The Hunley (1999)




Director:     John Gray.

Starring:    Armand Assante (Dixon), Donald Sutherland (Beauregard), Alex Jennings (Alexander), Chris Bauer (Simkins), Gerry Becker (Captain Pickering), Michael Dolan (Becker), Sebastian Roche (Collins), Michael Stuhlbarg (Wicks), Jeff Mandon (Miller), Frank Vogt (Ronald White), Jack Baun (Ridgeway), Kevin Robertson (Carlson), Caprice Benedetti (Dixon's Wife), Jon Huffman (Indian Chief Captain), Dane Ritter (Beauregard's Aide), James H. Mayberry (Bartender), Nancy Robinette (Distraught Woman), Matthew Brady (John Crosby), Rhoda Griffis (Young Lady), Jonathan Tindle (Ensign Hazeltine), Bob King (Husband), Mitchell Hebert (Lewis Cornthwait), Dan Depaola (Quartermaster), Kevin Murray (Minister), David Dwyer (Wabash Officer), Paul Morella (Wabash Marine), Marty Lodge (Confederate Soldier), Laurie Beasley (Young Prostitute), William L. Thomas (Church Soldier).

Done for Turner Television Network (TNT).  A Confederate submarine takes on a Yankee ship in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.




Spoiler Warning:

"Charleston, South Carolina, 1862.  The Federal blockade is choking the city.  Union warships shell Fort Sumter and downtown Charleston day and night.  The city will not surrender.  The city is dying."

The Hunley submarine is diving fast at the ship fills up with water.  The men desperately try to get out of the ship to no avail.  The submarine hits the bottom of the harbor.  The men all drown. 

A note comes for General Beauregard.  The Hunley lost along with all its crew.  The General tells the messenger to give the note to Dixon. 

Lt. Dixon is drinking up a storm at the local bar.  He is daydreaming of seeing a woman he loves or loved.  The messenger comes in and tells Dixon that Captain Hunter took the sub for a test drive and it sunk under the Indian Chief with no survivors.  Dixon breaks the glass he is holding.  So now he starts drinking straight from the whiskey bottle. 

A grand funeral procession is held for the men of the Hunley. At the front of the procession rides General Beauregard and Lt. Dixon.  The General says this is the second full crew whose lives the submarine has claimed.  Lt. Dixon says that the submarine is the only hope of saving Charleston from going down to defeat. 

People come down to take a look at the submarine.  Black slaves wash the ship clean.  Lt. Dixon says they will have the submarine ready by the end of the week and then they will take the ship out again.

Aboard a Confederate ship, Lt. Dixon speaks to the crew on deck saying he is looking for a new crew for the Hunley.  A couple of sailors laugh while others have big grins on their faces.  Dixon continues.  The ship is a one-torpedo ship.  It sinks under Federal warships and is attached to the Yankee vessel.  The idea is that the sub will destroy enough ships to destroy the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor.  He then introduces himself and his chief engineer, Lt. Alexander from Mobile, Alabama.  He needs seven new men that can withstand confined places.  They also have to be able to endure intense heat and total darkness. 

The submarine has been sunk twice while being tested.  It killed a crew of five when she went down at Fort Jackson and eight men, including Captain Hunter, who drowned here just two weeks ago. 

Are there any volunteers?  Are there any volunteers?  No, there are no volunteers.  Dixon has to leave empty-handed. 

Dixon and Alexander go into the local bar to get some drinks.  As the bar tender gets their drink orders, a cannon ball explodes through the back wall just behind the bartender, killing him immediately.  Dixon looks as if he is in a state of shock.  He casually walks out into the street. He then casually walks down the street with cannon balls landing everywhere.  People are dying right on the streets.  He hears a woman crying about her husband and picks her up and takes her behind a building.  The woman is later joined by her husband, who says to Dixon:  "I am in your debt, sir."

Dixon and Alexander go down to the dock that harbors the Hunley.  The two men are shocked to find over 100 men waiting for them.  Last night's shelling must have made these men awfully mad and demanding revenge.  A fellow with a thick Irish accent says to Dixon:  "We heard you're looking for a crew." 

