Movie Review – Greyhound (2020)

“Meet her!”

Commander Ernest Krause
  • Director: Aaron Schneider
  • Producers: Gary Goetzman
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan, Elisabeth Shue
  • Released: 10 July 2020

Note: This film was originally slated for a theatrical release, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic it was instead released directly to streaming. Everyone is trying to get in on the streaming business, and Apple is no exception. However, at the time of writing, this film is only available on AppleTV+ which bought the distribution rights from Sony. In other words, you can only stream it on AppleTV+. Why they chose to solely go with this distribution method is beyond me because it’s not available on any other streaming platform or through the iTunes store, and you can’t even buy a physical copy. It seems like an odd choice to limit their audience only to those who have AppleTV+. In other words, you better be willing to throw your money at yet another streaming service subscription! Personally, I don’t watch a lot of TV or use many Apple products (aside from their phones and iTunes), so giving more of my money to a company whose practices I’m already not terribly fond of is sort of stupid. What I ended up doing is getting a free 1-week trial, watching the film, taking screenshots, and then promptly canceling my subscription. The other offerings on AppleTV+ didn’t look terribly enticing anyway. With that out of the way, let’s get on with the review.

Adapted from the 1955 novel The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester (famous for the Horatio Hornblower series), the film was written by and stars Tom Hanks as U.S. Navy Commander Ernest Krause who must escort a supply convoy across the Atlantic aboard his destroyer in the winter of 1942. Traversing an area beyond the range of Allied air cover known as “The Black Pit,” he must fight off the cold temperatures of the North Atlantic, constant fatigue, and the ever-present danger of marauding German U-boats.

Plot

*SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The film begins in February of 1942. U.S. Navy Commander Ernest Krause is in command of the USS Keeling (radio callsign: Greyhound). Assigned as the escort commander, Krause and the other escorting warships must protect the merchant ships of convoy HX-25 en route for England, as they traverse “The Black Pit,” an area beyond the range of Allied air cover in the North Atlantic.

The film covers the span of 2 days as the convoy crosses the Black Pit. It is broken up into 5 distinct segments of 4-hour watches; beginning on Wednesday at 0800.

Wednesday Forenoon Watch 0800 – 1200

During this watch, Greyhound makes contact with its first U-boat which it manages to sink. However, it soon becomes apparent that additional U-boats are in the area as the Greek merchant, Despotiko, is torpedoed and sunk. While the escorting warships screen the rescue ship Cadena, which is picking up survivors, a wolfpack of six U-boats is identified on radar and shown to be shadowing the convoy. Greyhound attacks and manages to force one of the submarines under.

USS Keeling‘s forward 5″/38 gun mounts traverse to bear on a target. Note that they’re covered in ice from the sea spray.
The Grey Wolf U-boat. The leader of the wolfpack that stalks the convoy.

Several other U-boats of the wolfpack stalking the convoy.

Wednesday Dog Watches 1600 – 2000

In the middle of the night, Greyhound finds itself engaging a U-boat that has penetrated into the convoy columns. Greyhound nearly collides with the merchant, SS United States, and an oil tanker in the convoy is torpedoed and explodes. While hunting for U-boats in the convoy, Greyhound is spoofed by a pillenwerfer sonar decoy from the Grey Wolf U-boat and ends up wasting depth charges on it. Receiving urgent requests for protection at the rear of the convoy, Krause makes the decision to first rescue survivors from the sinking tanker; however, the ships in the rear of the convoy came under attack before Greyhound could reach them. Meanwhile, the Grey Wolf taunts the convoy over the Talk Between Ships (TBS) radio channel, and the wolfpack attacks en masse during the night causing chaos.

The Grey Wolf deploys a pillenwerfer sonar decoy.
Ships in the convoy put up distress flares as the wolfpack attacks in the middle of the night causing chaos.

