Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, July 9, 1999

TNT’s ‘Hunley’ rich
in details


Bullet The Hunley -- Sunday, 8 p.m., TNT

By Burl Burlingame


Making a movie of history is a tricky thing. There is truth, and there is Truth. One is what actually happened, the other is what people believe, despite evidence to the contrary. This is particularly the case in films about military actions, in which the verisimilitude of arcane details can overwhelm the story, and yet, if they're wrong, they can derail the whole project.

The tradition of Hollywood is not to sweat the details. For example, there was a movie about the Battle of Britain called "Eagles Over London" that used real Spitfires and Messerschmitts for the aerial sequences. But the Spitfires were in German markings, the Messerschmitts in British.

But "The Hunley," TNT's new production about the most famous of the two dozen or so submarines built during the Civil War, has the details down cold. A recycled boiler containing a manually operated crankshaft to propel her underwater, the Singer Submarine Co. weapon claimed two crews in accidents before being lost in battle, including namesake and bankroller Horace Hunley. The film opens with Hunley's drowning, and then opens up to focus on Charleston, a city under grim siege by a Union blockade.

Things are getting desperate. The city is beginning to look like London under the blitz. Charleston commander Beauregard leans on Army lieutenant George Dixon to make another effort with the "infernal machine." Dixon raises another crew, they train, they bond, they attempt sorties with the craft, they succeed in sinking a Northern ship and in doing so, send shock waves through the navies of the world. Undersea warfare had come of age.

But this is essentially an American kamikaze story. Hunley didn't return, and she was recently discovered on the muddy bottom near Charleston. No one knows why she sank some time after successfully completing her mission, and the film makes ready use of recent scholarship to create a convincing scenario. For example, a forward porthole in Hunley apparently has a bullet hole in it, something unknown until the last year, and this figures in the film.

Writer and director John Grey creates a claustrophobic tomb of the craft. When the movie is under water, it bolts forward in riveting fashion. Scenes ashore are pretty standard comrades-in-arms stuff. But as a snapshot of an American city in wartime, and a meditation on the nature of sacrifice, "The Hunley" is powerful stuff.

Most of the monkeying with reality is with the character of Dixon. The real Dixon was tall, blond, cheerful and 25 years old, and here he's played by Armand Assante, who's none of the above, and mumbles in an impenetrable Southern accent to boot. It's true that Dixon's fiancee gave him a gold coin as a good luck piece that stopped a bullet from shattering his leg in the battle of Shiloh, and this is used to hammer in a metaphor here. It's expected that the mangled gold coin will be discovered inside the submarine when it is recovered in 2001.

The movie fiancee is killed off in a wartime accident and spends the film as a silent and watery ghost, which will bring on a chorus of oh-pleases from viewers. In real life, Dixon's fiancee Queenie Bennett not only survived the war but was often arrested afterwards for hauling down the Star and Stripes in Charleston and running up the Confederate flag, and then brawling with carpetbagger Union troops. Now there's someone who belongs in a movie.

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