Dixon selects his seven men:

Frank Collins, an Irishman.  Hot tempered and always looking for a fight.  He has no fear and will not hesitate. 

Carl Simkins.  Born in Memphis, Tennessee and just got married.  He's dumb as dirt but strong as an ox. 

Arnold Becker.  Barely speaks above a whisper.  He's trying to teach himself French.  At Gettysburg he killed two Union officers with his bare hands. 

James Wicks.  He's a fisherman raised on the James River of Virginia. 

Charles Ridgeway, C. F. Carlson  and Patrick Miller are just boys that grew up together and are looking for a fight. 

Dixon tells his new crew that anyone can leave right now, if they don't like the rules they have to abide by.  No one will be thought ill of.  They all stay.

And now the men start going into the submarine.  It's crowded down there.  Dixon and Alexander explain the various features of the ship.  The men inside provide the power for propulsion of the submarine via a centrally located crank shaft that the men will crank by hand. 

The men take the sub out for a test.  Everyone makes it back alive.  Now a torpedo is placed on top of the submarine and is secured in place.  Alexander explains to the men how to attach the torpedo to the hull of a Yankee ship. 

They take practice runs again and again. 

Back from a practice run,  young Private Ronald White salutes Lt. Dixon and says he is reporting for duty.  Dixon says sorry, they've got all the men that they need.  White is not going to take no for an answer.  He says he can swim like a fish and promptly jumps into the river and starts swimming fast away from the docks.  Dixon has a good laugh. 

At night the men sleep together in a house.  They also eat together.  The men would like to know some things about Dixon, so Alexander tells them Dixon had a wife, but now she's dead.  She is the one who gave him the lucky coin that actually saved Dixon's leg at the Battle of Shiloh. 

The Irishman is very cynical about the Southern cause which upsets the other men.  So he says he can beat any man here, or defeat them all together, at once.  Alexander tells the Irishman to stop all that.  Collins tells Alexander to shut his face.  Alexander says Collins has to obey orders.  This just makes Collins madder and he starts hitting anyone and everyone in sight.  Dixon rushes down, turns Collins around to face him and knocks him down.  He hits him a couple more times and then throws him through the close door and out into the yard.  Dixon follows him saying that the fight is out there on and under the water, not with his fellows.  Collins says he's not afraid of Dixon.  Dixon tells him that that's a mistake. 

Dixon uses his telescope to check out the Union ships.  He tells Alexander that the best target for them is the Wabash, a wooden frigate, six miles out.  The torpedo they will be using contains 90 pounds of black powder.  The Union ships now start bombing Fort Sumter again. Alexander mentions Dixon's carefree walk down the main street when shells were bursting everywhere.  He says he thought at the time that Dixon wanted to be killed that night. 

In bed for the night Dixon remembers being in a battle where the Confederates are just getting torn up.  He starts running along with the others, but is wounded and goes down. 

The men are going to set the submarine on the bottom and see how long their air lasts before they have to come up for air.  After awhile it starts being difficult to breath.  The breathing is labored and the men start getting worried.  They finally say let's go up, but that is going to take awhile.  The men are really turning those cranks as fast as they can go.  The tough guy Irishman starts panicking and not cranking.  The mentally challenged Frank Collins bear hugs him in the hopes of calming him down.  When they finally reach the surface, everyone breathes a sigh of relief as they get some fresh air. 

The men really party hard that night.  Some idiot comes over to degrade the men saying they are cowards hiding underneath the water, whereas he is a real fighting man who shows his face and body to the enemy.  The Irishman wants the man to apologize to the crew and is about to throw a first punch, when Becker intervenes and hits the braggart so hard that he falls back on the table, smashing it to the ground.  It looks like Becker is going to strangle the man to death, so Dixon has to intervene.  Collins tells the man it would be a good time to apologize and the idiot apologizes.  Becker releases his grip on the fellow. 

The guys walk down to the beach drunkenly drinking and singing a naval song. 

Gen. Beauregard is visiting the men at the field hospital in Charleston.  He asks Dixon to be with him.  Being at the field hospital reminds Dixon of the time when he was nursed by his future wife in a field hospital.  As a nurse she comes over and touches his forehead to sooth him.  Dixon takes out the coin she gave him that stopped a bullet.  The coin is nearly bent in half. 

