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We Dive At Dawn (1943)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of We Dive At Dawn (1943)
35mm, 98 min, black & white
Directed byAnthony Asquith
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
Produced byEdward Black
Story / ScreenplayJ.B. Williams
 Val Valentine
Screenplay (uncredited)Frank Launder
PhotographyJack Cox

Cast: Eric Portman (Lt/Seaman James Hobson); John Mills (Lt Freddie Taylor); Reginald Purdell (CPO Dickie Dabbs); Niall Macginnis (CPO Mike Corrigan); Louis Bradfield (Lt Brace); Ronald Millar (Lt Johnson); Jack Watling (Lt Gordon)

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1942. The British submarine HMS Sea Tiger is given the assignment to track down and destroy the German battleship Brandenburg on its way to the Baltic.

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We Dive at Dawn is one of several wartime tales of derring-do to benefit from the strain of documentary realism that infiltrated British commercial cinema at the outbreak of war. The output of the government's Crown Film Unit included dramatised documentaries that functioned as entertaining propaganda for servicemen such as firefighters - Fires Were Started (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1943) - and submariners - Close Quarters (d. Jack Lee, 1943). By accident or design, such films coincided with similar scenarios from the commercial studios - The Bells Go Down (d. Basil Dearden, 1943) and We Dive at Dawn.

We Dive at Dawn is split into three distinct acts: the first establishing the submarine crew's personalities and domestic situations; the second a sober portrayal of the life these men spend underwater; and the last the action-packed raid on a Danish port. The central section is the most compelling, as we endure the claustrophobia of the mission with the crew. Forgoing soundtrack music, director Anthony Asquith observes the stalking of a battleship with a cool documentary gaze. Much of the jargon is unintelligible to the lay viewer, but the depiction of submarine life is shot through with credibility.

John Mills, as the captain, is particularly effective in this sequence, a commanding presence at the periscope, with the subtlest of hand gestures betraying the tension of the situation. Although his character is of the officer class, the easy cameraderie he shares with his men is in sharp contrast with earlier representations of commanding officers as superior to their crew in almost all respects, from actors such as Noël Coward and Leslie Banks, and the role was key in establishing Mills' classless persona.

As with other morale-boosting films of the period, the crew draws its members from throughout the British Isles and Commonwealth, and their banter is light-hearted, with only flashes of antagonism. In a similar vein, the film concludes with a succession of reconciliations and romantic reunions, illustrating the efforts needed to keep the home fires burning. The film benefitted greatly from location shooting, with the assistance of the Admiralty contributing to the authenticity of its cramped interior sets and contrasting with the mostly studio-bound Close Quarters. The combination of Mills and Asquith proved successful enough to merit a reunion: two years later the pair made The Way to the Stars (1945), exchanging the confines of submarine life for the RAF's open skies.

Fintan McDonagh

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Original Poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
49th Parallel (1941)
Close Quarters (1943)
Cruel Sea, The (1952)
In Which We Serve (1942)
Way to the Stars, The (1945)
Cox, Jack (1890-1960)
Launder, Frank (1906-1997)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Portman, Eric (1903-1969)
Slater, John (1916-1975)