Thursday Morning Watch 0400 – 0800

While joining the Polish destroyer (radio callsign: Eagle) for the hunt, Krause is informed that they only have 6 depth charges left but can be within range of Allied air cover in 24 hours if they take a direct route. A battle develops between the Greyhound, the Canadian corvette (radio callsign: Dicky), and a U-boat which is forced to the surface. While the U-boat is destroyed, Greyhound is hit by a shell from its deck gun that kills three men. After a brief burial at sea, Greyhound moves to assist Cadena in a rescue after Eagle is torpedoed.

An HMCS Flower-class corvette (callsign: Dicky) drops depth charges while prosecuting a submerged contact.

Thursday First Watch 2000 – 2400

Unable to control the damage, Eagle abandons ship. Feeling the strain and desperation of their situation, Krause orders a message sent to the Admiralty requesting help. The Admiralty replies that reinforcements are being dispatched to a rendezvous point.

Friday Forenoon Watch 0800 – 1200 (3 hours to air cover)

Suffering from severe fatigue and having stood for so long, Krause realizes that his feet are bleeding and requests his slippers. Nearing England, 2 U-boats make a final attack on the convoy. Greyhound manages to evade the torpedoes fired at it and sinks the Grey Wolf. A PBY Catalina then arrives and assists in sinking the last U-boat. Although they’ve lost 7 merchants, the convoy successfully rendezvous with several RN destroyers led by HMS Diamond who escort the convoy the rest of the way to England. As Greyhound departs, the merchant ships cheer her on and Krause climbs into his rack for some much-needed rest.

USS Keeling heels over in a sharp turn to starboard while evading torpedoes fired at it.
An Allied PBY Catalina arrives to provide air support and drop depth charges on the last U-boat.
USS Keeling (DD-548) leads the surviving escorts to Derry, England.

Historical Accuracies

We should remember that this film falls within the realm of historical fiction given that it’s based on a historical fiction novel. In many ways, it echoes the film Master and Commander, in that it’s set during a historical conflict, but depicts fictional characters and events. Still, there is something to be said for the “accuracy” of this film.

A decent modern historical fiction representation of the Battle of the Atlantic

I’m not very well-read on the Battle of the Atlantic and I’m not terribly familiar with the tactics used by convoys and U-boats, or the technical characteristics of the vessels; however, it’s nice to see a modern fictional interpretation of it. There have been other book and film representations of these events, to be sure. For example, The Cruel Sea, The Enemy Below, and Das Boot all tell of the Battle of the Atlantic from different perspectives and with different degrees of historical accuracy. In some ways, Greyhound is like the American version of The Cruel Sea, except it replaces the real ships with CGI renderings, has poorer character development, isn’t quite as historically accurate, and only takes place over the course of a few days, not the entire war.

All that said, I consider this film to be an example of well-executed historical fiction, at least from a hardware standpoint. It’s a delight to see these ships faithfully recreated with CGI. Of course, in the book, the USS Keeling is a Mahan-class destroyer, whereas, in the film, she’s depicted by the Fletcher-class USS Kidd (DD-661). One nice thing about the film is that the USS Keeling is a fictional destroyer with a fictional hull number (DD-548). Numbers 548 – 549 were skipped over during the construction of the Fletcher-class destroyers. To me, this was a very tasteful decision since it allows the film to take many historical liberties without risking tarnishing the history and name of an actual ship.

Sense of scale

While the ships (and the ocean) are obviously CGI, as I mentioned in my review of Midway, I feel that we now have the ability to faithfully recreate convincing CGI models of ships that don’t appear to be a hokey model sloshing around in a tub of water. Of course, who knows how far computer technology will advance in 10 to 20 years. What looks very good today will look like crap at some point in the future. Still, given that we don’t have many remaining WWII-vintage naval vessels (even those that are museum ships), digital ships will have to do.

The production used the museum ship USS Kidd as a reference for the fictional Keeling and built a mock-up of the bridge superstructure in front of a blue screen to accommodate the cameras and crew. Combined with the CGI-rendered Keeling, the result is a fairly realistic depiction of the bridge and pilothouse of a Fletcher-class destroyer.

