A short note: Don’t be taken for a fool, Wes Anderson’s „The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou“ (2004) often appears in lists of the best submarine movies—but it’s not a submarine movie at all (only one sequence shows a dive with a submarine). And „Greyhound“ (2020), also often cited as one of the best submarine movies, is primarily a film about a destroyer chasing sporadically visible submarines.
The films are listed in chronological order.
The best submarine movies Nummer 1
alternativer Titel: Dawn
The mother of the modern submarine film
The plot: When setting out on the next patrol, dismissed by the subservient small-town citizens in the exuberant patriotism of the German Empire, a German U-boat crew fighting the British Navy is confronted with sinking.
„Morgenrot“ is the mother of all U-boat films: The Ufa film, shot on the eve of the Nazi dictatorship, oscillates between the glorification of heroic sacrifice and the disillusioning reality of war. Dashing officers, melancholic mates and the delicate mechanics of sinkings are shown. A number of the perspectives, sayings and situations from „Morgenrot“ can be found in almost every subsequent submarine film—a must-see.
The best submarine movies Nummer 2
We Dive at Dawn (1943)
The British submarine war film
The plot: The crew of the „Sea Tiger“ set sail in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, with the task of sinking the German destroyer „Brandenburg“. During the long search the British submarine runs out of fuel and provisions.
Shot in the middle of the war and wrapped in the historical aura of a time when most people hardly knew moving pictures of the inside of a submarine, „We Dive at Dawn“ celebrates the relentless fight of British sailors against the German Navy with soft propaganda tones—in addition to the obligatory depth charges, the morale booster film also shows the system of the Royal Navy depot ships, which serve as accommodation and coordination points for the sailors, and the journey through a minefield including a network blockage in the Baltic Sea. Anthony Asquith’s restrained staging without excited dramaturgy gives „We Dive at Dawn“ an authentic atmosphere.
The best submarine movies Nummer 3
Destination Tokyo (1943)
The submarine movie in the Hollywood wartime propaganda
Cary Grant, as Captain Cassidy, commands the USS Copperfin as it is sent into Tokyo Bay in this risky operation to gather priceless intel on the enemy in preparation for an airstrike—a fictional prologue to the real-life „Doolittle Raid“ in April 1942.
Almost forgotten now, but a huge hit at the box office in its day, „Destination Tokyo„—filmed by Warner Bros. during World War II—romanticizes the camaraderie in a metal tube of average Americans crammed together in a dutiful fight against the Japanese aggressors. Heroically and modestly they invoke the democratic fighting spirit against an enemy who has been militarized since childhood. Beyond the latent propaganda tone, „Destination Tokyo“ delivers as many snapshots of drastic everyday submarine life as the requirement to maintain combat morale and Hollywood’s Production Code allowed at the time.
The best submarine movies Nummer 4
Les maudits (1947)
alternativer Titel: The Damned
The psychological thriller among the submarine films
The plot: While the Allied troops are advancing inexorably, a German submarine leaves Norway shortly before the end of the war, on board a completely divergent troop of women and men—told from the retrospective of a French doctor.
Fanatics and opportunists, pathetic scoundrels and vile criminals, victims and perpetrators: in „Les maudits„, French filmmaker René Clement squeezes a heap of different fates into the confines of a German underground in the last days of the Second World War, strangely surreal in the no man’s land between battle and armistice, that offers either salvation or doom for its occupants. On board there is humiliation, hope, fear, murder—the gloom of the Oslo submarine station at the beginning of the film (in reality the ghostly submarine bunkers of Brest, from which only a few years earlier the submarines of the Kriegsmarine left) anticipates the later soul cannibalism of the travelers.
The best submarine movies Nummer 5
Morning Departure (1950)
The submarine as a steel coffin
The plot: unsuspectingly set sail on a training trip, the crew of the British submarine „Trojan“ suddenly find themselves on the bottom of the sea after being severely damaged by an old water mine from the Second World War—for the survivors the boat threatens to become a steel underwater grave.
Submarines aren’t very comfortable places anyway, but in „Morning Departure“ the sunken vehicle appears particularly puny and pessimistic in its mechanical coolness. The British post-war drama reflects its time: deprived and restrained.
