Much earlier this year I remember watching the trailer for “Greyhound” and thinking, golly, that sure looks like C.S. Forester’s book, The Good Shepherd.
I may have mentioned somewhere in this blog that I’m a long-time fan of C.S. Forester. I forget exactly when I first read Forester’s The Good Shepherd, but I was probably in my 20s. Forester’s books carried a blurb by Ernest Hemingway to the effect that, “I recommend Forester to every literate I know.”
Well, I’m going to recommend “Greyhound” to everyone I know.
Before watching it, I read some of the reviews. One thing that struck me, among the negative reviews, was a fairly consistent complaint that the film was shallow and lacked character development.
I have no idea what the reviewers mean by that. Perhaps I’m merely a fly-over country Neanderthal who learned everything I know about writing by reading great writers. I’m not an MFA, so I developed whatever poor talent I have as a writer by writing and by osmosis, if you will. A lot of my favorite writers had their heyday before 1970. Again, maybe that makes me a Neanderthal, but because of that I have a different perspective on stories like this.
To me, the story is done very much in the style of what one might consider not merely movies of the early 1940s, but from a 1940s perspective, period. (You wonder what the movie would have looked like in black and white.) In that, Hanks’ adaptation was faithful to Forester’s work. People who grew up in the shadow of World War II may see more in this movie than younger folks, because of shared cultural context. Folks who study World War II will also get it. Perhaps, though, that lack of shared context underlies some of the negative criticism about character development.
For most people this movie may be something like opening a window back in time. That window will be the size of your TV screen. Through it, you can observe events as they happened aboard the USS Greyhound. In the North Atlantic. In February, 1942. Understanding and interpreting what you see, as well as the characters in the story, will depend solely on your powers of observation through that window, and whatever other knowledge you bring with you.
In short, don’t expect this story to tell you what is happening. It’s going to bloody well show you. My advice? Hang on and pay attention.
Via the story, you will witness a period of about 50 hours of extremely intense and unrelenting action and danger. During that time the captain and crew of the Greyhound aren’t focused on their feelies; they’re focused on doing their job. That job is protecting the convoy they are escorting from marauding U-boats while staying alive in a North Atlantic winter. In that situation “character development” focuses on how people do their jobs, what it costs them to do their jobs, and the choices they make to continue to do their jobs.
I used the word “feelies” very deliberately. There’s a scene in the movie that illustrates my choice perfectly: a very young telephone talker, whose job is to repeat messages and convey information between the captain and various departments, sneezes and garbles a message at a crucial point. He asks for a repeat, causing a delay. After that, one of his officers takes him aside and tells him, quietly but firmly, that if he can’t do the job he will be relieved.
The officer wasn’t being insensitive or uncaring. Quite the opposite, in fact. In that context, the lives of the crew, and the success of their mission, which is the protection of a convoy from those who would destroy it, absolutely depends on doing your job, whatever it might be, whatever the personal cost, and doing it the way you’re trained to do it. You don’t do that job, people will die. What seems superficially insensitive reflects the reality of the situation.
I’m trying to keep you alive, sailor. That’s the underlying message. “Character development”? You’re looking right at it. I mean, right at it. As it is made.
You want to feel something, feel that. Feel what it costs you to be a teenager with responsibilities, even in a relatively “minor” job, that might mean life or death not only for you but for your shipmates. It’s not something that we, today, in 2020, understand all that well. That’s at least partly because those teenage kids in 1942 went out and shouldered that burden and bore that cost. They developed their characters, and those who survived came home and built the world we have today.
If you allow it, Tom Hanks and “Greyhound” will let you experience a little of what that was like for our fathers and grandfathers and, increasingly, sadly, our vanishing great-grandfathers.
So, shallow characterization? Maybe. I hope I’ve made it clear that there’s a different way to look at that issue in this story.
On a techie level, hope you have a big-screen TV with a good sound system, because the CGI is simply off the charts! Some critics found the CGI “unbelievable in places.” I’d like them to be a little more specific, since otherwise that’s just a cheap shot. Personally I think if I’d seen this in the theater, I would’ve found myself wishing I had a life preserver. That water looked awfully real to me.
One minor note: near the end of the film there’s a shot of Greyhound where her bow is visible, and so is her hull number: 548. Greyhound is portrayed as a Fletcher-class destroyer, but if you look it up (just google “DD-548”) you find that there is no destroyer with the number 548. For some reason the Navy didn’t use it. But that’s perfect. DD-548 is the Greyhound. She doesn’t have to be any other destroyer but herself.
Watch the movie. But maybe keep a life preserver handy, just in case. Even in the safety of your own home.