The Bedford Incident (1965)
A Few Observations by Philip Powers © 20180408
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This has been a favourite film of mine before I was even a teenager. And it’s one of my favourite themes: there’s a bad person and a good person, someone deceives another and stalks them and then exacts their form of justice. Like Star Wars – politically, even though no one ever says it – or the socially unacceptable Death Wish this kind of film is completely reprehensible to most, because it puts the fate of the people, the town, the city, the country, the world, in the hands of a vigilante or vigilantes. As the machinations of The Bedford Incident‘s plot unravels we get to see aspects in the characters of the people involved. It is also a variation on a genre where there is a reliable man – not known as a villain – within the ranks of the kind of people that the audience understands, instinctively – to be trusted to represent their values and the values of the people that the film is aimed at. When they realise they’ve been hoodwinked, it’s not pretty.
Of course Death Wish is all about doing to certain people what well-adjusted people won’t do. Whereas, films about gang violence are about people doing things to other people without a thought for the consequence – be it against themselves or against their neighbour (Gran Torino).
Death Wish (2018), the recent version, turned the vigilante from an architect (Charles Bronson) into a doctor (Bruce Willis). One creates buildings and the other saves lives. It added a different and well-expressed change to the thinking behind someone going out on their own to kill those he hates, or blames, for the death of everything he holds sacred. I know that I’m say he a lot, so let me put the other perspective and argument forward. She does the same thing in The Brave One when she (a woman – Jodie Foster) goes out and takes revenge on those who say she (Jodie Foster and her character – a radio host) can’t be seen to be who she actually is. And in The Accused, she had every right to do the same thing but wasn’t able to.
Like in real life, it is: Nazis/Rest of the World, Empire/Revolutionaries & Renegades, Good vs Bad, Bad vs Good. And amongst those categories is only one sure thing – an unremitting constant – not taxes – death.
And the other (overlooked) constant is a building and never-ending rebellion to overthrow the government currently in power. Taxes are a constant, to be sure, once you have power. But Death and Rebellion are the two constants in life. And then, for the period when one or the other is in power, then there will be taxes.
There are plot points and storylines that are cleverly conceived and plotted in The Bedford Incident, beyond what most dramas try for. If you’re a writer or producer and you want to make a statement about individuals being overly enthusiastic about exercising their rights over another person’s rights, then dictators, and Captain Finlander, are on the same page.
If you want to make a statement twenty years after the end of the Second World War then you’re almost there by making it about Americans against the people they’re trying to keep honest. If Germany (and/or Russia) won the war and patrolled people’s lives like Captain Finlander patrols the ocean there would be screams from viewers rightly calling them – I don’t know! – brutal and unnecessarily aggressive in their manner of rule.
The film is a co-production between Richard Widmark’s production company and James B Harris and Columbia. What was nice in the mid-fifties and the sixties was that big stars could form their own companies and make films which would be assured the status of mainstream releases. John Wayne (particularly), Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Humphrey Bogart were – along with James Stewart who negotiated profit participation instead of a huge fee – some who took advantage of their status in Hollywood to make films that meant something to them – be it their beliefs or their politics.
Whatever Widmark’s political beliefs he chose a project which swapped the German/Russian aggressor on its head. The United States, in their new role as schoolmasters for the naughty communists, were virtually untouchable when it came to weeding out communists in American and exercising their power to judge people’s politics without a trial. It had already happened with the Hollywood blacklisting and Arthur Miller had already written his play about witch-hunts, The Crucible.
The aggressive nature of the Americans against any form of socialism or communism in the United States was, as Miller nailed in his play, about the USA having new powers to intimidate anyone they wanted to intimidate, just because they could. They didn’t even need to have reasonable cause for the interviews. It was about naming names and about having power without a reasonable degree of accountability. It had a court to question and sanction witnesses who were non-responsive, resulting in being blacklisted by the actions of their friends in an industry afraid of losing their revenue stream.
