Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cold War Nostalgia And "The Bedford Incident"

There is these days a murmur among the pundit class regarding the passing of the Soviet Union from the world scene. There is a wondering whether this passing was in truth a bad thing, rather than being a good thing as had been previously supposed. I was way ahead of the curve on this attitude. To me, from the first, the demise of the Soviets was a thing to be mourned, not celebrated.

The Cold War was, on balance, a good thing, its tensions created stability and clarity. Any perceived threat to world peace was very abstract at best, and was a small price to pay for the benefit conferred. I trusted the Soviet leadership to remain cool-headed and cost-benefit minded, much more so than I trust many current world leaders with their fingers on buttons, nuclear and otherwise.

In those days, the two great powers faced each other solemnly across the chess table, and all of the pieces obeyed the directions of their masters’ hands, and the pawns quietly awaited their fates, as it should be. This beautiful order of things had been disturbed in the years leading up to the final dissolution, but for several decades the hypnotic specter of Mutually Assured Destruction had kept the entire world frozen in a peaceful, not unpleasant embrace.

The Bedford Incident

“The Bedford Incident” is a lovely movie made in 1965, the height of the Cold War. The movie was directed by James B. Harris. The screenplay was adopted from a novel by James Bascowich. That book was one of many written during the period which exploited the exquisite fear that some unfortunate human error would break the spell of peace with a substantial, unanticipated explosion.

It is the story of an American destroyer and a Russian submarine that engage in a game of cat and mouse in the frozen ocean between Greenland and Iceland. The destroyer’s captain (Richard Widmark) has an Ahab like obsession with Russian submarines. The only one who seems to be made anxious by this is a Kriegsmarine Commodore on board as a NATO technical advisor. This former U-boat captain serves as the voice of reason here, a prudent advocate of caution in a sea of monomania.

James MacArthur plays a junior officer who is eager to please and wants to get ahead. He tries very hard to please the captain, but can’t seem to make it work. The captain is very hard on him, disliking his “quarterback most likely to succeed” profile. That the captain rides him hard enough to make him erratic when exhausted becomes abundantly clear at the end of the movie, when his equilibrium is upset and the inevitable disaster is precipitated.

There are many nice touches:

One scene features the six or seven Filipino commissarymen. This is accurate. During the mid-Sixties, naval officers were served by dedicated Filipino servants in nice, white jackets, as presented here. Regular commissarymen, cooks for the general crew, were still mostly Black at the time. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that most Blacks in the Navy at the time were commissarymen. This was just beginning to change in the mid-Sixties. (Yes, I was an enlisted sailor at the time.)

Sidney Poitier plays a photographer for a magazine on assignment to do a story about the ship. (Probably “Life” magazine.) This is an admirable bit of casting, because there is nothing Black-specific about the role, and the screenplay never makes reference to the photographer’s race. Top marks to somebody for that.

Yes, nuclear drama ensues. “If he fires one, I’ll fire one.” The young officer hears this and says, “fire one!” And he does too, he fires one, and the sub does too, and the sub is destroyed while the destroyer is left to listen to the ping of the sub’s torpedo getting louder and closer. Cue the mushroom cloud.

We were luckier in real life. Lucky that the bad luck in real life, and I assume that it happened, was not as serious as the bad luck in the movie. Lucky, too, to live in the peace of that wonderful era.

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