probably because the subject was too close to the bone.
The Bedford Incident was one of the few examples. And its strength is that it was a chilling and realistic portrayal of just how things could go wrong.
The USS Bedford is a destroyer patrolling off Greenland. From the start, there are tensions among the crew. Its commander, Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a little too tightly wound, putting immense pressure on his crew to do things right, especially on Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), who never seems to get things right. Reporter Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) observes what's going on as he tries to write an article about life on a naval destroyer and is bothered by Finlander's attitude, but Finlander isn't interested in what a civilian things and believes his criticism of Ralston will make him a better officer.
Into the mix comes a Soviet sub. The Bedford tracks it, in a game of cat and mouse, ratcheting up the tension to unbearable levels. Seaman Merlin Queffle (Wally Cox) breaks under the strain, but Finlander won't give it up, refusing to let the sub alone, even when it begins to leave the area.
It's a recipe for disaster. I won't go into how it happened, but it's a tragedy in the classical sense: where the characters' flaws lead to an inevitable conclusion.
Richard Widmark is superb as Finlander. He made a career of tightly wound men, and this is one of his best. Finlander has some depth to him: he's not just a martinet, and he's not just a commie hunter and Widmark brings it all out.
Sidney Poitier had recently won his Oscar and also puts on a fine performance as the voice of reason that Finlander refuses to listen to, and MacArthur's Ralston is a wonderful portrayal of a man who is trying to do his best -- and exactly the wrong type of person to be under Finlander's command. It's also interesting seeing Wally Cox not only acting (instead of being on game shows), but in a dramatic role.
The movie did OK, but was no hit. It got grouped in with Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe as "The nuclear disaster trilogy," but since it was the last of the three to hit the screens, it made the least impact. Director Harris made a few more films, but nothing that made any impact. MacArthur went on to play Danny Williams ("Book 'em, Dano") on Hawaii 5-0 and, of course, Poitier is still well-regarded today.
The movie was a warning and a tragedy, and I'm sorry that it seems to have sunk out of sight.