The best submarine movies Nummer 6
Hell and High Water (1954)
The cinematographic advancement of the submarine film
The plot: US submarine Captain Jones, a veteran of the Pacific War, is hired by a secret organization to bring two nuclear scientists to a remote island whose Cold War secret is to be unraveled.
„Hell and High Water“ is the film Steven Spielberg reportedly always had in the trunk of his car—and indeed, the underwater journey to a remote island may serve as a source of inspiration for Spielberg’s „Raiders of the Lost Ark“ (1981) and its atmpsphere of exotic adventures (in one scene the whip-wielding archaeologist Indiana Jones hides her aboard a German submarine and ends up on a supposedly deserted island). The submarine in which Richard Widmark’s captain (also called Jones) and his small crew set out is a Japanese rust bucket—director Sam Fuller elicits the box office success, but overall rather mediocre strip, which he liked least of all his films, some impressive (onboard) sequences. This also includes a head-to-head underwater confrontation between two submarines and a scene where the command center is bathed in red light, which was an extremely demanding challenge for cameramen at the time.
The best submarine movies Nummer 7
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
The adventure movie among the submarine films
The plot: In 1868, three shipwrecked people were taken prisoner aboard the „Nautilus“, a formidable high-tech creature that cruises the depths of the ocean under the strict regime of its misanthropic captain Nemo and sinks warships and merchant ships in revenge.
The Disney classic is not just the film in which Kirk Douglas makes music with a seal, but also a fantastic technicolor adventure flick that has delighted generations of children and has plenty of Hollywood charisma. The screen adaptation of the famous Jules Verne novel was a huge success at the box office and, above all, impresses with its industrial-futuristic imagery.
The best submarine movies Nummer 8
Above Us the Waves (1955)
About the bold use of midget submarines
The plot: In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, the British want to sink the last large battleships of the German Navy. A special unit with small submarines is to attack the „Tirpitz“, which is threatening the Allied convoys in the North Sea from a Norwegian fjord.
„Above Us the Waves“ is one of a long line of films in which post-war British cinema celebrated the collective spirit and military effort by which the Empire had held its ground against Nazi Germany a decade earlier, and which—with a resolute gaze on the Box office potential—brought heroic tales of the British armed forces on the big screen. The charm of the film, in which a handful of men are crammed together to deposit explosive mines, lies in its historical reality: Operation „Source“, a high-risk and for many deadly mission of midget „X-class“ submarines.
The best submarine movies Nummer 9
Haie und kleine Fische (1957)
The submarine film against militarism
The plot: During the Second World War, friendly sea cadets are first sunk in the English Channel with a minesweeper flotilla and then go on an enemy voyage in a submarine.
Where have they all gone? Barely ten years after the end of the war, there is still plenty of melancholy in the title music and the images that accompany it. The calm underwater routine, the fear of water bombs and an impressive performance of a senior submarine engineer: „Haie und kleine Fische“ („Sharks and Small Fishes“) is—still or especially today—an amazing film experience that surprisingly anticipates a lot of „Das Boot„, shot almost a quarter of a century later. Rather than appearing as irritating montages, the sporadically cut-in original footage heightens the film’s uneasy wartime climate; next to air raids on the submarine there is a diving rescuer exit. But the eye-catcher of the film is Wolfgang Preiss with his infinite talent for German screen officers: Here he plays one of the best submarine captains in film history.
The best submarine movies Nummer 10
The Enemy Below (1957)
The submarine film in the look of classic Hollywood cinema
The plot: On the way to a rendezvous point with a merchant cruiser to receive classified documents, a German submarine in World War II comes into a violent confrontation with a US destroyer.
Submarine versus destroyer, Curd Jürgens versus Robert Mitchum, one stratagem after another: „The Enemy Below“ is an almost hour-and-a-half exchange of blows between two sea dogs who duel in mutual respect—and precisely this sympathy unmasks the absurdity of war with its ruthless extermination order.
