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💯 {Staff Pick} WIW: A Submariner watches "Down Periscope."


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Adding my idiomotor push to this puck... Mighty unpronounceable spirit of the deep, fill us with more of your briny wisdom!

As an aside, I have long thought there is more space in the Down Periscope style of parody/satire/comedy to get gritty details right than in more serious films. Some of the things you have to do in real life, (from what I've heard) especially in military matters, are downright ridiculous when put to film. So every serious film leaves them out, meaning every veteran or servicepeep who is watching gets their suspension of disbelief broken; but if they included the ridiculous stuff, civilians would get hit with the breaking of suspension of disbelief, so... by the laws of the mighty Moloch, the larger civilian market gets it's way. At least until we're more comfortable putting main characters of serious films and real life organizations in serious films into compromising, undignified positions, something which seems to have been coming since Die Hard, and seems to be here in Ant-Man, but has never quite made it to the mainstream.


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I seem to remember having seen that scene with the guy golfing off a submarine, but I don't recognize anything else from the movie.


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In 1996, David S. Ward directed Kelsey Grammer, Lauren Holly, Rob Schneider, Bruce Dern, Harry Dean Stanton, William H. Macy, Rip Torn, and Cessna in the movie Down Periscope.

After I got out of the USMC I moved up to the Bay Area and got a job working as curatorial staff on USS Pampanito. Pampanito is docked at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It was a great job while it lasted; I’d be there today if I could. Sadly, the Ship’s Manager, Russell Booth, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm and his replacement – well, it didn’t go well.

Pampanito was closed to the public while they filmed the movie. The staff – curators – of the museum still worked on the sub, mostly as “gang labor,” helping do general sailor-work and to keep the boat intact, as was their job. Despite the reputation of Hollywood film crews, the studio guys who worked on this movie were very respectful of the boat itself; they weren’t cutting holes of it for filming or the like.

For most of the filming – especially the “at sea” scenes – Pampanito was towed up to Suisun Bay. If you look at older images on Google Maps you’ll see that the bay was full of parked navy ships, the west coast “Mothball Fleet.” Those lines of ships, plus some CGI clean-up, were the background for the “navy base full of ships” scenes. Many – maybe even most – of the extras were also Museum Staffers.

The movie opens with footage of a submarine base. I am not sure which one.
I don’t remember the movie scene-for-scene, but most of the “base” scenes were filmed at the Presidio. The Presidio is now a park, run by the Park Service. The Park Service was a partner-organization with the NMMA, and both worked on Pampanito and on Hyde Street Pier, a nearby collection of historic ships. The company office of the museum was also on the Presidio at the time.

Much of the Presidio was a military (army) base during WWII. The architecture of many of the buildings still has that “base” look – or, more accurately, did in the 90’s when the movie was filmed. Also, the Presidio is where the Golden Gate Bridge hits San Francisco; in several scenes if they’d moved the camera even slightly the bridge would be in the background.

Here’s an older photo – you can see the base and the bridge:

Dodge is expecting a nuclear attack sub. Of course, what he gets is the USS Stingray, a WWII fleet boat. It looks to be in really bad shape.
I’m jumping ahead here, but Pampanito was in GREAT shape before filming. They filmed the movie in reverse order – that is, they filmed the scenes where she was shiny looking and new first. Then they splattered her with paint to make her look rusty. All of that rust (and all of the bird poop) is water-based brown (and white) paint, applied by museum staffers and special-effects folks. After filming the scenes where the boat was “rusty,” we washed it all off with pressure hoses and she looked good as new.

You can see this here, in a shot from the movie:

Again, those are “mothball fleet” ships with a bit of the rust CGI-ed out. Pampanito is not tied to a dock or pier, but a barge used during filming. And all of that “rust” is streaky brown paint.

The sub is really the USS Pampanito, which is normally a museum boat in San Francisco. They probably had to do a good bit of work on it to get it to look as bad as it does here. I toured the boat once back in the early '90s. It looked very well preserved for a boat of its age, IIRC.
We went to great lengths to keep that boat in good shape. When I was there we’d managed to restore three of the diesels to running condition – in fact, I presented a brief paper on why keeping machinery running is good for preservation a few years later. Even though there was a lot of “tourist-proofing” a surprising number of that boat’s systems worked.

One huge, cool thing – the boat had a working TDC. A TDC is a huge, heavy wall-locker-sized mechanical computer that used gears and electricity to calculate firing solutions, and then update the solution over time. This was a huge deal in WWII. It took a volunteer about two years to restore it to working condition. The boat also had the only ECM Mark II (a cypher/code machine) on public display at the time. The only others (at the time) on display were at the NSA’s HQ in MD. At the time it was the only working one in existence.

That said, I do not deserve credit for any of this. Russell Booth, the ship’s manager, had worked on preserving Pampanito for a long time, and it was a labor of love. The boat had been near-abandoned in the 70’s, and was in miserable shape. He did an amazing job getting it to the point where it was when you saw it.
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Barking Mad
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Really looking forward to reading your write up of this film. Your Crimson Tide write up was excellent and very informative.


Pronounced "Fish."
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Looking forward to this one.

FWIW, the opening apparently is Sub Base New London, and there is Shennecossett Golf Course in Groton right up along the river. It's near the entrance to Fisher's Island Sound and is even on the channel side of the river, but I don't think it's ever less than about a thousand feet from the channel to the course.

The idea of diesel boats as a Red Team is a pretty sound one -- the USN went so far as tho charter a Swedish diesel for a couple of years back in the mid '00s.
That's the one sub base that I never saw. It makes sense that it would be Groton, because it's the only non-Trident sub base on the east coast besides Norfolk.


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Another sub movie to add to the queue is Operation: Petticoat. Granted, it's a 60s comedy with Tony Curtis and Cary Grant, but that pink submarine is iconic! :p

Apis Rex

Please think of the bees.
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... Can "Ghoti and Cessna watch military movies together and talk about them here" be a regular thing? I feel like it needs to be a thing.

As for sub movies that would be cool to see this kind of WIW on, I'd love to see Das Boot and Run Silent, Run Deep on the list.
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Pronounced "Fish."
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... Can "Ghoti and Cessna watch military movies together and talk about them here" be a regular thing? I feel like it needs to be a thing.
I'll definitely be doing more sub movies. Cessna is more than welcome to continue commenting, along with everybody else who has some insight on the subject at hand. Doing one of these is a lot less fun for me than just watching a movie (and it takes a hell of a lot longer), but reading all of the comments more than makes up for it. If Cessna wants to watch a war movie, like maybe Kelly's Heroes, I'd gladly read the thread and comment on it.

As for sub movies that would be cool to see this kind of WIW on, I'd love to see Das Boot and Run Silent, Run Deep on the list.
The current list:
Hunt for the Red October (Next - I can borrow it from a friend)
Run Silent, Run Deep
Das Boot
K-19, the Widowmaker
Operation Petticoat

I think that's it for now. Unfortunately, all but Hunt for the Red October will be tough. They aren't available on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.
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