Accurate naval jargon

Anyone who’s studied the organization and operations of WWII destroyers, convoy duty, and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) will likely find a lot of great details in this film. No doubt there are many inaccuracies, as well. One thing of note is the accurate use of naval jargon. In particular, Krause’s commands to his helmsman are very accurate. He’ll note things like what course to steer, rudder angle, and speed. For example, he occasionally gives the command of, “meet her!” which means to use the rudder to check the turning of the vessel on whatever bearing it’s currently on. Other commands like, “right/left standard rudder” means to turn the rudder a certain number of degrees so as to turn the ship within its tactical diameter. At other times, the captain or the Officer of the Deck (OOD) will have the conn and/or the deck.

Historical Inaccuracies/Oddities

A fictional story based on a fictional novel

Before getting into the historical inaccuracies, it’s important to note that this film is based on a fictional novel. Forester’s novel was fairly vague on the details (He doesn’t even provide the exact dates) apart from the fact that it’s a Mahan-class destroyer in the book, but a Fletcher-class in the film. So we can say with a fair degree of confidence that this film, at its core, is a historical fiction piece because it’s based on a historical fiction novel, and one that’s not terribly accurate, to begin with. Ergo, the historicity of the film should be taken with a grain of salt.

Cmdr. Krause is the oldest O-5 in the U.S. Navy

At 60+ years old, Tom Hanks as Ernest Krause (George Krause in the book) has got to be the oldest Commander in the U.S. Navy. His jowls are a bit of a giveaway. Bear in mind that this isn’t the first time Hanks has played a captain (on both land and at sea) and he’s been involved in many productions that are set during WWII due to his personal interest in the subject (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific, to name a few).

While I very much like Tom Hanks as an actor, let’s just admit that he’s getting a bit too old to play some of these roles. Heck, he was already too old to play Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan. This is basically what TVTropes refers to as “Dawson’s Casting” and “Age Lift”. At his age, Hanks would’ve been better off playing an Admiral. In fact, Admiral Ernest King was the oldest admiral in the U.S. Navy at the time of WWII, being in his 60s. Realistically, if Krause was indeed in his 60s as Hanks is, then the Navy probably would’ve retired him in the interwar years. Most officers with the rank of Commander would probably be somewhere in their late-30s or early-40s.

In the book, Krause is a much more realistic 42 years old and has already had a 20-year career in the Navy, of which 13 years were at sea aboard destroyers. That said, the book also establishes that Krause had been passed over twice for promotion, and if not for the U.S. joining the war and the desperate need for unrestricted line officers, then it would’ve only been a matter of time before he’d be shown the door.

The anachronistic USS Keeling (DD-548)

In the book, Krause’s ship is a 1,500-ton Mahan-class destroyer, which has been in commission since 1938. However, this is also incorrect since all of the Mahan destroyers served in the Pacific theater whereas the story takes place in the Atlantic. In the film, she’s a fictional Fletcher-class destroyer portrayed by the real USS Kidd. In reality, the Fletcher-class destroyers didn’t start entering service until June of 1942, several months after the film takes place.

USS Mahan. The fictional USS Keeling is a Mahan-class destroyer in the book. Note the differences in superstructure and hull shape, as well as the differences in the main armament when compared to the photo below.
The USS Kidd in 1951. Now a museum ship, this Fletcher-class destroyer portrayed the fictional USS Keeling in the film. Note that all of the 5″/38 mounts on the Fletchers are fully enclosed, whereas the Mahans had a combination of partially enclosed and open 5″/38 mounts.

The anachronistic SS United States and the convoy

While hunting down a U-boat at night, the Keeling nearly collides with a merchant ship named the United States. There have been several vessels with that name, although none were in service during WWII. The SS United States was an ocean liner with United States Lines, but it was built in 1950 after the war and it only bears a passing resemblance to what is seen on-screen.

The real ocean liner SS United States in the 1950s. Note difference in the the hull, funnels, masts, and superstructure when compared to the merchant vessel seen in the film.

