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July 01, 2010

Watching "The Frogmen" (1951)

It's always interesting to watch old movies showing scuba, and recently I came across a mention of "The Frogmen," a black & white 1951 film produced by Samuel Engel and distributed by 20th Century Fox. The movie supposedly featured ground-breaking underwater video almost a decade before the series "Sea Hunt" with Lloyd Bridges popularized scuba on TV, and also five years before Jacques Cousteau won an award for his movie "The Silent World" at the Cannes Film Festival. In fact, the cinematography even earned an Oscar nomination. Amazingly, Netflix had it. I put it into my queue and watched it last night.

"The Frogmen" features Richard Widmark, Jeffrey Hunter, Dana Andrews and Gary Merrill, and tells the story of a Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) deployed in World War II in the Pacific Theatre to clear beaches for landing. The UDT was an actual elite special force of the US Navy, and the movie begins stating that "this is a true story based on incidents which occurred in the latter part of World War II..."

The plot is about a UDT team that had lost its beloved leader, and is now reluctant to accept a new commander, especially since the new guy had a different, no-nonsense style. There's excellent footage of how the UDT team, in just swimming trunks, masks and fins, reconnoiters the shallow waters of an enemy beach for mines, records data on slates, and then places explosives. The divers are deployed, one by one, from a landing craft type of fast boat into a Zodiac attached to its side. Most impressive is how they are then picked up again after the mission is complete: they line up in the water, and are retrieved, again one by one, via a rope loop as the boat speeds by them, sort of as shown in the movie "GI Jane" where actress Demi Moore attempts to join the Navy SEALs.

Scuba does not make an entry until the final part of the movie where the UDT team deploys from a submarine to lay mines onto a Japanese sub in a base. The team now wears drysuits and triple tanks, cuts its way through netting with trip wires and successfully performs the mission, though not without accidentally setting off the trip wires and having to engage in an underwater knife fight with Japanese free divers. His leadership in this mission finally earns the new commander the respect of his team and all ends well.

Even almost 60 years after it was shot, the movie is eminently watchable, with a good plot and, for the time, excellent footage. The underwater shots are better and more extensive than I expected.

Problem, though, is that it's not a true story as far as equipment goes. While Emile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau did invent and test the demand valve regulator in 1943, the Aqua Lung didn't actually hit the market until 1946 in France and the early 1950s in the US. The US Navy definitely did not use scuba in WW II. In addition, for a mission as shown in the movie, the Navy would have used rebreathers, but even those were supposedly not yet used by the US Navy in WW II either. Which means that "The Frogmen" shows scuba technology that was not actually used until several years later by the UDT, probably in the early 1950s (see Wiki on Underwater Demolition Team).

Nonetheless, it was certainly interesting to watch "The Frogmen," and I can highly recommend it to anyone interested in military underwater deployments.

What's interesting is that the opening screen states, "This film could not have been produced without the active cooperation of the Department of Defense and the United States Navy", both of which certainly knew that the UDT had not used scuba in WW II. Perhaps, since this was during the era of the cold war, endorsing the impression that the US military had used such weapons was part of a scheme to discourage the enemy out there.

Posted by conradb212 at July 1, 2010 06:06 PM

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