The best submarine movies Nummer 11
Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
The staging of the power of concentration with which the U-boat people master the complicated mechanics of their deadly weapon system in a confined space
The plot: Since surviving the sinking of his submarine by a Japanese destroyer in the Straits of Bungo, Commander Richardson has been plotting revenge. A new command gives him a chance to live out his obsession with sinking the enemy ship, while his first officer questions the sanity of this maneuver between madness and subtlety.
„Run Silent, Run Deep“ consists first and foremost of its two stars, Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, one at the end of his career, the other at the zenith. Based on the best-selling book by an ex-Navy submarine commander, the film was set to be a guaranteed box-office hit for Lancaster’s own production company, HHL, but it turned out to be a huge flop. The deep-sea thrill is far from reaching „Das Boot„, but the crew routines in a confined space, together with the close-ups of countless apparatuses, convey a feeling for the strict concentration that prevails between the valves and pipes—in „Run Silent, Run Deep“ everything always seems a little more claustrophobic than in most other submarine movies.
The best submarine movies Nummer 12
Lupi nell’Abisso (1959)
alternativer Titel: Wolves of the Deep
The tough chamber play among the submarine films
The plot: Trapped at the bottom of the sea, 110 meters of water above their heads, separated only by a thin layer of metal. Instead of enjoying the comforts of the upcoming shore leave in their home port, the last crew members of a submerged Italian Navy submarine in World War II cling to the hope of using a diving buoy to get back to the surface after got hit by an air raid.
In the ice-cold black and white of „Lupi nell’Abisso„, the interior of the submarine with its mechanical look is a touch more life-threatening than in other submarine films. In this way, a gruesome chamber play can develop around half a dozen sailors.
The best submarine movies Nummer 13
Operation Petticoat (1959)
The submarine Romcom
Cary Grant in a blue bathrobe and one of his oil-covered sailors look in irritation at a wet woman’s arm sticking out of the open door of the submarine’s shower stall; the scene takes place in a narrow corridor full of Eastmancolor flair.
The romantic comedy among submarine films: In „Operation Petticoat“ Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, two of the greatest comedic talents in film history, exude in a narrow metal tube with their star power Hollywood charm of the 1950s cinema—an amusing Classic in Eastmancolor with plenty of submarine flair.
The best submarine movies Nummer 14
On the Beach (1959)
The submarine as a post-apocalyptic vehicle
The plot: A nuclear war has wiped out almost all life on the planet, in Australia the last survivors await the arrival of the radioactive clouds. As a lonely relic of a vanished civilization, a US Navy submarine travels halfway across the globe, only to get more and more certainty about the hopeless future.
„We’re all doomed, you know. (…) We haven’t got a chance!” exclaims Fred Astaire’s tragic nuclear scientist. Stanley Kramer’s surreal post-apocalypse drama is one of the most powerful works in film history—and along with „Fail-Safe“ (1964) it is a must for any anti-nuclear weapons education.
The best submarine movies Nummer 15
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
The submarine as a sci-fi fantasy
The plot: In order to save the life of an extremely important secret bearer, members of a medical team are shrunk and injected in miniaturized form into the human body, where they then travel through the arteries in a nuclear-powered submarine to dissolve a blood clot in the brain.
In the guise of one of Iriwn Allen’s sci-fi fantasies, the film plays with technologies that were still exciting enough in the ’60s, such as lasers and nuclear propulsion, plus the utterly incredible process of miniaturization—more than a voyage into another world, „Fantastic Voyage“ is a journey into another era of cinema.
The best submarine movies Nummer 16
Ice Station Zebra (1968)
The submarine in the arsenal of the Cold War
The plot: A US nuclear submarine makes its way through arctic pack ice in a race against the Soviets to recover military secrets at the North Pole.
„Ice Station Zebra„, which was produced at excessive costs at the time, not only exudes the charm of a classic spy film, but also plays with the importance of the nuclear balance of power in the bloc confrontation between East and West—and anchored the (nuclear) submarine in cinema history as one of the most conspicuous representations of the Cold War.
The best submarine movies Nummer 17
Komandir schastlivoy ‚Shchuki‘ (1973)
alternativer Titel: The Commander of the Lucky Pike
The Soviet submarine film
The plot: To elegiac melodies, almost like those of a spaghetti western, a Soviet submarine dives through seemingly hopeless situations in the North Sea during World War II, fighting the German Navy, which is preparing an attack on the Soviet naval port of Murmansk.
