1995 brought to the silver screen a titanic clash of two brilliant actors placed in an impossible situation. Crimson Tide may have upset the US Navy, but it allowed moviegoers the chance to step inside a modern nuclear submarine and watch how the crew reacts when given orders to launch nuclear missiles at a target.
‘To Touchstone and Beyond’ starts a two week look at Denzel Washington’s work with Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures. ‘When Denzel Met Tony’ starts with 1995’s Crimson Tide.
It’s the mid 1990’s and a Russian radical has formed an army and is currently stirring up trouble in Russia. At his daughter’s birthday party, Ron Hunter, played by Denzel Washington is watching the news with his friend Peter, played by Viggo Mortensen, when the phone rings. It seems that the Russian radical has caused an international emergency. Hunter meets with Frank Ramsay, played by Gene Hackman, who is captain of the nuclear submarine USS Alabama. Hunter is brought on board as the executive officer to Ramsay.
The crew is assembled, Ramsay gives a stirring speech about doing their duty, and the sub leaves for its patrol route in Asia. As the days pass the differences between Hunter and Ramsay become obvious to the crew and officers of the sub. Ramsay and Hunter debate the concept of war. Each has a distinct opinion that differs philosophically. The tension between captain and executive officer is simmering on the surface.
Orders come in from the National Military Command Authority that the USS Alabama is to launch ten nuclear warheads at a designated target in Russia. Hunter has agonized and disagreed with Ramsay’s choices, but the order is authentic, and the sub prepares for their duty. As the crew is preparing for the missile launch, a renegade Russian submarine comes in contact and attacks. The Alabama evades the sub, but during the attack, an incomplete message was sent by the National Command Authority (NCA) that mentions the launch of nuclear weapons.
Hunter wants to pursue this order and find out the context of the message, Ramsay says no. In the absence of a complete order the rule is they are to follow the orders that they have received. This would mean they launch the nuclear weapons. Ramsay carries on with the launch procedure, but Hunter will not concur, which is required in the procedure. A battle begins on the bridge with Ramsay looking to relieve Hunter, but ultimately Hunter relieves Ramsay for not following the launch procedures.
The crew and officers are thrust into a power struggle about what has happened in the control room. They have no time to digest the incident because the rebel sub has come back to attack the Alabama. Ramsay is helpless, locked in his state room while Hunter commands the ship. Dispatching the rebel sub, Alabama is wounded but survives and Hunter presses the radio room to establish communication with the NCA to find out what the partial message said.
Ramsay is freed by angry officers including Hunter’s friend Peter. Ramsay retains command, and Hunter, the Chief of the Boat, and other supporters of Hunter are locked up under armed guard. Hunter had planned for this eventuality, enlisting Rivetti, played by Danny Nucci to hold onto the keys to the boat, which he uses to free Hunter. A titanic battle of egos and opinions leads to the final confrontation in the control room of the ship between Ramsay and Hunter. The radio is fixed, a new order is received, and the crew of the ship can go home relieved of the worry of starting nuclear war.
Denzel Washington is riveting as Hunter. He is the new breed of sailor in the navy who studies philosophy and thinks about the merits of war and what effect his actions on the Alabama could have on the rest of the world. Hunter is a warrior and very capable at his job. He can make the tough decisions like sealing men in the bilge bay to save the ship and command the boat effectively in a shootout with the Russian sub which destroys the enemy with textbook precision. Denzel Washington was born to play this role, and every scene he is in, Washington commands the screen.
Gene Hackman is the perfect old dog warrior of the past decades who is needed and essential in the Navy. A man with combat experience, Ramsay is both a skilled leader, loved by the crew, and a man who follows orders. Hackman has the menacing presence that makes him loom over the screen and dominate the scenes that he is in. From his first meeting with Hunter to his command in the control room, Gene Hackman makes Frank Ramsay seem terrifying and someone you can sympathize with.
All the supporting actors in Crimson Tide are the perfect arranged set of people who make the battle between Ramsay and Hunter so titanic. They all believe that their actions are on par with the expectations of their job in the navy. It’s not about who they like better, it’s more about what they believe to be their duty as an officer in the United States Navy. The Chief of the Boat, played by George Dzundza, doesn’t want Hunter’s thanks when it is offered. The Chief tells Hunter point blank that he did what he did because Ramsay is not allowed to replace the executive officer at will to initiate the launch of nuclear weapons.
