There’s a serious threat to global security due to mysterious nuclear weapon activity in an isolated area in the Far East. Leaders of nations around the globe are concerned but can’t get a diplomatic handle on the situation. Can a secret, unofficial, nongovernmental mission – supposedly not one of combat but one of photographic reconnaissance – expose nefarious plots and make the world a bit safer? There’s a little bit of 2018 in the above scenario, conjuring up shadows of the post World War II period known as the Cold War. But it’s also part of a hell-for-leather, Cinemascope action adventure that opened 64 years ago today at the fearful height of that age of anxiety, director Samuel Fuller’s brawny submarine thriller Hell and High Water (1954), which started with an atomic explosion mushrooming across the wide 2.55:1 screen in all its horrifying beauty and proposes to show what triggered it. It starts as a shadowy cloak-and-dagger tale: ex-Navy man Captain Jones (Richard Widmark) is summoned to Japan and asked to helm – for a sizable paycheck upon completion – a privately-funded submarine expedition (in a retrofitted vessel of his former Japanese enemy) to conduct “the scientific investigation of these uninhabited north Pacific islands that lie in neutral waters between the free world and the iron curtain,” with the suspicion that “an arsenal for atomic weapons” may be harbored there. It was a Fox contract job that the maverick Fuller didn’t originate or feel personally connected to, yet he made it his own mission to explore the filmic possibilities of the expansive frame in claustrophobic conditions, and couldn’t help “personalizing” it all the same in the way he got the job done technically, working closely with his cinematographer Joe MacDonald, and on paper, rewriting and adding gritty detail to the first-draft screenplay of Jesse Lasky Jr.
In her incisive 2017 study Film Is like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies, film scholar Marsha Gordon writes: “First, the idea that governments would not be acting to adequately protect people from this atomic plot, which private citizens are aware of and compelled to act upon, seems to be dangerously critical of government. Second, the idea of a film that seems to be advocating for vigilante global policing seems politically unacceptable. The implication of the plot is that is that if (or perhaps since) governments don’t do their jobs, individuals need to step in to do it for them. Of course, as Fuller would certainly have said, this is ‘just a film’ – not a documentary, and certainly not a speech expressing anyone’s personal beliefs. But given the Cold War context in which it was created and the scrutiny Fuller had already been subject to, it is surprising to observe such potentially subversive ideas existing undisguised on the surface of the film.” As Fuller was by then already a superb juggler of both the subversive and the patriotic in his movies, it becomes an intriguing conceit, as was the introduction of a romantic element between commander Widmark and the cool, efficient and ultimately resourceful lady scientist (Bella Darvi) on board. Archival studio script conference notes, Gordon observed, reveal that as instigated by studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck: “Fuller embraced these gender dynamics. ‘As for the relationship between Jones and Christine: It is the aim of Sam Fuller to get into it some of the flavor of the early Gable-Crawford pictures – all sex.’ Fuller’s Cold War films were ripe for such raw sexual dynamics.” And even Christine, during a secret reconnaissance mission to scope out the suspicious atoll where the lethal weaponry is hidden, bravely participates in the climactic combat between crewmen and Commies that eventually arrives. Also starring Victor Francen, Cameron Mitchell, Gene Evans, David Wayne and Richard Loo, Hell and High Water nabbed an Academy Award® nomination for its Special Effects, a Directors Guild of America Best Director nomination for Fuller and, despite its cockeyed geopolitics, “earned the largest box office for any Fuller film except The Big Red One (1980),” according to Lisa Dombrowski in her 2008 book The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! Submerge yourself into the Hell and High Water excitement of “29 men and one woman…in the captive world of a submarine!” on hi-def Blu-ray from Twilight Time, the label that’s also home to dazzling discs of the director’s The Crimson Kimono, House of Bamboo and another ripped-from-the-headlines yarn due next month.