Not as aggressive as The Crucible, The Bedford Incident, following and including the decades of Cold War between Russia and America, puts the shoe on the other foot and calls in to question American militaristic values.
The Bedford Incident is covert in the way it handles the issues and shows a street-smart attitude against the villainy of the American inquiries into people’s beliefs by making it about doing what America and the other NATO countries were doing as a result of the end of WWII, to monitor and kerb any further German warmongering.
But here, the film does something spectacular. It honours the attitude of Captain Finlander, which troubles – but only a little – a reporter, Munceford, played by Sidney Poitier, cut straight out of the pages of a caricature of a Time, Life or Newsweek reporter.
Everything Finlander does is by the book. No amount of journalistic traps by Poitier can outsmart the fact that Widmark is a party-line soldier, all the way down the line.
The film’s clever ploy is to build Finlander up to be a person who in no way can be confused with Senator Joseph McCarthy. He follows his orders whatever the words he is muttering under his breath.
Just as the American destroyer plays cat and mouse with the Russian submarine, so Finlander does with the reporter, Munceford, who hopes to catch him lapsing in a moment of anger, when he can grab a quotable quote. Munceford writes down his version of interviews and conversations he has witnessed and takes photos, all of which will show that Findlander is not a peacekeeper but a militant hardliner little different from, and much like, the Nazi, the Germans had as a leader in the 1930s.
Two clever things the film does is:
1) Show that Findlander is reasonable and that his men are faithful but not oppressed. The doctor thinks they’re living under unbearable pressure. No one else agrees and he is shown to be a fool who is out of his depth.
2) Put words into the mouth of someone who has seen, first-hand, what nationalistic fervour does – the Commodore – who has equal experience as Finlander but no power and no authority.
Through these two devices the film is able to build a plot which shows that Finlander is hard but fair despite the fact that even the enemy from 20 years ago thinks that he’s unfair.
Munceford thinks he’s getting a scoop on a tough leader – albeit of a large boat – who wishes that America was still at war. He’s seen taking photographs to underline the facts that his written words will reveal to his Time, Life & Newsweek readers. This is the most beautifully executed aspect of the film. Right up until the last 60 seconds he’s taking photographs he knows will be printed under his byline in a major American magazine as he exposes this miniature-American-Hitler. But then, ppfffft. They’re all gone.
THE BEAUTY OF THE FILM
James B Harris and James Poe and the author of the novel show that all humans who command overwhelming respect, even though they are authoritarian, have a charisma that aids them in spite of their behaviour, which is beyond what many people can see is reasonable in any other person. It’s the position charismatic power puts in the hands of some humans who can use it to make men follow the craziest of orders to the point of exhaustion.
Through this sleight of hand the director and writer have drawn our attention away from what is really going on.
The warnings are there for all to see, but only a doctor, who is given no respect, because he’s been in the reserves for twenty years, can see what the pressure of a dictator can do. His warnings are given to the captain in a gentle manner. He’s rebuffed and made to feel a fool. Not even the journalist can see where this is headed because he’s only got eyes for exposing one level of bad management. He’s got his eyes on his words and his pictures on the cover and on pages 4-12, in an important magazine to show that he really know what is going on behind the veil the U.S. military operates under which they know is hidden to the public and the world.
Then comes 1) and 2).
1) The men are oppressed and they are at the edge of what their being can bear. They love being at war despite the fact they’re a decade into peace, but Finlander keeps the ship running with temperatures pushed to the limit. The doctor can see it. He’s even gobsmacked by the fact there are no sick people on a ship with over three hundred men. He’s similar gobsmacked that no one wants to go to a nice, easy, job, back home. Equally, the doctor and Munceford are incredulous that this captain could command this level of respect. The hints at him, Widmark, Finlander, being a dictator are spread throughout the film. The audience or viewer knows he is not a nice man or able to be pleased and that he will drive a person over the edge of sanity. But, because he’s American, there’s only a few warning shots that director Harris fires across Widmark’s bows. This kind of allegiance is fanaticism. This kind of rule is through fear not respect.
