U-571 (2000)



Directors:    Jonathan Mostow

Starring:     Matthew McConaughey (Lt. Andrew Tyler, Executive Officer), Bill Paxton (Lt. Cmdr. Mike Dahlgren), Harvey Keitel (CPO Henry Klough), Jon Bon Jovi (Lt. Pete Emmett, Chief Engineer), David Keith (Maj. Matthew Coonan, USMC, Office of Naval Intelligence),  Thomas Kretschmann (Capt.-Lt. Gunther Wassner),  Jake Weber (Lt. Hirsch, USNR),  Jack Noseworthy (Seaman Bill Wentz, Radioman),  Tom Guiry (Seaman Ted 'Trigger' Fitzgerald, Radioman),  Will Estes (Seaman Ronald 'Rabbit' Parker, Torpedoman),  Terrence 'T.C.' Carson (Steward Eddie Carson),  Erik Palladino (Seaman Anthony Mazzola, Planesman),  Dave Power (Seaman Charles 'Tank' Clemens, Machinist Mate),  Derk Cheetwood (Seaman Herb Griggs, Helmsman),  Matthew Settle (Ens. Keith Larson, Chief Torpedoman).

This is a fictional tale about World War II US submariners who undertake a secret mission to capture a German Enigma machine (that provided  a secret code for the Germans) from U-boat  U-571 in order to decode German documents.  The Poles had an Enigma machine copy and sent one to the British;  on two occasions the British captured two Enigma machines; and the Americans, late in the war (two days before D-Day), captured one. 



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

Spring 1942.  Hitler's U-boats wreak havoc in the North Atlantic sinking over 1,000 Allied ships and threatening to destroy the supply line from America to England.  Unable to crack the new U-boat radio codes, the Allies struggle blindly against the German onslaught. 

German U-boat U-571 readies its torpedoes.  They fire the torpedoes and hit an Allied convoy ship.  They are very happy when the convoy explodes.  But their celebration is short-lived.  A destroyer is on to them.  The ship launches its depth charges.  The explosions of the depth charges gradually become louder and louder as the destroyer approaches the position of the U-boat.  Quite a few depth charges explode near the U-boat and a fuel leak develops in the submarine. The fuel catches fire and a number of sailors are burned to death.  The command is given to surface.  The commander is told that all the vessel's mechanics are dead.  In fact, the whole engine crew is death.  The Germans send a message to Berlin telling them of their situation and their location.  The German Enigma machine is used to encode the message. 

In the United States the crew of submarine S-33 are having a party at a club.  The Captain of the ship is Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren; the Executive officer is the very young Lt. Andrew Tyler;  and the Chief Petty Officer is the older by quite a few years Henry Klough.  Tyler speaks to the Captain saying that he did not get the command of his own ship.  The Captain says"  "I don't think you're ready."  Tyler is very upset and CPO Klough tries to cheer him up.  But this just upsets Tyler even more.  He tells Kough:  "You knew and didn't warn me."  The club is forced to close by the MPs.  All 48 hour liberty passes have been cancelled.  They are going on a mission.

The men are going on a special operation.  Radioman Wentz is sought out by the officers because he is a native German speaker.  The officers are introduced to Marine Major Coonan from the Office of Naval Intelligence.  He will be in charge of the special operation.  Their task is to get a German Enigma machine from a U-boat. 

The Captain of the U-571 submarine gives the order to shoot a number of American sailors in a life boat. 

The American sub observes that German radio contact has picked up.  The order is given for the special operation to begin.   Major Coonan tells his men that he and he alone will be the first man to shoot and then the others can start firing their weapons.  The Americans are dressed in German naval uniforms.  Contact is with U-571.  Two groups of Americans get into two rubber boats.  As the boats approach and the Americans are welcomed on board, one of the Germans notices that one of the men in a rubber boat is sneaking from under his rain coat an automatic weapon.  He shouts out an alarm and a fire-fight begins.  The Americans clear the conning tower.  Then they gradually take the entire ship, fighting their way from one end to the other.  A number of German sailors are taken as prisoners of war.  They are then transferred to the American submarine.  And then everything changes.

