16 Best Submarine Movies
Jeff, TV analyst for WatchTVAbroad hails from Pennsylvania, United States and after growing up disinterested in sport found his sport calling in his late teenage years. Now he loves nothing more than streaming boxing, MMA and other combat sports.
Submarine movies are a fairly specific sub-genre in the movies industry, but also one that has been reasonably popular for over 70 years now. Humans were always fascinated by the depths of the ocean.
While almost every submarine movie deals with underwater warfare, nuclear threats, submarine chases, and alike, there is something both fascinating and frightening about being stuck in a thin layer of metal deep under the surface that makes us continuously return to these films.
I remember watching some of the old classics, such as We Dive At Dawn, Destination Tokyo, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, to name a few.
Today, however, I wish to present you with a list of the best submarine movies, many of which are newer and more modern, although a few older classics can also be found on the list.
If you happen to be a fan of such films, definitely check out the following.
The second to last is my favourite, but which is yours? Let me know at the end in the comments section.
The Enemy Below (1957)
The first on my list of the best submarine movies is The Enemy Below, a submarine movie from 1957. An older film, but still a great watch, it depicts a naval battle involving a German submarine in the South Atlantic Ocean during WWII.
This WWII battle saw only two participants, an American destroyer and a German U-boat. The US destroyer is captained by a former civilian sailor who joined the Navy after his own freighter ended up being cut in half by a torpedo.
His crew expected a traumatized husk of a man, but he turned out to be a tactical genius.
Meanwhile, the German U-boat below is led by Von Stolberg, an equally experienced German commander from the first world war, who has seen enough battle to lose the enthusiasm of his younger crew members.
The fight against a German submarine is an intense one, and while you can guess how the film will end, I would still say not to underestimate the German U-boat, as it will not go down without fighting.
The film stars Curd Jurgens, Robert Mitchum, David Hedison, Kurt Kreuger, Theodore Bikel, and others.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Moving on, we have what is possibly the most famous and most popular submarine movie in history of this genre, The Hunt for Red October.
The movie was based on one of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels, one of the stories that depict the hyper-competency of deep state which is pure fantasy.
Many have noted that the Ryan stories have an approach to Cold War espionage that makes it seem like the Soviets and Americans should be able to work things out in a flash.
However, this doesn’t happen, and instead, in The Hunt for Red October, we have one of the best submarine movies ever, where a Ph.D. Russia expert, Ryan, goes under the waves to hunt a Soviet navy commander, Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery).
Ramius disappeared after taking command of the state-of-the-art nuclear submarine, Red October, alerting both Americans and the Soviet Union.
While the submarine could give Russians a huge advantage, Ramius decided to take it for himself, thus triggering the hunt for Red October.
The film stars Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill, Larry Ferguson, Scott Glenn, Tim Curry, James Earl Jones, and others.
Crimson Tide (1995)
Moving on, we have Crimson Tide, another one of the best submarine movies, this one by Tony Scott, featuring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington.
The two play rival officers on a nuclear submarine, with Hackman being the submarine captain, while Washington is his first officer.
However, they will have to put their differences aside when a Russian general goes rogue and threatens to start World War III.
The two hop on the US submarine to try to stop him. Crimson Tide has a rather stellar cast, which, apart from the two leads, also includes James Gandolfini and Viggo Mortensen.
Once again, we have a threat of a nuclear missile, a Soviet submarine captain gone rogue, and sheer terror of a nuclear disaster hanging in the air. The film has a great story and amazing effects.
The Guardian commented on Crimson Tide saying “Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman show us how it should be done, as a gung-ho nuclear sub captain meets his match.”
The film stars Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen, George Dzundza, and others.
Torpedo Run (1958)
After that, we have Torpedo Run, another of the great submarine films depicting World War II.
However, this film has a slightly different take on the events of the Second World War. Its plot outlines the determination of a commanding officer to destroy a Japanese aircraft carrier ship.
The film features Lieutenant Commander Barney Doyle, who is at the head of the submarine command. His task is to destroy the Shinaru, a Japanese carrier that launched the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Despite the fact that the enemy has captured a transport ship carrying his wife and child, Doyle still puts duty first and undertakes the mission, leading to one of the best and most dramatic World War II submarine movies.
The film stars Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jones, Diane Brewster, Philip Ober, Justus McQueen, and others.
The next on the list of the best submarine movies is U-571, which is actually based on a true story, although extremely loosely.
