In a thrilling WWII story inspired by actual events, Captain Ernest Krause leads an international convoy of 37 ships on a treacherous mission across the Atlantic to deliver thousands of soldiers and much-needed supplies to Allied forces.
There’s a moment in Greyhound – just after an oil tanker has exploded and the initial flame burst has dissipated – that we see a tiny figure running along the burning deck. Whoever it is, they’re doomed; a few survivors are bobbing in the water though we find out later that only four made it to the scramble nets and relative safety.
Can you imagine being a merchant seaman on a tanker crossing the Atlantic during WW2? It must have been like travelling on a giant bomb where the enemy has the detonator.
Greyhound focuses on the claustrophobic interior of the US destroyer leading the escort for this American shipping convoy, bringing supplies and troops to Britain. But just as terrifying are the glimpses we get of the dangers faced by the merchant seamen on the convoy ships; and really it isn’t any less moving than if the film had focused directly on them.
Allied merchant navies suffered enormous losses during WW2 and particularly during the Battle of the Atlantic, which peaked between 1939 and 1943. German U-boats would attack in an area known as the Black Pit, which was too far from US and UK coasts for planes from either country to provide air cover.
Over 30,000 merchant mariners (overwhelmingly men though there were a few women who served and died on board) were killed while serving in the British merchant fleet during the war, including Indians, Chinese, and other nationalities; the merchant navy death rate was around 27%, higher than any of the armed forces.
Greyhound is based on a book by CS Forester, with a screenplay by Tom Hanks, who also stars as Captain Ernie Krause – in charge of his own destroyer (codenamed Greyhound) and the other three escort ships (codenamed Harry, Dickie and Eagle) protecting the convoy.
It’s almost old-fashioned in its sincerity; though at only 90 minutes, it’s as far from a slow burn as you can get. Director Aaron Schneider delivers tension and sheer terror in bucketloads, though it misses out on characterisation.
That tension is not just because of the threat they face from U-boats and the disorientation as explosions rent the skies. This is Krause’s first commander post, and a baptism of fire.
Initially his ability to turn himself (and his very fast and reactive ship) on a sixpence is supremely impressive. It’s only after a U-boat attack that he starts to fret about his previous decisions. I wondered if Black Pit also signals the point at which he can no longer go by the book and has to stand on his own two (very wet) feet.
The convoy is steady and grey, like an industrial city on the move. Some of the merchant ships are huge. At one point Greyhound accidentally gets too near; the size disparity is astonishing when we’ve only seen them from a distance up until then.
Occasionally a U-boat surfaces with a mournful creak. One attacks, then a “wolf pack” of submarines appears waiting for darkness when they can attack unseen, using decoys to confuse the sonar and trick Krause into using up his depth charges.
Greyhound is a study in the on-the-spot mechanics of sea battle pretending to be an examination of character (it was interesting to watch it just after The Old Guard, a character study and love story pretending to be a fantasy about immortals).
Much of the dialogue is technical warship-speak as orders and updates are requested and then repeated down the line: “contact nearing port 001 400 yards sir”. (I put the subtitles on within the first few minutes and found it much easier to follow.)
The weaponry is fascinating: ungainly depth charges literally roll off the boat and torpedoes are visible from deck as they whizz through the water towards them.
Intertitle cards list the day and watch hours. The Thursday morning card after the first night in the Black Pit makes grim reading with over 200 dead and only 23 survivors. Weapons and fuel supplies run low.
Despite the focus on the nuts and bolts of battle, it would be wrong to say Krause is a complete blank. Hanks draws Ernie with a light yet deft hand. His religiosity and unfailing courtesy mean seamen apologise automatically if they use coarse language; two brawlers discover their punishment is to undo the damage they’ve done to onboard relationships. Second-in-command Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham), as well as being Krause’s sounding board when things get tough, shows not a flicker of surprise at Krause’s methods, presumably to back him up to the crew.
The only other character we get to know is messmate George Cleveland (Rob Morgan). Always immaculate in his whites, he’s forever appearing with carefully arranged, sustaining meals for his captain. It’s appropriate that both men are of the type never to let standards slip no matter how serious the situation; more than that, letting them slip makes defeat more likely. (The destroyer is not a character and I suspect isn’t meant to be. It’s a well designed, well-built hunk of grey metal.)
Elisabeth Shue has a brief cameo as Ernie’s girlfriend Evelyn, who won’t marry him until the madness of war is over. Not for her the quick weddings of the young in case he should die – she wants to wait until she knows if he has or hasn’t.
The greys of the rolling CGI sea and miserable sky are relieved by flashes of colour: a green jacket, the maroon of oil on the water, the brighter red light on Krause’s bridge, the stars and stripes covering the bodies of men to be buried at sea.
And for a film whose hero is so religious, it’s appropriate that the camera moves up above the huge waves and grey-white cloud layer, up to the heavens, in this case the vast green of the aurora borealis.
I didn’t used to be interested in second world war films; maybe they’re tempting me now as people who were there die with their memories. I was born 30 years after the end of the Battle of the Atlantic. WW2 seemed so long past when I was young but it’s the difference between now and 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser and the Happy Mondays released Step On (sorry if that made some of you feel old).
Greyhound has the air and reliable comfort of a wartime B-movie. The Brits on the end of Krause’s phone are a perfect blend of courtesy and received pronunciation. “It’s been an honour sailing with you” the British captain of one of the escort boats tells Krause as he asks for permission to abandon ship. The film’s ending channels a similar sentiment (and indeed sentimentality).
We even hear the commander of Grey Wolf, the U-boat that stalks them. Not for him the jaded stoicism of the German submarine captain in Das Boot. This one hacks into the telecoms system to mock and jeer, but it’s all too risible. He sounds like he’s been eavesdropping on Monty Python, gleefully taunting the American that the widows of Krause’s crewmen will turn to their lovers, ending on an actual wolf howl.
I half-expected him to finish up with “your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”
Note: Before the credits there’s some intertitle cards about the Battle of the Atlantic; the credits themselves appear with real footage of merchant seamen and the convoys protecting them during the war.
Greyhound is streaming on Apple TV+
Watch the trailer now (and scroll down to find out what happens):
Cleveland is one of three men who die when the boat is attacked. Krause’s boat survives the crossing and by the end the convoy escort group have sunk four U-boats. Harry and Dickie stay on the water though Eagle sinks.
They are met by British air support which takes out a U-boat, then relief warships from the British Admiralty. (“Bloody good job Greyhound!” says the commander over the phone.) Krause is ordered to accompany Harry and Dickie to Londonderry for repairs; Krause asks to continue to Liverpool with the convoy but is refused.
There’s a sense of anticlimax for Ernie and he goes down to his quarters; on the way he hears cheering and looks out to see convoy ships of crewmen on deck cheering him and his boat. He goes to his cabin and prays his thanks to God.