The way the camera closely watches the sailors at work under water, how they look through the thicket of mechanical equipment, how they give us a vague insight into the mood of people in a metal tube by observing their faces, sometimes it seems like in “Das Boot“ (1981)—only almost ten years later. The stoic heroism of the “Great Patriotic War” wafts through the scenes, mixed with a Soviet misery.
The best submarine movies Nummer 18
Gray Lady Down (1978)
The submarine in the disaster film
The plot: A US Navy nuclear submarine lies 440 meters below sea level after colliding with a Norwegian cargo ship; its (still) alive crew is to be saved from suffocation with the help of an experimental micro-submarine.
In Hollywood, the 1970s were the decade of disaster films—and the submarine from „Gray Lady Down“ was the underwater military counterpart to skyscrapers, passenger planes or entire cities. Here the otherwise merely latent danger for the crew suddenly becomes reality: being buried alive in the depths of the ocean; unable to ever return to the surface under their own power.
The best submarine movies Nummer 19
Das Boot (1981)
alternativer Titel: The Boat
The ultimate submarine movie
The plot: A German U-boat crew on patrols in the Atlantic in 1941, told from the point of view of a young war correspondent, based on the real „U 96“.
Ominous screw noises, the bang of steel bolts shooting out and—of course—the dull thunder of detonating depth charges: the film adaptation of an autobiographically colored novel is one of the most important productions of German cinema, abounds with famous film quotes and is a thoroughly oppressive depiction of naval warfare thanks to its detailed realism from an underwater perspective, an impressive compromise between blockbuster and pseudo-documentary with the crème de la crème of young West German actors from the early eighties. In terms of technical authenticity, military cruelty and claustrophobic atmosphere, „Das Boot“ is not only perhaps the best submarine film of all time—if not one of the most brilliant screen works ever—but also one of the most effective anti-war films.
The best submarine movies Nummer 20
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
The Hollywood blockbuster among submarine films
The plot: In 1984, the Soviet Navy entrusted command of its technologically most modern nuclear submarine with the new caterpillar drive, which makes this war machine almost invisible, to an officer who wants to defect—CIA analyst Jack Ryan thinks so before everyone else and tries to keep the alert US Navy from sinking the phenomenal technical monstrum.
For decades, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has been one of the most widely read characters in literary history. Harrison Ford in particular influenced him in the cinema, but Alec Baldwin completed his first screen appearance. „The Hunt for Red October“ is a masterpiece of Hollywood entertainment cinema, brilliantly cast (above all Sean Connery as Captain Ramius) and due to its release date, overwhelmed by the sudden demise of the USSR, also happens to be a cinematic epilogue to the Cold War.
The best submarine movies Nummer 21
Crimson Tide (1995)
Shows the importance of command and common sense in the age of nuclear submarines
The plot: The Cold War has just ended when a heated conflict erupts between the captain and first officer on the USS „Alabama“—contact with the outside world has been lost and nobody can verify the order received to launch nuclear missiles.
Jerry Bruckheimer, Don Simpson and Tony Scott: In the 1980s and 1990s, these were the names behind military action hits like „Top Gun“ (1986) and promised the studios endless box office triumphs. „Crimson Tide“ is based on the historical case of a Soviet submarine in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, where the question was whether the crew was merely reacting to a hostile nuclear attack or carelessly unleashing a nuclear apocalypse. The film plays with the age-old seafaring theme of legitimate mutiny, heightened by the scope of the nuclear age, in which an officer on a submarine suddenly has more influence over the fate of mankind than the democratically legitimized head of state in the White House. „This might be our Commander-in-Chief’s Navy, but this is my boat,“ Gene Hackman’s Captain Ramsay announces at the start of the mission—a preview of the sweaty struggle to maintain the chain of command. The (black and white) coldness of the equipment of older films gives way here to modern technology, which creates an almost warm and soft atmosphere, as if it were a political thriller in the wings of a Washington government agency.