2) The words which Hollywood veterans know they can’t give to Americans (in a script) against Germans and Russians (because they’ll get unwanted laughs) are given to an adviser (the Commodore) who only needs three stiff drinks a day to tell you that your pants are on fire if your pants are on fire. He doesn’t sugar-coat anything. He was a U-boat commander who has changed sides even though his heart when-push-comes-to-shove lies with the prey not the hunter. He accepts his position and his daily schnapps but he’s a man who will not say something that can be written down as a quote (until he sees his very own Furher coming to life in Finlander who continues to push the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable).
One of the most important narrative devices in the film, is to start a new timeline within the unfolding story. When the Russian submarine goes underwater to escape, Finlander sets a clock from zero, so they can count how many hours the Russians have been submerged. Eventually they’ll run out of air and have to surface. At that point he’ll be there to stand over them and scold them for breaking the rules. Finlander is a symbol for School Principals who run their school like it’s the army, like bullies who run the playground and take out anyone who is targeted as weak for whatever reason, like the new power or government does when it wins a convincing victory over its opponent, like the fanatical upholders of the Jewish faith do when Jesus does something on the Sabbath instead of making it a day or rest.
Finlander is a reasonable autocrat at the start who has the respect of his men. As he presses harder and harder he keeps their respect because he will always adhere to the exact wording of the rules and follow orders. If he exceeds his authority he doesn’t allow himself to be caught out through his words and if his feelings (or even actions) are seen to be different from the people who tell him what to do, if someone else describes his behaviour and actions in words, he says they’re interpreting what he’s said or done, or that they’re putting words in his mouth.
By creating another cat-and-mouse game between Munceford and Finlander, the director brings the bigger picture, two nations fighting a cold war, inside the U.S. Destroyer, 113. At the end of the big set-piece where Munceford and Finlander talk without witnesses, Poitier puts words into Widmark’s mouth. Five minutes later when the interview is over, Findlander reminds the journalist as he leaves the Captain’s Quarters that he never said the words “move in for the kill,” they were Munceford’s words, not his. The script, and Findlander, is precise in what can and can’t be said and attributed to the Captain. It is so careful in the way it chooses the words for Munceford and Finlander, in their cat-and-mouse, in their chess game, so that Finlander can’t be caught out, even by a hidden tape-recorder.
When Finlander eventually gets the authorisation to force the Russian submarine to surface so that it can be escorted back to International waters he is livid because the Russians are now already back in International waters. He uses an analogy of someone robbing his house and fleeing. He says that when the thief get to the sidewalk he doesn’t give up chasing them. Because they’ve broken the rules they deserve to be caught. And then shamed. Publicly.
The ticking clock within the film’s own timeline shows that this dogged hunting of the submarine has become merciless when the submerged time exceeds 20-hours and then 24-hours.
The German Commodore who Finlander uses to bounce ideas off and get advice from becomes upset about the American Captain’s tactics. When the journalist questions him, he brushes the question aside, indicating that only his schnapps matters now. “20, 25-years ago, I was involved, but no longer,” he says referring to the period of his involvement in the Second World War. Soon, he warns Finlander about his tactics, “Let it go. You will only find trouble with this obsession. Let it go.”
Again, he warns Finlander that he is making the commander of the Russian submarine desperate. Finlander tells him that his way, the American way, is that the Americans are to be considered “a desperate force.”
A line moments later, said by the Commodore, probably would be too melodramatic from the mouth of an American. He tells Finlander, in his measured tone, “To be frank, I consider you frightening.”
Finlander brushes it all aside and tells his men to head directly for the snorkel. His crew want to know, “How shall I designate it?”
He replies, telling them to mark it up as an, “Unidentified Floating Object.”
