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Based on a real Cold War incident, K-19: The Widowmaker is a story of individual heroism in the face of global catastrophe. Eleanor Singer reports.

The irony was lost on no one: on Saturday August 12, just as pre-production was beginning on K-19: The Widowmaker, the Soviet submarine Kursk sank with 188 men on board just off the port of Murmansk.

Like the vessel that gave the new film its name, the Kursk was a nuclear-powered submarine. And, like the K-19, there were (and remain) doubts about the safety-measures taken to protect the crew - and the world - from nuclear contamination if anything should go wrong. Which, in the case of both, it undoubtedly did.

"based on an actual incident"

Although it is a fictionalised action movie focusing on the confrontation between two top stars, Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, and the heroism of the other crew members, K-19: The Widowmaker is based on an actual incident that happened in July 1961, at the height of the Cold War and in the build-up to the Cuban missile crisis.

It was an era in which the policy of nuclear deterrence - a deadly hall of mirrors which relied on one side having enough weapons to prevent the other side from ever using theirs - had reached its zenith. The Soviet Union had weapons to destroy the world twice over. Not to be outdone, the USA had an armoury of nuclear weapons sufficient to destroy the world 10 times over. As Cuba would demonstrate a few months later, one small flashpoint was all it took to launch the world into nuclear war - which of course would be the last war ever fought on the planet. The K-19 incident was only prevented from providing that flashpoint by the heroic self-sacrifice of members of its crew.

What made the K-19 different from the Kursk was that, in 1961, the Soviet Union (unlike Russia in 2000) was immensely powerful and rich, with the ability and the manpower to produce - and maintain - state-of-the-art weapons. The K-19 was just such a weapon: a long-range, missile-carrying nuclear submarine capable of operating at depths of almost 1,000 feet.

But, as so often happens at times of crisis, the vessel was put into service before all the necessary tests and sea trials had been carried out. And the result was a catastrophe that brought the world to the brink of disaster. It also cost the lives of 20 men who sacrificed themselves for the good of their country - and the world.

"all the elements for a dramatic movie"

“The story has all the elements for a dramatic movie,” says producer-director Kathryn Bigelow, who had been planning the film for some five years before production started and who, during that time, had made several trips to Russia to talk with the real K-19’s survivors and their families. “It has a built-in ‘ticking clock’ suspense factor: that is, a nuclear submarine with an impending reactor meltdown that could cause catastrophic global repercussions. It has, at its centre, a ferociously dedicated and charismatic captain, whose bold decisions under pressure saved the boat and its crew. And above all it has the courageous young submariners themselves, who knowingly subjected themselves to a lethal dose of radiation to repair the damage and fend off disaster.”

The story of the K-19 is, nuclear element apart, the familiar tale of a military establishment pushing its field officers to take risks and do things which their training instilled in them they shouldn’t. The background to the story is this: in November 1960, the United States sent its first Polaris-carrying submarine, the USS George Washington, on patrol. This changed the rules of the nuclear arms race, since having a launch-pad lurking underwater just off the Soviet coast gave the US the chance of hitting the USSR before it had a chance to launch its own missiles - the nearest thing to a ‘win’ scenario in a nuclear war.

Of course, the Soviets had been developing their own nuclear submarine, too, of which the 4,000-ton, 400-foot-long K-19 was a prototype. It just wasn’t ready to put to sea yet.

In the version of events narrated in Louis Nowra’s original story and Christopher Kyle’s final screenplay, the Kremlin dispatches the iron-willed career officer Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) to Murmansk - then, as now, the centre of Russian submarine operations - to relieve the K-19’s captain, Mikhail Polenin (Neeson), of his command and get the vessel operational as soon as possible. Polenin, meanwhile, was to remain on board as executive officer because of his detailed knowledge of the ship and its capabilities.

Operating precisely to schedule, Vostrikov puts to sea at 16.00 hours on June 18 1961, and begins a punishing series of tests, including taking the submarine down to its maximum depth and test-launching a missile. The K-19 appears to do everything it is supposed to do, and Vostrikov receives orders to take up a patrol station a mere 400 kilometres off the US coast, mid-way between Washington and New York. What he doesn’t know is that the tests have damaged the reactor’s cooling system, and that the K-19 is now a bomb waiting to explode. What is more, a Russian nuclear device exploding that close to the United States would almost certainly have been construed as an act of war, leading to retaliation by the United States and counter retaliation by the Soviet Union. So, knowing they face certain death by doing so, members of the K-19’s crew enter the reactor area to make the necessary repairs.

"no good guys versus bad guys in this story, no politics"

“There are no good guys versus bad guys in this story, no politics,” says Ford. “Our goal was to have audiences come to an appreciation of those who served on the K-19. As in any group, there were all kinds of people on board. But, when threatened with a terrible situation, they came together with heroic and selfless behaviour. When the time came, they did their duty.”

What happened to the K-19 was not unique: during the sixties, the US lost two nuclear submarines - the USS Thresher in 1963 and the USS Scorpion in 1968, both of which went down with all hands - and the Russians lost three, though their names were not released. But it was the human side of the story that fascinated Bigelow. 

It was a motivation that would be repeatedly tested in the four-month production period, which took the director and her multi-national crew from Los Angeles to Moscow (where a former Soviet submarine crew worked alongside them throughout the Russian segment of the shoot). From there, they went to Lake Winnipeg (which, with its pack ice, stood in for Arctic Ocean) and on to Halifax, Nova Scotia (where climatic conditions are similar to Murmansk) and Toronto (for interiors), before they finally set off into the North Atlantic to film a story that could never had been recreated in a studio tank.

The K-19 itself was portrayed by an old Soviet submarine that had been on display in (of all places) St Petersburg, Florida, since the end of the Cold War. Although smaller and of a different class, it was more easily convertible into the doomed nuclear vessel than anything else that would be sufficiently seaworthy for the North Atlantic. Back-up vessels included a Canadian sub (which became the Soviet vessel sent to rescue the K-19), a Canadian destroyer (as the USS Decatur), a barge with a replica of the K-19’s conning tower, a lifeboat, five tugs, a camera boat, two catering boats, six Zodiacs and assorted smaller vessels for the camera crew and other production departments. The final authentic touch was the hiring of the Kirov Orchestra to record Klaus Badelt’s score.

"the incident was kept secret "

Ironically, the story of what happened to the K-19 will be almost as new to Russian audiences as it will to those elsewhere in the world, since the incident was kept secret from the Soviet people. The vessel was subsequently repaired and returned to service. But its days of crisis were not over. In 1969, it was involved in an underwater collision with the US submarine Gato and was badly damaged. Limping back to Murmansk, it was repaired and relaunched once again. It finally caught fire while submerged in 1972, killing 28 of its ship’s complement of 125 officers and sailors. It was known variously as ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘the Widowmaker’.

Published November 7, 2002

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