While the convoy they’re escorting in the book isn’t named, in the film it’s HX-25. The anachronistic part is the fact that this was a real Atlantic convoy, but it sailed on 5 March 1940 from Halifax and arrived in Liverpool on the 20th. Recall that the film takes place in February 1942. In addition, none of the ships mentioned in the film were part of the real HX-25 convoy.

On another strange note, the film portrays Eagle as a Polish Grom-class destroyer but lists it as a “British destroyer” in the title card. In the book, the type of destroyer isn’t specified except that it’s Polish and has a British officer aboard manning the radio (presumably to interpret for English speakers).

Anachronistic technology

Apart from the anachronistic destroyer in the film, there’s also some technology that wasn’t in use this early in the war.

TBS (Talk Between Ships) short-range, line-of-sight VHF radios were in use at the time (they were on most U.S. warships by 1941), but for whatever reason, every time he talks on the TBS, he picks up what appears to be a sound-powered phone handset. (I may be wrong, but sound-powered phones are only used in internal communications aboard a vessel. I’m not a radio expert so I don’t know if they can even be connected to a TBS radio.)

At a couple of points in the film (and only hinted at in the book), the skipper of the Grey Wolf U-boat taunts the convoy over the TBS radio channel. From what I’ve read, this would simply not be possible because U-boats have no such radios that could communicate via voice on that frequency, and secondly, no U-boat captain in his right mind would do this because breaking radio silence would give away his position.

The radar shown is a centimeter-type SG radar that wasn’t in service aboard destroyers yet (in the book, it’s the correct SC type). Furthermore, the film depicts the destroyer as having a Combat Information Center (CIC). While this is accurate for the USS Kidd where filming took place, it’s historically anachronistic for the time. The film takes place in February 1942 and CICs weren’t built into ships yet. The implementation of CICs began aboard aircraft carriers to improve fighter direction and fleet air defense. Even then, the concept of a CIC didn’t become formalized until late 1942.

USS Keeling‘s anachronistic SG radar dish. (In the book, it’s an earlier SC set.)

Close formations

The escorting warships are far too close to the convoy. Their sonar operators would almost be constantly hearing nothing but the screws of the convoy ships. Furthermore, in several shots, we can see the U-boats running on the surface to keep pace with the convoy, but they’re sailing far too close to the convoy to not be attacked by the escorts.

The wrong windshield wipers

An extremely minor nitpick. The film depicts a problem with the Keeling‘s wiper blades in the pilothouse icing up due to the cold. In the book, there were no windshield wipers. Rather, the ship has clear view screens. These are circular glass discs mounted in the window with an electric motor in the center that causes them to spin. The subsequent centrifugal force keeps the glass clear of rain and snow.

The sailors behind Cmdr. Krause clear the ice from the windows of the pilothouse with swabs (mops) because the wipers are freezing up.

Criticisms

My biggest issue with this film, and what greatly holds it back, is the complete lack of character development. It might be because they had to fit all of the action into a 90-minute runtime, but Commander Krause practically has no character arc. The film gives us only one short scene to establish any background with him. The scene takes place in the U.S. in December of 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Krause is shown as a Lieutenant Commander and meets up with his love interest Evelyn (played by Elizabeth Shue) in a hotel lobby. It’s mentioned that he’s just received his first command of a Fletcher-class destroyer and that he’s headed to Norfolk and not Treasure Island, San Francisco (implying that he expected to be deployed to the Pacific, but the needs of the Navy took precedence). Sadly, Evelyn turns down his offer to join him in the Caribbean as he undergoes training in convoy tactics. (He wanted to propose to her on a sandy beach.)

With the world at war, Elisabeth Shue has something against marrying Tom Hanks dressed in a nice naval officer’s service dress blue uniform. Well, at least LCDR Krause got some nice monogrammed slippers and a toy ship for Christmas. I guess that’s supposed to make up for it. (This is literally the only scene we get of any backstory for Krause.)