There is a moment of racial nastiness that seeps out of Ramsay as he and Hunter wait for the radio to be fixed at the climax of the film. They start talking horses, which is a passion of Hunter’s. Prior to the mutiny, they had disagreed in a jovial way about the details of the Lippizanner stallions. To get a dig in at Hunter, Ramsay brings up the skin color of the horses at birth in hopes of slighting his executive officer. Hunter responds with his own assessment and how Ramsay is wrong. There is already enough tension between Ramsay and Hunter, the racial undertone wasn’t necessary. Throughout the film, the story lets the audience know that both men are right and wrong in their actions. The resentment and distrust that Ramsay has is enough to fuel his anger. The audience can root for both men, and by all accounts Ramsay is an excellent naval officer. Bringing in the racial moment demeans Ramsay, and it’s not needed. It’s hard after that moment to empathize with Frank Ramsay as he walks away at the end of the film with the bad taste of this racist discussion from the control room still in the audience’s mind.
- The Board of Inquiry at the end of the film has some noted uncredited actors. Admiral Anderson is played by veteran actor Jason Robards in an uncredited role. The man next to him on the right with no hair is Skip Beard, who was also technical advisor to the film, and was the former commanding officer of the actual USS Alabama submarine.
- Steve Zhan has role as William Barnes who is killed in the bilge bay of the submarine.
- Crimson Tide is the first big screen appearance of Ryan Phillippe as Seaman Grattam.
- Tommy Lee Jones, Al Pacino, and Warren Beatty were all offered the role of Captain Ramsay.
- Robert Towne was reportedly involved in doctoring up the script, especially the dialogue between Hunter and Ramsay when they discuss the true nature of war.
- Quentin Tarantino had also done some uncredited script doctoring for the film, including the scenes about the Silver Surfer, and the Scotty and Captain Kirk dialogue.
- Tony Scott had a great relationship with the US Navy after filming Top Gun. In 1993 Scott and crew did some research about life on a submarine and boarded the USS Florida for a brief stint. Originally, Crimson Tide was supposed to be about the crew stopping a nuclear launch from a faulty computer. When the revised script was submitted to the navy, all support for the film was pulled. The US Navy had serious reservations about a film that focused on a mutiny onboard one of their submarines.
- The scene of the Alabama submerging at the beginning of the film is the real submarine. Tony Scott had been tipped off about the departure date of a submarine from Pearl Harbor and was on standby with a helicopter to film the boat. It was sheer coincidence that the sub was the actual USS Alabama. The sub submerged, and Scott was very fortunate, he had hoped this might happen, and got the shot that he wanted. The Navy complained about the use of their submarine in the film, but since the filming was shot in the open, there was nothing the US Navy could do except strongly complain.
- The title of the film comes from the University of Alabama football team name.
- Crimson Tide was the first of five movies that Tony Scott and Denzel Washington would work together on.
- The last hour of the film is almost in real time.
- The disagreement between Ramsey and Hunter over the Lippizanner stallions mirrors the disagreement between the two officers about how to proceed with the orders they have been given. Neither Hunter nor Ramsey is correct about the history of the Lippizanner stallions. They’re not wrong either, but Hunter is more technically correct about the stallions then Ramsey.
- The soundtrack to the film is composed by Hans Zimmer. To pay tribute to Zimmer, Matt Craven’s character is named after the composer.
See It/Skip It?
Absolutely See It! This is a fantastic film that pits the difference of opinion of generational divide as well as putting two of the best actors of the last fifty years on screen in a dynamic of power roles that fills the screen with tension. Hackman and Washington are brilliant. Their characters are not superheroes nor are they super powered. They play real people in a real role that must make a tough decision based on the orders they are given.
Watching Denzel and Gene stare at each other with loathing simmering anger at how the other acts is the best. They are professional and play their characters well. It’s hard to like the villain and the hero at the same time, but Crimson Tide makes you understand and empathize with their point of view. Neither of them is wrong in their choices. They are both right, and that is what makes their job so dangerous.
Crimson Tide is not available on Disney+. You can find it on Amazon Prime and YouTube. Hopefully it will be added to the Disney+ library soon.
Next week ‘When Denzel Met Tony’ looks at the 2006 sci fi action pic Déjà Vu.
Director: Tony Scott
Production Company: Hollywood Pictures, Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Productions
- Denzel Washington as Hunter
- Gene Hackman as Ramsay
- Viggo Mortensen as Weps
- Matt Craven as Zimmer
- George Dzundza as Cob
- James Gandolfini as Dougherty
- Rocky Carroll as Westergaurd
- Danny Nucci as Rivetti
Release Date: May 14, 1995
Budget: $53 million
Box Office Gross Domestic = $91,387,195
Total Worldwide = $157,387,195