The best submarine movies Nummer 22
alternativer Titel: Phantom: The Submarine
The Korean submarine movie
The plot: One of South Korea’s top military secrets is the nuclear submarine „Phantom“, for which only identityless sailors are recruited—sentenced to death and officially executed. When sailing into Japanese waters, on board two political ideologies collide.
Strongly acted and edited, close-ups, circular drives and quick changes of perspective: With one of the most atmospheric submarine cinematographies, „Yuryeong“ is one of the most uncompromising submarine films ever—the visual mood at the end lies somewhere between „Blade Runner“ and „Alien„.
The best submarine movies Nummer 23
The technical update of the submarine film
The plot: During the Second World War, a US special commando unit tries to hijack a German submarine in order to get access to the top-secret decoding machine „Enigma“, which can be used to decode all radio traffic of the German Navy.
Before the eyes of an audience of millions, „U-571“ seemed to be stealing the military-historical fame of the British Navy for the benefit of the US Navy, having captured a German „Enigma“ during the war. The fictional story and a number of inconsistencies (in addition to technical and military details, not least the machine gun fire at shipwrecked people) fit the commercial action touch of this ambitious project from the opulent cinema of Dino De Laurentiis, which, in addition to the cast full of well-known faces (including Matthew McConaughey, Jon Bon Jovi and Harvey Keitel) boasts an elaborate reconstruction of a German submarine.
The best submarine movies Nummer 24
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
The engineering disaster narrative among submarine movies
The plot: The “K-19” is the pride of the Soviet Navy as its first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. On its first mission in 1961, the boat tested an ICBM in a risky maneuver in the Arctic—on the way to the Atlantic there was a reactor accident on board.
In „K-19: The Widowmaker“ neither destroyers nor other submarines are the enemy, but physical forces; the greatest danger for the crew is not outside, but inside the boat. Some scenes are not only reminiscent of a Chernobyl under water, but also unfold the spooky atmosphere of the later reactor accident in 1986—the depressing mood increases again with the knowledge that this is the filming of a real event from the depths of the cold war. The film turned out to be a million dollar dig and nearly ruined the career of its director Kathryn Bigelow—who instead went on to become the first woman to win a director’s Oscar for ‚The Hurt Locker‚ (2008).
The best submarine movies Nummer 25
72 Metra (2004)
The Russian submarine film
The plot: After being hit by an old underwater mine, the crew of a Russian submarine struggles to survive in the flooded interior at a depth of 72 meters (236.22 ft).
„72 Metra“ exudes a muted post-Soviet vibe of the 1990s in which the film is set. The obvious budget limitations are masked by the claustrophobic confines and apparently couldn’t tempt anyone into a brilliant underwater spectacle—they favor the sober minimalism of this well-cast Russian-made film.
The best submarine movies Nummer 26
Manatsu no Orion (2009)
alternativer Titel: Battle Under Orion
The Japanese submarine film
The plot: In the last days of the war, in August 1945, the Pacific Battle, which has meanwhile been going on for years, continues. The Japanese submarine „I-77“ is one of the last remaining underwater weapons to intercept US convoys between Guam and Okinawa.
„Manatsu no Orion“ is first and foremost the submarine film, which shows a Japanese submarine and its crew for almost two hours, which in most submarine films usually only appear in a few scenes—later in the film it develops in the style of „The Enemy Below“ a sweaty duel with an American destroyer. What distinguishes „Manatsu no Orion“ above all, in addition to its change of perspective, is the portrayal of an extremely pathos-charged, respectful atmosphere among the men who are constantly fighting on the edge of the abyss, carried by a staging which, in its comparatively sober, authentic way, is considerably less pathetic and unreal than it easily could be.
The best submarine movies Nummer 27
Black Sea (2014)
The submarine movie where the crew is the greatest danger
The plot: Jude Law leads a squad of modernization losers in a rusting 1960’s Russian submarine to the Black Sea to find a sunken German WWII submarine said to have tons of gold inside it.
„Black Sea“ begins with a Ken Loach-esque constellation of booted workers and culminates in a hair-raising underwater struggle for survival. In the dilapidated Soviet boat from days gone by, expertise, desperation and gold rush madness mix into an explosive mood cocktail. The warm color tones in combination with the dreary submarine mechanics involuntarily exude an atmosphere as if from the forecourt of hell. Fierce tensions erupt among the highly specialized individualists, each excelling in their small field but worn-out talents—and all that in a fantastic location: a discarded Soviet Navy submarine with anachronistic technology straight from the depths of the Cold War.