Unlike the book, the film is very vague on Krause’s career in the Navy. He only briefly mentions having been “fitted and retained,” and that the Navy finally gave him a command. The film also differs from the book where he’s married, but his wife is having an affair. He chose duty in the Atlantic to get away from it all. When the film jumps ahead to February of 1942, he’s a full Commander indicating that he’s been promoted. Still, this is his first time escorting a convoy across the Atlantic. Similar to the book, there’s a lack of character development for the supporting characters, as well. The other officers and sailors aboard the Keeling simply exist to follow Krause’s orders.

In addition to the lack of character development, the plot of the film (along with the book) is perhaps a bit too by-the-numbers. The plot can be summed up in what TVTropes refers to as an “Escort Mission”. While the action scenes are exciting, there’s no real emotional payoff at the end. The rest of the ships cheer Greyhound and Krause crawls into bed. If this film and the book were based on an actual ship and an actual historical convoy battle, then the drama might have been heightened, but the fact is that they’re both works of historical fiction with a lack of character development and a rather thin plot.

This lack of characterization and a thin plot make Greyhound pale in comparison to other historical fiction films with a naval setting. When briefly compared with the following, we can see where these films/books succeeded in both character development and plot whereas Greyhound failed.

  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – A Royal Navy frigate captain, his intellectual doctor friend, and the crew chase a French privateer into the Pacific Ocean during the Napoleonic Wars whilst arguing about competing philosophies on the natural world, human nature, and warfare.
  • Das Boot – The eclectic crew of a German U-boat tries to survive the boredom, claustrophobia, and terror of a patrol in the Atlantic against an increasingly dangerous foe and suicidal odds.
  • The Caine Mutiny – The crew of an American destroyer-minesweeper deal with a neurotic martinet of a captain while fighting in the Pacific; eventually mutinying and facing a court-martial.
  • The Cruel Sea – The officers of a Royal Navy corvette struggle to learn on the job and survive the tedium and danger of escorting convoys across the Atlantic during WWII.
  • The Enemy Below – A deadly cat-and-mouse game develops between the captains of a U.S. destroyer escort and a German U-boat in the Atlantic. Eventually, the two men come to respect the skills and bravery of their respective adversaries.

These are all set during a larger conflict which often becomes merely the background for what really occurs in the story. All of them are very character-driven stories with different personalities that grow and are fleshed out as the story progresses. As a result, the viewer/reader can get a good feeling for the epic nature of these plots and the fact that the characters are just people who’ve been caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Unfortunately, Greyhound lacks this epic quality and just feels like a few days at sea with a bunch of non-descript sailors.

Final Verdict

It’s difficult to judge this film with regard to its historical accuracy because it’s based on a historical fiction novel and one that isn’t terribly detailed or accurate, to begin with. While the film looks nice and captures the tension of hunting U-boats, its lack of characterization and weak storyline fails it on many levels. While Tom Hanks may be a big WWII history buff with the clout in Hollywood to get these types of productions green-lit, the fact is that Greyhound pales in comparison to his other WWII film endeavors, such as Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, or The Pacific, and lacks the outstanding qualities of other sea adventure stories.

That being said, I did enjoy this film as long as it’s understood that it’s historical fiction. The action scenes are thrilling and the ships, while CGI and anachronistic, are a visual treat for naval historians. The cinematography and scenes give the viewer a decent sense of scale and what it might feel like to be on the bridge of a destroyer in the middle of the Atlantic hunting U-boats in WWII.

3.5 stars out of 5

2 comments

  1. Great review Tim!
    Just a small remark – you’re saying TBS wasn’t in use back then. Does it mean as a module for smaller ships? Because my understanding reading Lundstrom & al regarding the operations in the Pacific in 1942 is that it was already in regular use at least with the carriers. I’d be interested to know what date you have and where that came from.

    Big thanks & keep the great work!

    Cheers

    Like

    1. Amiral,
      You’re absolutely correct about TBS already being in use back then. I’ve corrected the article to reflect that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! Keep up the hard work on TF:A. I’m really looking forward to it.

      Like

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