When the subject of novels by C.S. Forester pops up at cocktail parties, film adaptations of them that immediately come to mind are "The African Queen" (script by James Agee and John Huston) and "Sink the Bismark!" (script by Edmund H. North). I wasn't familiar with Forester's 1955 book "The Good Shepherd," another one about both a world war and sailing vessels.
Neither was Tom Hanks, who picked up a copy of it seven or eight years ago because he liked the cover, fell under its spell, and eventually turned it into a screenplay that has become the film "Greyhound."
Though not based on any specific WWII incident, the story easily could have happened. After the film's brief introduction via quotes from Winston Churchill - "The brunt of the war has fallen upon the sailor men," and Franklin Roosevelt - "Our American merchant ships must be free," the circumstances are presented.
The time is February 1942. The place is the North Atlantic. The backdrop is a convoy of 37 troop and supply ships headed from the U.S. to Liverpool, led by the heavily armed destroyer Greyhound. Their safe passage is guaranteed only for the first and last parts of the crossing, when they would be protected from German U-boat (submarine) attack by American, and later British, air support. Due to fuel limitations, the planes weren't able to assist mid-ocean, in the area that became known as "The Black Pit."
It's at the entrance to "The Black Pit" that we meet Captain Ernie Krause (Tom Hanks) who has just been given his first command of Greyhound, a gray ship on a gray ocean, at that point about 50 hours away from British air cover.
Right away, this becomes the story of Kraus as well as the story of dangers on a war-torn sea. A brief flashback reveals that Kraus has a fiancée (Elisabeth Shue) and that he's been waiting a long time for this sort of assignment. When the setting returns to Greyhound, it's established that Krause is a serious officer who knows what he's expected to do and intends to do it well. It's also made clear that he doesn't sleep well on ships.
But there's no time for him to think about sleep or, it turns out, food, because the war leaps out at him, and his crew, and the ships Greyhound is escorting. A blip on a radar screen translates into a report of a possible U-boat. "We'll run it down," he says. But by the time he finishes that thought, the cinematic tension has begun, with quick editing cuts and welling music. Assisted by his right-hand man, Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham), and his crack team of young sailors, he oversees the anxious situation: A U-boat gets closer, surfaces for air, gets even closer, disappears, is picked up on sonar, and is destroyed. "Fifty less Krauts," says one sailor. "Fifty souls," mutters the captain, who is also shown to be a pious man.
There are more blips on screens, more fear of attacks from below. There are aerial views that show the convoy, appearing to be made up of tiny ships, on the vast ocean. But the cameras keep returning to the claustrophobic atmosphere of Greyhound, and to what shifts from a look of determination to one of uncertainty on the face of Krause. He still hasn't slept, the ship's cook, Cleveland (Rob Morgan), can't convince him to eat, and one, then another, then yet another of the merchant ships are hit by torpedoes.
The captain's work is never done. Questions are asked, perils arise, decisions are made, orders are shouted. "Full right rudder!" and other jargon becomes commonplace dialogue. Multiple blips appear on screens, but no one is really sure how many U-boats are out there.
Emotions of characters and viewers are put on edge, guns are fired, torpedoes are launched, chaos reigns. To make matters worse, an English-speaking German-accented voice is repeatedly radioed all over Greyhound, saying, "We hunt you and your friends!"
This is a nail-biting movie that's anchored by a terrific internal performance from Hanks, whose character isn't afraid to doubt his own decisions, and is played out with uncomfortable but mesmerizing realism. In the end, it nabs a spot in the genre of triumph of the spirit films.
"Greyhound" premieres on Apple TV+ on July 10.
Ed Symkus can be reached at .