Page to Screen: The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The Hunt for Red October
based on the novel by Tom Clancy


I don’t know enough about the current state of the genre in publishing to comment, but I think it’s fair to say that, insofar as film goes, the technothriller has fallen a little out of fashion. 2012’s entrants into the category, Safe House and The Bourne Legacy, came in at twenty-fifth and twenty-ninth in the American grosses. Nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but that’s hardly the heights of the big-budget speculative fiction films that dominate multiplexes. I didn’t even know Safe House existed before I started writing this post.

But let us travel back in time to 1990, as the nineties attempted to crawl out of what the eighties had curdled into (and failed for a little bit). Pant waists were higher, shoulder pads were persisting, and grosses were lower. Number six in America for the year, however, was The Hunt for Red October, based on the Tom Clancy novel that made the author’s name. Just as the novel launched Clancy’s career as a novelist properly (he’d been publishing for some time before that), the film launched sequels (Patriot Games and A Clear and Present Danger followed in the next four years) and imitators.

I bring this up because I find it hard to imagine a pop cultural landscape where this is possible, since, at the present moment, we’ve already soured on the last trend in thrillers—crypto-thrillers of the likes of National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code. (National Treasure is, obviously, the superior film.) I also only really know Tom Clancy from Red Storm Entertainment, the video game developer company he co-founded. Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon, and Rainbow Six were all one dark, Metal Gear-esque blur to my younger self, whose gaming career was firmly Nintendo fare, no matter how much X-Play she watched. Telling me both those forces once teamed up in a film Americans flocked to the way they flocked to Skyfall is just bewildering.

But that’s a personal thing, as The Hunt for Red October shows that this popularity was not without merit. A post-Cold War film set during the Cold War (1984 to be specific), The Hunt for Red October follows Marko Ramius, a respected Soviet submarine captain, who takes the new submarine Red October, whose caterpillar drive renders it invisible to sonar, out for its first exercises. Once at sea, Ramius kills the political officer and takes charge of the vessel. With his motivations unknown, the United States prepares for the worst, especially once they hear that Moscow is determined to sink the Red October. However, CIA analyst Jack Ryan believes that Ramius might be trying to defect, and sets out to make contact with Ramius and the ship before the Soviets get to him—or the Americans have to destroy him.

Unexpectedly, The Hunt for Red October is actually a quiet film. Well, unexpectedly for me—I tend to view any action film from the late eighties and early nineties suspiciously. I have been burned before. (That is a horrible, cruel pun, and I shan’t apologize for it.) While there is a big action finale resulting in one submarine getting blown to smithereens, the bulk of the film is about finding the Red October and watching the officers of the Red October attempt to execute their plan to make it to the United States. Tension, yes, guns, a bit, but, for the most part, it’s quite still and calm. This makes the film much more of a mood piece instead of an out-and-out thriller, which is surprisingly, considering what Clancy’s writing has been accused of over the years. This doesn’t make it wildly engaging—I will readily admit that I overestimated my powers of stamina and fought powering down during my viewing of the film, which is not its fault but mine—but it does make it an interesting film in its historical context.

I haven’t terribly much to say about the film other than that, really. The all-male revue work swimmingly together, and Sean Connery here shows me why older Connery is my favorite Connery. (Best Connery? Probably Henry Jones. Although I hear good things about Robin and Marian, and that has Audrey Hepburn in it! Huzzah!) Alec Baldwin does solid, if not terrifically memorable, work as Jack Ryan.

But the most interesting part of the film (to me, at least) is how it handles the language barrier. Our Russians start off in Russian (and if you’ve never heard Connery speak Russian, you have not lived) but, when a officer reads a Bible quote, switches to English. Once the Americans show up again, however, it’s Russian once more. It’s an interesting and rarely used conceit that works perfectly in the film.

Bottom line: The Hunt for Red October is almost more of a quiet mood piece than an action film, making its 1990 popularity quite heartening. If you’d like.

I saw this film on Netflix Instant.

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