WARNING – MINOR SPOILERS IN THIS FEATURE.
The Battle of the Atlantic is one of the lesser portrayed aspects of the second world war in cinema.
In the seven decades since world war two ended, you can count on one hand the number of major films that have depicted the plight of those who worked on the convoys.
‘Convoys’ refers to the crucial movements of war materials and men across the Atlantic Ocean primarily between the United States and Great Britain to help fight the European War.
Those notable among the few films exploring the Battle of the Atlantic include U-571 in the early 2000s and the epic Das Boot by Wolfgang Petersen in 1981, considered by many to be top of class in the U-boat cinema stakes.
Now there is a new title to add to the list – Greyhound - written for the screen by the film’s leading man, Tom Hanks, based on the 1955 book, The Good Shepherd.
But how does the film stand up when compared to a legendary film like Das Boot and how accurate a story is it?
BFBS has spoken to two experts about Greyhound and the key themes explored in the film to find out if the hype around the movie is warranted.
Nick Hewitt is the Head of Collections and Research at the National Museum of the Royal Navy. He spoke to BFBS after watching Greyhound and was assertive in his praise for the men and women who made the film. He said:
“You cannot overstate the importance of the North Atlantic convoys.
"Nothing happens in the European war if the Battle of the Atlantic is lost. Without it, you don’t finish off the campaign in North Africa, you don’t go into Italy. You don’t ever get into Normandy itself.
“It’s really important that this film has been made. I was super impressed by it. It’s really great to see the war at sea depicted in cinema.”
Greyhound follows the daunting activities of a convoy protection ship captained by affable Ernest Krause, as it embarks on a cross Atlantic mission protecting a large fleet of supply ships heading for Liverpool.
Onboard the convoy ships heading to England is everything from bullets and rifles to battalions of American soldiers, all vital to the European war effort.
But in the waters of the mid-Atlantic and hidden from view are deadly U Boats waiting to kill.
“Let’s be honest, now more than ever, duff history is dangerous.
“Without those huge American forces transferred to Britain thanks to the convoys, we would have been sat here on our own. We are just an island.
“Without all that equipment, we wouldn’t have won the war.”
In the film, Ernest Krause, played by Tom Hanks, must command the crew of his warship through wave after wave of U Boat attack in his mission of protecting the convoy and its vital cargo from the relentless enemy silently patrolling beneath the waves.
Another person praising Greyhound for its realism is former Royal Navy Commodore, Alistair Halliday.
While serving, Alistair commanded a number of ships including Frigates and Destroyers. Speaking of Hanks' character, Ernest Krause, he remarked:
“It’s a very good depiction of command at sea. I thought he came across as a very credible CO.
“Tom Hanks wore lot of the fatigue, the worry, the stress of command … it was really etched on his face, he did that really well.”
In telling the story of the Convoys, Director Aaron Schneider placed a great emphasis on CGI battle scenes that make up the core of the movie's action. Speaking about the reality of those scenes, and the actual events they attempted to recreate, Nick Hewitt was again complimentary of the film ...
“There are scenes where he has to run back through the columns of ships in the convoy and he almost gets run down as he does by the ships he is meant to be protecting. The film shows him moving fast in the darkness of the ocean. This was very accurate.
“It was a period when there were not enough escort ships and plenty of German U Boats, so seeing him go backwards and forth in the chaos to protect the ships was really impressive.
“Personally, I think the CGI in this film is the best I have ever seen.”
For former Commodore Alistair Halliday, certain scenes in the movie brought back memories of his days at sea …
“The view from the bridge was very realistic … specifically being close to other ships … that brought home some memories for me.
“The scenes on the bridge, the attention to detail was very well done. That all worked very well.
"Another scene superbly done was when he goes back to his cabin after the action. I remember going down to my cabin after long exercises and just lying in my pit in a similar way. I thought that was very nicely done."
According to Nick, the history as told in the film stands up to scrutiny:
“It’s nice for people like me that every piece of detail is not explained.
“The level of detail on the convoy ships themselves and the activities seen within the convoy, particularly on the discipline and structure with regards to things like the Convoy Commodore is superb.”
This is something echoed by Alistair. He said:
“Given the importance of the Battle of the Atlantic, to have a modern film with good simulation and with good detail showing what it would have been like, fighting off wolf attacks in the Atlantic, it is really good to see that in a modern film.”
The film’s running time is short when compared to other films in the genre.
The uncut version of Das Boot runs at a staggering four hours and 51 minutes. By comparison, Greyhound is a trim 91 minutes with about seven of those taken up by end-credits. On this, Nick commented:
“It’s compressed, which for me, a film has to be. It’s a movie, not a documentary.”
In the film, we see Krause triumphing over enemy attacks as well as sometimes baulking over what tactics to deploy against the silent U Boat threat. The character is played as a man who makes mistakes in a sometimes too honest manner.
In the midst of one such deliberation, the unseen enemy intercepts a radio frequency being used by commanders of the convoy to communicate, and in one of the more psychologically sinister scenes in the film, the German U Boat crews are heard teasing the captain from under water, telling the listening men they are 'going to die today'.
Nick suggested that this may have been one of the few instances in the film where the drama was written into the script to benefit the overall story, as opposed to being something that regularly happened at sea.
“I have never come across any accounts of the U Boat crews trolling convoy protection commanders like that.
"But, based on everything else I have seen in the film I have a certain amount of trust that it may have occurred at some point. I don’t know.
“I watch drama for drama and so I understand that writers have to sometimes write drama, I allow some license for that.
“But there is a balance between throwing history out of the window just to add to drama and they didn’t do that with this film. They got the balance right.
“It’s right up there with Das Boot for me.”
And Alistair agreed: "It will resonate with anybody who has served in the navy, but also anybody who has an interest in World War Two history.
"I will watch it again."
The drama of the crossing depicted in the movie does come to a resolution, but there are no spoilers about the end of the movie to be found here.
For the real men who defended ships daily in what turned out to be the longest continuing battle throughout the war, as soon as one crossing concluded, another one began. It is this fact that made the convoy patrols of the North Atlantic so crucial to the eventual outcome of the second world war. And judging by the remarks of our experts, Nick and Alistair, Greyhound does not do anything to diminish that incredible feat ... in fact, it honours it.
Greyhound is available to stream now on Apple TV.