Crimson Tide (1995) poster

Crimson Tide (1995)


USA. 1995.


Director – Tony Scott, Screenplay – Michael Schiffer, Story – Michael Schiffer & Richard P. Henrick, Producers – Jerry Bruckheimer & Don Simpson, Photography – Dariusz Wolski, Music – Hans Zimmer, Visual Effects – Dream Quest Images (Supervisor – Hoyt Yeatman), Special Effects Supervisor – Alfred A. DiSarro Jr, Production Design – Michael White. Production Company – Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer Films/Hollywood Pictures.


Denzel Washington (Lieutenant-Colonel Ron Hunter), Gene Hackman (Captain Frank Ramsey), Viggo Mortensen (Peter Weps), George Dzundza (Cob)


Lieutenant-Commander Lionel Hunter accepts a position as the executive officer to Captain Frank Ramsey aboard the nuclear submarine USS Alabama. The Alabama sets out to sea as war threatens with breakaway Russian republics where rebels have captured nuclear submarines and are threatening to fire on the US. The Alabama is forced to submerge just as a Russian Akula submarine fires on them. In so doing, orders to fire a retaliatory attack are cut off just as they come through. Ramsey insists they follow orders and fire back on the Russians, but Hunter argues that they need to surface and confirm them – if they are wrong, they will cause the outbreak of World War III. A fight for control ensues between Ramsey and Hunter, with Hunter forced to mutineer to ensure Ramsey does not go ahead and launch the nuclear missiles.

Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union was an enormous setback for the thriller genre from which it has never recovered. There have been various attempts to deal with the post-Soviet Russia – setting the story prior to Glasnost as in The Hunt for Red October (1990) – or setting it around post-Soviet conspiracies – The Russia House (1990), the tv mini-series Op-Center (1995) and the James Bond film GoldenEye (1995). Crimson Tide certainly comes with a ripped-right-from-the-headlines plot, grasping at concern about breakaway Russian republics and nuclear weapons in the hands of rebels and charismatic right-wing leaders.

Crimson Tide is directed by Tony Scott, brother of Ridley. Tony Scott debuted with the underrated chic vampire film The Hunger (1983) and after its failure then made a good many throwaway commercial films such as Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Days of Thunder (1990), and then several quite good action film/thrillers – The Last Boy Scout (1991), True Romance (1993), The Fan (1996), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), Unstoppable (2010), not to mention the thoroughly mad Domino (2005) and the time travel film Deja Vu (2006).

Crimson Tide though was Tony Scott’s best film. It is probably also the best film made by producer Jerry Bruckheimer who specialises in large-scale no-brain special effects/action bombast like Con Air (1997), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), and various Michael Bay films such as Armageddon (1998) and Pearl Harbor (2001).

Lt-Col Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) and Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) in Crimson Tide (1995)
(l to r) New second-in-command Lt-Col Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) and Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman)

Crimson Tide is an incredibly good thriller. Tony Scott sustains tension at a remarkably intensive level throughout, thanks to a top-notch plot. (This was apparently tinkered with by an uncredited Quentin Tarantino. The film comes with a number of amusing characteristically Tarantino-esque culture in-references – crewmen fighting over who drew the best Silver Surfer comic to Denzel Washington comparing the radio technician to Star Trek (1966-9)’s Scotty).

What makes Crimson Tide utterly gripping is both the superb cast on hand and Tony Scott’s ability to wring maximum psychological tension out of the material. Gene Hackman is, as always, excellent, giving a grandly barnstorming warhorse of a performer, one of the types of roles that George C. Scott used to be handed. Equally, Denzel Washington holds his own, playing the tightass liberal academic against Gene Hackman’s populist part. The tension between the two personalities makes for the excellence of the film.

While it is principally a submarine drama, Crimson Tide is also a threat of nuclear war film that makes it fall within genre guidelines. It is interesting to compare Crimson Tide to the fear of nuclear war thrillers of the 1960s such as On the Beach (1959) and Fail-Safe (1964) – in fact, Crimson Tide reminds considerably of the Cold War thriller The Bedford Incident (1965) about a psychological pursuit between a Navy ship and a Russian submarine. Although in actuality the script would appear to be based on the true-life story of Vasili Arkhipov, a second-in-command aboard a Soviet submarine in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis who refused to fire a retaliatory nuclear when it was mistakenly assumed that war had broken out and they were unable to contact Moscow.

While 1960s Cold War cinema was concerned about the possibility of the unthinkable happening, Crimson Tide is informed by a different set of worries – the driving sense in 1990s cinema is about questioning the purpose and rightness of the machine of power. It is seen that it is no longer simply right to mindlessly obey orders, but that the individual must exercise a greater moral sense and stand up for right when the machine of power can be seen to be expressly wrong. Beyond that is the sense that the machinery of power has overtaken the original purpose it was set up to further, has become corrupt, even a tool of dark and nebulous conspiracies. This is the dilemma of indecision that wrote itself out in 1990s films like JFK (1991), A Few Good Men (1992), Outbreak (1995), tv’s The X Files (1993-2002, 2016-8) and here.

Denzel Washington removes Gene Hackman from command at gunpoint in Crimson Tide (1995)
(l to r) Denzel Washington removes Gene Hackman from command at gunpoint

Crimson Tide‘s debate is over whether one should follow orders strictly as given – to fire the nuclear missiles no matter what – or seek the greater humanitarian moral right instead of merely the furtherance of the blind orders. (Crimson Tide makes interesting contrast to Tony Scott’s earlier Top Gun, which latched into the American military machine and Soviet conflict with gung ho relish). The dilemma is never entirely resolved at the end, with the admiralty’s decision (an appearance from an uncredited Jason Robards) that both parties were right and neither wrong and the end credit informing us that the responsibility for launching the weapons has now been taken away from the captains and been given solely to the President of the US. This tends to come as a wiggle out of the film’s otherwise fascinating moral dilemma.

Crimson Tide was copied as the B-budget Danger Beneath the Sea (2001).

Tony Scott’s other genre films included:- the chic vampire film The Hunger (1983); the psycho-thriller The Fan (1996) featuring Robert De Niro as a psychopathic baseball fan; Domino (2005), a completely out-of-control supposed biopic of a bounty hunter that ends with some fantastic elements; and the time travel film Deja Vu (2006). Tony and Ridley maintained their own production company Scott Free Productions. The two produced the cable series The Hunger (1997), an anthology series of erotic horror stories; the psycho black comedy Clay Pigeons (1998); the mediaeval adventure Tristan + Isolde (2006); the tv mini-series remake of The Andromeda Strain (2008); the modernised Edgar Allan Poe adaptation Tell-Tale (2009); the tv mini-series remake of Coma (2012); the tv mini-series Labyrinth (2012) about the quest for the Holy Grail; and the horror film Stoker (2013).

(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 1995 list. Nominee for Best Director (Tony Scott), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Gene Hackman) and Best Actor (Denzel Washington) at this site’s Best of 1995 Awards).

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