Morning Departure must send a glow of pride through any British audience. Whether it will be liked by other nations is difficult to determine, for it is a story about the British Navy, told with typical British understatement, and set out at a characteristically British pace – a measured tempo that some would call comforting and others might call laggard.
The submarine Trojan is out on Asdic exercises (named after the Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) when it strikes an electric mine and sinks to the sea-bed.
The explosion destroys all but eight of the escape sets, and there are twelve survivors. Four men must be left behind in the gradually fouling atmosphere until the submarine can be lifted. Whether it will be lifted in time to save their lives depends on good luck and good weather.
The captain (John Mills) decides to stay with his ship but deals out cards to determine the other three. The lot falls on the first officer (Nigel Patrick), the seaman cook (James Hayter) and a frightened young stoker (Richard Attenborough), who is mastering concealed agonies of claustrophobia.
The rest of the film studies the reactions of these four men, as they wait for nine days alone, fathoms deep under the water. The close understanding that they achieve, and the rough philosophy they hew out together, makes bearable the final disaster in which rescue fails.
Morning Departure was especially moving at the time it was released in view of the recent disaster to the HMS Truculent (a British submarine that struck a Swedish oil tanker in January 1950 and sank with the loss of 64 men aboard).
It was suggested that the film should be given a happy ending. It shows courage and good sense that this was not done. The ending of the film, as it stands, has great nobility, and the four actors concerned in the last scenes play their parts in such a way that the impression is cut very deep.
The following message was added to the opening credits: “This film was completed before the tragic loss of HMS Truculent, and earnest consideration has been given as to the desirability of presenting it so soon after this grievous disaster. The producers have decided to offer the film in the spirit in which it was made, as a tribute to the officers and men of H.M. Submarines, and to the Royal Navy of which they form a part.”
Released in some markets as Operation Disaster.
Lieut. Commander Armstrong
Sub Lieut. Oakley
Sub Lieut. (E) J. McFee
Leading Telegraphist Hillbrook
Leading Seaman Andrews
Leading Seaman Brough
Leading Seaman Kelly
Able Seaman Higgins
Able Seaman Nobby Clarke
Lieut. Commander James
Roy Ward Baker