The film features a group of sailors on a covert mission to steal an enigma machine coding device from a Nazi U-boat.
This is a well-known device that Germany used during World War II to encrypt messages, primarily war missives and learning the code would have allowed for decrypting them and learning the enemy plans.
Absolutely crucial for turning the tide of war, the mission was of utmost importance. However, when the craw’s submarine sunk, they had to board the Nazi U-boat in order to survive.
The film is well-known for its brilliant underwater action and a lot of excitement.
However, film critics from The Guardian did not like the made-up parts, saying that “This 2000 film about a US submarine crew’s attempt to steal an Enigma machine from a German U-boat was so inaccurate that it was damned by the UK parliament as an affront to the real sailors.”
The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi, Thomas Kreschmann, and others.
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
Going back to the submarine films that feature Russians as the antagonists, we have K-19: The Widowmaker.
Another film loosely inspired by real events, it features a Russian sub with nuclear missiles, which actually sprung a deadly radioactive leak, and is on its way to becoming an underwater Chernobyl.
The film was expensive, and it actually lost more money than most other submarine films cost in total. However, it belongs on the list of the best submarine films, as K-19: The Widowmaker really doesn’t hold back.
It even has Harrison Ford, who plays a trigger-happy captain who has to deal with a mission that threatens to become a nuclear disaster.
Even Ford criticized the movie, starting from the name, to the fact that it once again antagonizes Russians and alike. On top of that, it is also overly long, but apart from that, it is still a good film that is worth watching.
The film stars Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Christian Camargo, Joss Ackland, Peter Sarsgaard, and others.
Black Sea (2014)
In the seventh spot, we have Black Sea, a fairly solid submarine thriller whose plot revolves around a heist.
The lead character, played by Jude Law, is a Navy vet and a divorcee who just lost his shipyard job.
With the skills of a submarine mechanic, he doesn’t have too many opportunities left in the world, but there is still one possibility, going to the Black Sea with a few trusted crew members and looking for Nazi gold rumored to be waiting somewhere at the bottom.
However, the real plot begins when the British submarine gets spotted by an unexpected enemy.
All in all, it is a fairly great movie that will keep you at the edge of your seat throughout its duration.
The film stars Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Scott McNairy, David Threlfall, and others.
Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
Halfway down the list, we have one of the older films called Run Silent, Run Deep. As most films from this era, it is a WWII submarine film led by Commander Richardson (Clark Gable).
Richardson gets stuck behind a desk after being sunk by a Japanese destroyer, but soon enough, a new opportunity opens up, and he finds himself stalking the same ship, seeking revenge.
As the plot progresses, he orders to his crew goes from hard-charging to downright reckless, eventually resulting in mutiny.
Run Silent, Run Deep is a black-and-white film, which could be an obstacle for modern-day viewers, but believe me when I say that the plot is intense enough to make you forget about the lack of color within minutes.
No other submarine movie from this era is quite like it, so do give it a chance.
The film stars Burt Lancaster, Clark Gable, Don Rickles, Jack Warden, Nick Cravat, Brad Dexter, and others.
Above Us the Waves (1955)
Up next, we have Above Us the Waves, another submarine film from the ‘50s, depicting the Second World War. This time, the good guys are the British, who seek to sink a major German battleship, sending a special unit with small submarines.
Getting rid of the ship is important, as it threatens the Allied convoys in the North Sea from a Norwegian fjord.
The movie is one of many in the post-war British cinema that celebrated the military effort and spirit that allowed victory over Nazi Germany, spinning heroic tales of the British Royal Navy, and bringing epic tales to the big screen.
The film stars John Gregson, James Robertson Justice, Donald Sinden, Michael Medwin, Anthony Wager, and others.
The Command (2018)
Moving on, we have a submarine movie called The Command, and once again, the plot revolves around a Russian nuclear submarine. However, to change the pace a little bit, this is not the cold war story involving a soviet submarine.
Instead, it is a purely Russian sub that was stranded on the seafloor in 2000. This happened due to an explosion that killed most of the crew, destroying half of the vessel along the way.
The movie shows the horror of being trapped in a sub as it continuously sinks while the waters rise, and the survivors are trying to cling to life.
Bilge Ebiri for the New York Times said “The fine cast keeps us engaged, even if the film sometimes loses the narrative thread.”
Despite a fairly modest budget, The Command still features some of the best cinematography among submarine thrillers.
The film stars Thomas Vinterberg, Colin Firth, Matthias Schoenaerts, Max von Sydow, Michael Nyqvist, and others.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
The eleventh on our list is an interesting film called The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
Whether you will like this one or not depends on your feelings towards Wes Anderson movies. Many say that this is Anderson’s worst film, but even if this was true, it is still a pretty good way to spend two hours of your day.
The film features Bill Murray, who plays Zissou, a conservationist filmmaker surrounded by the melancholy, which really sets in after his partner gets eaten by a monstrous shark.
What follows is a deep sea quest for revenge.
If anything, it is a breath of fresh air from Cold War and WWII films, so I still recommend watching this submarine movie.
The film stars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, and others.
Ice Station Zebra (1968)
Moving on, we have Ice Station Zebra, a movie about espionage that takes its plot deep under the surface, aboard the USS Tigerfish.
The plot kicks off when the authorities receive a distress call from a British scientific weather station in the Arctic, called Ice Station Zebra.
Things get even more interesting when the crew discovers that there is a saboteur aboard, who tries his best to halt the rescue mission.
As for why, the answer is not that surprising. It’s the Soviets again, and this time, they have stolen US and British technology and produced a camera sent into orbit to take photos of US missile silos.
However, it also took photos of the Soviet silos, and it ejected the film back to Earth, right in the area around Ice Station Zebra.
In other words, this is a race to see who will get the film first, with some great key moments that make the film worthy of this list.
The film stars Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Tony Bill, Ted Hartley, and others.
Hunter Killer (2018)
Moving on to one of the more modern submarine movies, we have Hunter Killer, a film featuring an American submarine USS Tampa Bay, which disappears in the Arctic while following a Russian submarine.
Curious to learn what happened, the Americans send another sub, USS Arkansas, to investigate. At the same time, the authorities also sent a Navy SEAL team to observe the Russian base in the Arctic and find out what the enemy is up to.
Once there, they discover a major twist, that Russian defence minister, Dmitri Durov, has taken Russian President Zakarin prisoner.
Durov intends to start a war from the North Pole, and a handful of soldiers are the only ones who can stop it.
The film stars Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Michael Nyqvist, Linda Cardellini, Common, David Gyasi, and others.
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
In the fourteenth spot, we have a submarine film unlike any other on this list. The entire submarine trip is actually just a medical intervention to save the life of an important secret bearer.
In order to do that, the medical team needs to shrink and enter the human body in a miniaturized form, with a miniaturized sub that they will use to travel around the arteries, and dissolve a blood clot in the patient’s brain in the sub’s maiden voyage.
100% a fantasy film, it plays with exciting technologies, and given that it is a movie from the ‘60s, it was done fairly well, even featuring things like lasers, nuclear propulsion, and alike.
The film stars Raquel Welch, Stephen Boyd, Edmond O’Brien, Donald Pleasence, Arthur Kennedy, and others.
Das Boot (1981)
Nearing the end of the list, I have saved a couple of gems, including Das Boot commonly referred to as one of the best war films ever made. And yes, Das Boot features submarines.
The quality of Das Boot comes from the way it humanized those caught in the tragic tides of history.
For example, out of 40,000 people who went to sea in German U-boats during the Second World War, 30,000 never came back. And this is just the prologue to this 1981 movie. Das Boot also got a great redux in 1997.
A critic on Rotten Tomatoes called it a “tense, claustrophobic and intense film that makes us empathize with soldiers from the wrong side of an inglorious war.”
If you are interested in seeing a slightly different perspective of WWII, this is the right film for the job.
The film stars Jurgen Prochnow, Hubertus Bengsch, herbert Gronemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, and others.
Operation Pacific (1951)
The last on our list is also the oldest film on this list. I am, of course, talking about Operation Pacific from 1951.
The film follows the USS Thunderfish, and like most other films in post-WW2 period, its plot is once again heavily centered on the devastating events of the Second World War.
The movie combines the action of Pacific-based submarine warfare with the romance between the submarine commander Duke Gifford and his ex Wife, the US Navy nurse.
The plot kicks off with a fairly simple mission to rescue orphaned children from the Philippines, and take them to Pearl Harbor.
However, things change when the sub finds itself in an ensuing duel with a Japanese Q-ship, leaving the Americans with only one option, to escape the enemy, before it is too late.
The film stars John Wayne, Patricia Neal, Ward Bond, Philip Carey, Scott Forbes, Martin Milner, and others.
So, which was your favorite on the list? Or did I miss it out? Let me know in the comments section below as I would love to know.