Directed by James B. Harris
Written by James Poe, from a novel by Mark Rascovich
Starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Eric Portman, James MacArthur, Martin Balsam, Wally Cox.
In the early 1960s, Columbia Pictures produced three cold war films that were sometimes referred to the "nuclear disaster trilogy." Dr. Strangelove is the most famous and is rightly praised as one of the great films of all time.* Fail-Safe was the other side of the coin -- instead of a black comedy, it was a tense thriller. But the third of these was a more obscure film: The Bedford Incident.
The movie was more realistic than Fail-Safe. It followed the action on the US destroyer Bedford, on patrol near Greenland and led by its captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark). On board is a reporter, Ben Munceford (Sidney Poiter), and the NATO observer Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman). Both Munceford and Schrepke have their reasons for observing Finlander, who doesn't particularly like having them on his ship.
You see, Finlander runs a tight ship. He keeps his sailors hopping, feeling that hard work is the best way to keep things running, and that criticism is what makes you stronger. He is especially hard on Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), a young man just out of the academy who can't seem to do anything right.
But when they spot a Soviet sub, Finlander goes into action. He shadows and harasses the sub, ratcheting up the tension for the crew, and putting things on the edge of disaster.
Finlander is no madman. He's tightly wound, but doesn't particularly want to start a fight with the Russians. Nor does he want them to poke there noses in places where they shouldn't be. But his insistence on what makes a good officer leads to tragedy. Richard Widmark brings his usual intensity to the role; it was a perfect bit of casting
Sidney Poitier is there to give the opinions of a civilian** on the proceedings. What's also interesting is that race is barely an issue; I suspect he liked for once to be able to play a part where the role has no racial overtones. James MacArthur*** is also good as a man who wants to please his boss, but can't get anything right.
The film did OK, and won no awards and now is far overshadowed by the other films in the trilogy. But it's a great piece of cold war drama, with Widmark especially outstanding.**** Dr. Strangelove went for absurdity, but The Bedford Incident portrays things as the way they most likely would have happened, making it a chilling experience.
*When I first saw it, I decided it was the best film I'd ever seen. I was only 12 at the time and I'm still amazed that I had formed that opinion when most others my age were more excited by cowboys or Disney.
**And of the audience.
***Now remembered, if at all, as the person being told to "Book 'em, Dano" in Hawaii Five-O.
****He produced the film, so clearly wanted to play the role. It also was the first film role for Donald Sutherland.