Dixon is awakened out of his day dream when the General tells Dixon that he is talking to him.  Beauregard says he had many complaints about the conduct of Dixon's crew last night.  Dixon explains that his men were defending the honor of their crew.  The General says Charleston is getting clobbered while the submarine crew just paddles around the area.  Dixon says he is ready to go out.  Then Dixon is ordered to go after the Union ships.  "Charleston is counting on you, Dixon.  I am counting on you."

The US Navy gets words that the Confederates have come up with a diving torpedo boat.  The sub will be able to attack from beneath the surface of the water.  Orders are given to make preparations to avoid being torpedoed. 

Dixon tells his crew they are going after the Wabash  --  three hours out and three hours back.  Beauregard comes out to see the submarine and its crew off. 

The men are all in place and the submarine starts off.  After about three hours the submarine breaks the surface of the water and fresh air is let into the canister.  It's now that they discover that iron chain netting has been placed all around the Union ship.  So now the rebs know that the Union has gotten word of their plans. 

Dixon and Alexander have to busy themselves with freeing the torpedo from its rope line that has gotten itself wrapped around the rudder.  Dixon has to repeatedly go under water to cut the ropes from around the rudder.  While they are doing this, the sailors aboard the Union ship spot them and start firing at the two men.  Dixon and Alexander are able to close the two hatches and dive the submarine. 

A concert is being held .  Gen. Beauregard is there to listen to the music along with many other Charlestonians.  Beauregard has to leave his seat for awhile to receive a report from Dixon.  The General does not like hearing this reported failure and he threatens to disband the whole crew before the submarine makes him the laughing stock of Charleston.  The conversation is broken up by the shelling of Charleston again.  The concert hall itself is in danger of being destroyed. The audience starts panicking.  Dixon runs down to the orchestra leader and tells him to play Bonnie, Blue Flag.  The General starts singing to the tune and gets the others to sing along.  When the song finishes, the bombardment stops and the audience hoops and hollers in joy.   

Dixon says that netting is not in place on the farther out Union ships.  So he decides to go after those outer ships.  The General tells Dixon that he has designed a new system to deliver the torpedo to the target ship.  The torpedo will be mounted on the bow, but off the keel.  In front of the torpedo will be a saw-toothed harpoon.  The harpoon spears the hull of the ship and then the submarine backs up 150 to 200 feet and the lanyard triggers the torpedo.     

Now that that subject is covered, the General asks Dixon if he agrees with his critics that at the Battle of Shiloh on the first day, was he right in resting his army and not continue pursuing the enemy?  Dixon says that he thought the General should have pushed on.  Beauregard says he was right in resting the army, which had no more fight in it.  And, besides, there was no report that any Union reinforcements were any where near Shiloh.  Beauregard is also mad because Confederate President Jefferson Davis said the the General was not fit to command an army.  "What does that son of a bitch know about fighting a war?"  Davis stripped Beauregard of his command and broke his heart. 

And what did Dixon lose in this war?  He heard the story that Dixon's wife was on a ferryboat on the Tennessee River and the boat was hit by a torpedo.  How can Dixon bear that?  Dixon says it pains him to talk about his wife as it must pain the General to talk about his deceased wife.  Beauregard says it relieves his suffering to talk about it.  His wife died in giving birth to his daughter.  "Whatever you do from that moment onwards, you are really just marking time.  Isn't that right, Dixon?"  Yes, sir. 

The USS Housatonic has gotten new orders.  They are to lay off Rattlesnake Shoal near Battery Marshall and be prepared to intercept any blockade runner. 

The crew works on putting in Beauregard's new torpedo system.  Dixon calls Alexander over to him.  It seems that Alexander is being transferred to Mobile to design some new mobile cannon.  He is to leave tomorrow.  Alexander really doesn't like leaving the submarine.  On his way out, Collins gives Alexander his Irish Cross for good luck. 

And now young Ronald White becomes a member of the submarine crew.  Dixon says it's a full moon tonight and the likelihood is that the Union sailors/marines will spot them.  So they are going to have to be fast and accurate. 