The best submarine movies Nummer 28
The Ghazi Attack (2017)
The Indian submarine movie
The plot: In November 1971, war is in the air between Pakistan and India. The Indian submarine „S 21“ sets out to track down the Pakistani „Ghazi“—a technically superior submarine—in the Bay of Bengal. India’s Admiralty orders strict restraint, but in command is a captain who has read Patton and was suspended for two years for beating his subordinates.
After the Pakistani Navy had brought their point of view to TV screens twenty years earlier in „Ghazi Shaheed“ (1996), „Ghazi Attack“ was a late attack by India on the sovereignty of the events of late autumn 1971, when In the short Indo-Pakistani War in the Bay of Bengal, just off the Indian coast, the Pakistani attack submarine „Ghazi“ sank. „The Ghazi Attack“ is a film full of Indian patriotism that is undermined by propaganda from the title right down to the last minute. The underwater scenes look a lot like a computer game, but thanks to an excellent camera and an intense exchange of blows between two submarines, the film produces quite stirring images.
The best submarine movies Nummer 29
alternativer Titel: The Command
The real tragedy among submarine movies
The plot: Shortly after leaving the Russian naval base in Murmansk, a defective torpedo explodes on board the „Kursk“—the nuclear submarine sinks in the freezing depths of the Barents Sea, only with a handful of survivors on board hoping for a salvage team.
The most unimaginable tragedies are still told by reality: „K-141“, whose construction began shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, was one of the largest underwater vehicles ever welded, a militarily formidable steel colossus with a crew of 118. In the summer of 2000, the Russians, with Putin as the newly crowned president at the head of state, initially covered up the extent of the Arctic Ocean catastrophe and turned down offers of help from other countries with better equipment. Almost two dozen men had initially survived the accident, their rescue seemed to have been possible. Like Michael Cimino’s „Deer Hunter“ (1978) puts a happy wedding against the background of the Vietnam War, „Kursk“ at its beginning creates a brutal contrast to the further course of the film, which is a staging of the monstrous horror in which hope is literally suffocated.
The best submarine movies Nummer 30
Hunter Killer (2018)
The submarine as an interventionist in
The plot: Joe Glass has endured decades of slogging aboard US Navy submarines to become the new captain of the USS „Arkansas“ on a particularly sensitive mission in the Barents Sea. In foreign waters the US-submarine gets involved in the middle of a Russian military coup.
“Hunter Killer” still manages to tease out a little bit of tension from well-known underwater situations from the nearly hundred-year-old history of submarine films. One notices the film’s unbelievable love of detail and its energetic striving for authenticity; add to this the insane pacing, a strong cast (with Gerard Butler as one of the best screen commanders) and a conn atmosphere in which the Navy mentality is almost palpable—including perhaps the most realistic diving sequence of any submarine film.
The best submarine movies Nummer 31
Le chant du loup (2019)
alternativer Titel: The Wolf’s Call
The French submarine film—the (nuclear) submarine as a neuralgic point in the survival of mankind
The plot: The „Effroyable“ is the pride of the French Navy—the nuclear submarine is to carry out a nuclear counter-attack in the event of a crisis on the orders of the President. When a nuclear missile suddenly rushes towards France, the young sonar genius Chanteraide has doubts about the alleged Russian origin of the cruise missile—but, due to strict naval protocol, the „Effroyable“ can no longer be recalled.
„Le chant du loup“ boasts a well-dosed mixture of conn thrill and undersea tension; Some on-board scenes exude a documentary atmosphere through camera angles, sequence of cuts and authentic acting—with a spooky aura, the nuclear submarine suddenly becomes the ultimate threat to the familiar present. The strong cast of characters, the condensed situation on the threshold of the nuclear apocalypse and the unpretentious action in a modern high-tech ambience unfold such a pull that the viewer is literally drawn into this film.
Don’t forget to check our list of (almost) all submarine movies ever made: