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The Wonder of the Cinema

#32 Gray Lady Down

Gray Lady Down

Charlton Heston plus submarine plus 1970’s equals a disaster movie!  The 1970s were the decade of the disaster movie.  The formula was rather simple.  Assemble a big cast that includes some popular stars, a star from yesteryear or two, and maybe a acting wannabe from pop culture or sports.  Create multiple story lines which put the all-star cast in a variety of forms of peril, which should include some big budget physical effects(fire, earthquake, water) and stunts.  The main plot relies upon the classic idea… get your characters up a tree then start throwing things at them.  Ultimately the entire story should have a happy ending albeit with some number of tragic casualties among the all-star cast.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

George Kennedy and Stacy Keach

Ned Beatty and Stacy Keach

The best of the bunch starred Steve McQueen, William Holden, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, and even Fred Astaire battling The Towering Inferno in 1974.  Also in 1974, the insipid Earthquake featured Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and George Kennedy.   1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, which spawned a sequel and two remakes, starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelly Winters, Red Buttons, and Roddy McDowall trying to escape an ocean liner that has capsized.  But it all began with Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy, and Jacqueline Bisset in the 1970 blockbuster Airport to get the studios all clambering to put out their own disaster film.  (Note how many of these George Kennedy is in!)

Gray Lady Down was Christopher Reeve's feature film debut.

Gray Lady Down was Christopher Reeve’s feature film debut.

1978’s Gray Lady Down is a variation on the disaster film genre, a military disaster.  Charlton Heston, sporting his “old man and the sea” beard, is set to give up the sea life and assume command on shore as squadron commander but he has one last duty: wrap up a sea trial/shake-down cruise of the submarine USS Neptune.  In addition to Heston, Stacy Keach, a bearded David Carradine, and Christopher Reeve(in his feature film debut) all struggle to rescue the crew of the USS Neptune.  It’s a standard attempt at a thriller without any real impact.

There are a number of flaws which are telling.  At one point Heston, a very experienced US Navy captain, telling a crewman to “secure that door,” rather than calling it by its proper term of “hatch.”  Later the crew while awaiting rescue watch a film, Jaws, when according to USN procedure the crew would be conserving power and most likely in their bunks to conserve oxygen.

Trivia:  The US Navy lifted its prohibition on facial hair in 1970.  However, they were reinstated in 1984.  DSRVs, deep submergence rescue vehicles, like the one seen in Gray Lady Down are currently capable of diving to depths of between 2,000 to 5,000ft depending on the model used.

Below is the truly awful trailer for Gray Lady Down, a mediocre film.  They chose the weakest scene in the entire film.


About Rob Sterner

English teacher, Film buff, Filmmaker, Writer, Musician, Photographer, Runner, Taoist, Thinker, List maker...


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