In the bath tub Dixon has another daymare, this one about running into the river water after the explosion of the ferryboat on which his wife was killed. 

The crew gets into the submarine again.  They crank their way out to the Housatonic.  The sub comes to the surface and a hatch is opened to get some fresh air into the ship.  The Union crew doesn't notice anything as of yet.  The submarine crew really crank hard now to spear the harpoon into the wood ship.  An officer on watch now spots the submarine.  "All hands on deck." 

The harpoon rams into the ship and the men are tossed around inside the submarine.  And now the men back the submarine out.  Union men are firing their weapons at the submarine and a bullet hits one of the small, round glass windows and a piece of glass cuts Dixon underneath his left eye.  The lanyard is pulled and the ship explodes into many bits and pieces.  The ship splits apart and quickly sinks below the surface. 

Ronald White uses a blue light to signal to shore that they torpedoed a Union ship.  He sees the Housatonic in flames in the process of sinking below the water's surface.  He shouts to the captain that they got her! 

The explosion shock waves have damaged the submarine and the men have had to stick cloth material in a lot of different holes to stop the leaks.  Suddenly, the captain realizes that they have taken on too much water and the sub is heading for the bottom.  With that much water taken on, the submarine smashes hard onto the bottom floor of the harbor.  The men get tossed around again.   The hatches get stuck under this water pressure.  Also the rudder is broken and the diving plane is "froze".   The men now know they are facing death within a couple of hours. 

The whole crew agreed to flood the sub if they every got stuck.  Dixon says:  "Gentlemen this has been an honor to know each . . ."   The valves are opened and the water pours in.  The men hear the Housatonic hitting the bottom of the harbor.  They are proud of what they accomplished.  Ronald admits now that he isn't even in the damn army.  The men laugh a little at this.  The men sing a song as they wait for the water to rise all the way.  The captain has been wounded and is the first head to go under the rising water line.  The captain sees his wife in the water come to him.

The entire crew is lost.

At the funeral Gen. Beauregard and Alexander are there. 

"One year later the city of Charleston fell.  The blockade was never broken, but the Hunley ushered in a new era of submarine warfare that forever changed the way wars would be fought."


Good movie even though I don't like seeing Confederate victories.  The movie tells the story of the eight man crew of the submarine the Hunley.  The audience comes to know some of the major members of the crew and even I did feel a bit sad to see them meet their ultimate fate.  Armand Assante (as Dixon) and Donald Sutherland (as General Beauregard) were both good in their roles. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:

The South is desperate to end the Union blockade of its ports.  The about 40 feet long Hunley is designed and built at Mobile, Ala., and named for its chief financial backer, Horace L. Hunley. It had a crew of nine members, eight of whom propelled the vessel by hand-cranking a single screw. Its commander controlled steering and depth.


The Hunley shipped by rail to Charleston, S.C.  Attempts to sink the Union frigate New Ironsides.  

August 29  --  the Hunley sinks for the first time during a freak accident in Charleston Harbor. Lieutenant John Payne gives the command to dive but gets fouled in the manhole by the hawser and in trying to clear himself gets his foot on the lever which controlled the fins, forcing water into the open hatches. Four men escape, but five others are trapped inside and drown. Ten days passed before the craft is recovered. By that time the bodies of the trapped crew are so badly bloated and contorted that salvagers are forced to cut off limbs so they can extricate the men through the sub's tiny hatchways.

early October 1863  -- the Hunley capsizes near Fort Sumter; Payne and two seamen escape, but raised by Hunley.

October 15  --  the submarine goes to the bottom again on during a practice dive, with loss of all hands, including Hunley himself. Raised again.


Feb. 17  --  the Hunley successfully attacks and sinks the Union sloop Housatonic with a spar torpedo (bomb at the end of a long pole). The Hunley is lost, along with Lieutenant George Dixon and all crewhands.

1966-67 and 1990  --  modern reconstructions of the Hunley made respectively at Charleston and Mobile.

They have now raised the original Hunley from the harbor and the submarine is now on display in Charleston Museum.


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