To this point, as much as his ship are the hounds nipping at the heels of the fox, to this very moment, Finlander is playing a game. In wartime it was cat-and-mouse but it wasn’t a game. Out of wartime playing cat-and-mouse has become a game. Finlander loads his tubes with torpedos. He’s now not able to comprehend his own words. He’s preparing for the worst eventuality, that if the Russian’s fire first, he will fire second. So inflamed with self-righteousness he can’t understand that if it plays out this way, they’re all going to be dead.
He’s the hunter and the Russians are animals and he does in fact want to be there for the kill. Not a literal kill, but for the Russians to suffer the humiliation of being dressed down by the School Captain or the Principal.
The ex-German-U-boat Commodore warns the American again, “You’re insane… They will act like animals… Captain, you’re a fool.”
In wartime, in situations like this, you don’t need to cheat. You see the enemy and pull the trigger or fire the torpedo that explodes or blows your opponent’s brain or boat out of its skull or out of the water. It’s black and white. But when it’s become a game, how much you can cheat before you’re actually caught cheating becomes a matter of interpretation, like in Football, Cycling, Swimming, Cricket or Rugby, adjudicated by a referee. In the real war as well as the cold war there are no on-field referees and the captain is the only voice that must be heard, and the captain’s order is the only order that must be followed… Immediately…
When the Commodore has called him a fool, Finlander says that he won’t fire first, but, “If he fires first, I’ll fire one.”
The ensign who he has never praised, never let-up-on, who is a metaphor for the entire crew who are seemingly constantly at General Quarters in peacetime, repeats, “Fire one,” and presses the button.
The rest is black comedy. It’s not black comedy like Dr Strangelove. It’s the kind of comedy where it is so awful that one could probably only laugh on reflection.
Poitier’s reporter is taking photos right up until the moment he’s chased the Captain outside of the bridge to watch the torpedos firsthand.
One of Cinema’s most sardonic and funniest lines has got to be from Poitier, “You have a torpedo invasion plan, haven’t you?” He repeats his question.
As the captain with the enigmatic stare – that is always half way between an Emperor who won’t allow anyone else to say anything, and the Emperor who will briefly allow stupid people to say stupid things – digests his own stupidity, the rejection of the wise advice he received, and the fact that he himself has become an animal, Mounceford shouts at him, “Answer me, damn you!”
Because I’m now watching this on a big screen, I’ve never noticed before that James B. Harris allows images of the final moments, of people on the bridge, to flare and burn like a piece of celluloid caught in a projector. It’s the end. Equivalent retaliation will begin the nuclear equivalent of a table-tennis ball ping-ponging back and forth as the two major nuclear powers wipe each other out.
Fade to black…
SWITCHING WITH WHOM WE IDENTIFY
The best role-reversal of this situation is probably Twelve Angry Men when the villain (a juror with a few questions) fights for truth and justice and the American way. Of course, any effective spy who changes the minds of eleven other people – or a nation or the world – qualifies. That probably ranks Jesus as one of the most effective deep-cover agents ever. He lived, suspected but largely undetected, as a Christian (even though the term hadn’t been invented then) for thirty years before he began his three year term of undermining the local authorities, the broader government and the Roman Empire, unleashing his assault on the non-Jewish population of the rest of the world. That’s pretty funny. To accept that fact, if you believe in The Bible, means the deepest mole of all time was a carpenter, the son of Mary and Joseph and (God). It’s like War of the Worlds, but without the ugly monsters. Jesus was implanted into the world’s existence before the world even began. This was all to unsettle the status quo and to create a new world order by overthrowing the previous world order.
And we keep making the same movies and writing the same stories about the same thing because most of the world has forgotten or never known that the rebellion against the Empire started with Jesus. He was the biggest rebel, the most insistent revolutionary.
He also persuaded God to turn ten commandments into two commandments and made all ten fit within the boundaries of the two, which he called the greatest. He also broken down the barrier which required all interactions with God to be done through a priest. This enabled all people, to have direct forgiveness – without sacrifices – through Jesus – from God.
Jesus is the ultimate iconoclast. The ultimate person who rebels against the status quo. The ultimate revolutionary.
– Philip Powers, April 2018