The American submarine is hit by torpedoes; the ship splits in half; and goes down under the water.  The Captain of the ship is thrown into the water.  The men on the U-boat now have to use the German ship as their new ship.  And the attacking U-boat is less than a thousand yards away.  The attacking U-boat sends  two torpedoes toward U-571.  The ship has to maneuver expertly in order to avoid the torpedoes.  This is not easy because there are only two Americans who know German.  The translators have to run around explaining the meaning of the various labels on the U-boat.  The Americans just avoid the two torpedoes.  Two more torpedoes are on their way.  The Americans fire four torpedoes on the advancing U-boat.  The two German torpedoes miss, but one of the American torpedoes lands and destroys the U-boat. 

The Americans emerge to the surface in order to pick up American survivors.  They pick up a couple along with the German captain who pretends to be an electrician.  Lt. Commander Dahlgren is dead in the water.  The decision is now made to head for Land's End, England.  This upsets a few of the crew because this course will send them through the heart of German U-boat operations.  An aircraft buzzes their U-boat.  It's German and it's a reconnaissance plane off a destroyer, which, by the way, is heading directly toward the American commandeered U-boat.  The German P.O.W. is able to knock out the key engineer and get his gun.  He then kills the would-be mutineer Mazzola.  The German then sabotages some parts of the engine room.   His bit of freedom is ended when he is overpowered by the crew and locked up tight. 

On the surface, the new captain, Lt. Tyler, makes the decision to knock out the destroyer's ability to employ their radio communication equipment by using their heavy gun.  The shot is right on the mark.  But the German destroyer now opens up its big guns on the U-boat.  The crew has a tough time getting the  U-boat to dive because of the sabotage in the engine room.  So Captain Tyler orders the boat to approach the destroyer in order to get under the guns which will not be able to be lowered low enough to fire on the sub.  Finally they get the submarine to dive.  They slowly dive while going underneath the destroyer.  They just barely clear the bottom of the destroyer.   The destroyer responds by launching depth charges.  Tyler orders the U-boat to dive down to 500 feet.  This is not going to be easy because of the poor condition of the sub.  The Captain then decides to play dead.  He has the the torpedo chamber filled with the dead body of Mazzola and lots of floatable equipment.  But in order to shoot the material out of the sub, a stuck valve has to be moved into the right position.  They select the smallest guy, Trigger, to go under the water to close the valve.  Meanwhile, the German captain starts sending out a Morse code message:  "I am U-571.  Destroy me."   One of the crew is sent to stop the German captain.  The fellow smashes the captain with a huge pipe wrench splashing the German's  blood onto his own face.

Trigger reports that he can't quite close the valve.  Tyler rushes to his side and tells him that he can do it.  Trigger tries again.  Trigger reaches the valve and closes it.  The crew is very ecstatic, which is tempered by the news that Trigger drowned in the performance of his duty.  The German destroyer leaves the area. 

Later the American commanded U-boat surfaces.  And even later a US Navy search plane finds them.  The Enigma machine is delivered to the right authorities. 

This film is dedicated to the bravery of Allied sailors and officers who risked their lives capturing Enigma materials from U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic:

May 9, 1941.  Enigma machine and coding documents captured from U-110 by HMS Bulldog and HMS Aubretin of the 3rd Escort Group.

October 30, 1942.  Short weather cipher captured from U-559 by HMS Petard. 

June 4, 1944.  Enigma machine and coding documents captured from U-505 by U.S. Navy Task Force 22.3. 


If you like action movies that are largely fictional, then this is a good film.  There's lots of action and lots of suspense.  My wife and I enjoyed it, but were disappointed that it dealt with a fictional case when there was a real one done on June 4, 1944.  Watch either of the other films on the Enigma for more and better history. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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