Like ‘Fail Safe’ the Bedford Incident explored the affect of these tensions

on the men on the front lines of the
cold war in The Bedford Incident

The mid 1960s was a time of fear underlying almost every aspect of life. The cold war between the two major nuclear powers, The United States and the Soviet Union was at its peak. Children practiced bomb shelter drills in the futile hope of surviving a nuclear attack. This time of fear and distrust was the incubator that created many taut thrillers in Hollywood. Like ‘Fail Safe’ the Bedford Incident explored the affect of these tensions on the men on the front lines of the cold war.

The nation was told to trust the computers, the new electronics that made war into a high tech enterprise. Unfortunately, what was often overlooked was the necessity for men in the equation, men with their own fears, ambitions and compulsions. The Bedford Incident takes place on a US naval ship, American destroyer USS Bedford, which roams the seas in search of Soviet nuclear submarines. Their primary function is to document, monitor and evaluate the threat level of the subs they locate. At the helm of the Bedford is Capt. Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark), a stern taskmaster to say the least. He runs his ship and its men hard, almost in a brutal fashion. Sailors under his command don’t even take sick leave; for the most part they relish the pride they have for serving under such a dedicated captain. Finlander is not only a perfectionist naval office he is an extremely patriotic American. Certain that the conflict between the United States and the Soviets will decide the fate of the world he is obsessed with ensuring the American way of life will prevail. His steadfast opinions even cost him promotion to admiral. Thrown into this tense but production environment is a reporter, Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier). He is the typical civilian of the time, concerned but learning towards a far more liberal end than the Captain. Its not so much that Munceford and Finlander are at odds with each other, that would imply some degree of equality between the men, Finlander is the absolute authority on the vessel much to the chagrin of the photojournalist. Each man does have his sounding board. For the Captain it’s Commodore. Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman), formerly a Nazi submarine captain, always on hand to advise the Captain, giving the perspective of their prey. Munceford forms a friendship with a broken down doctor, Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter (Martin Balsam), a reservists for many years, that has returned to active duty. Together this strange assortment of men face more than they expected when the Captain engages in a deadly cat and mouse game with a Soviet sub, armed with nuclear weapons and ready to use them.

While the causes of fear and distrust may change the human emotions we face do not. It is these emotions that drive The Bedford Incident ad for that a cast capable of projecting raw feelings is required. Fortunately the challenge was not only met here it was surpassed. Widmark commands his role like his character commands his ship. He portrays Finlander as a man driven by his beliefs, completely unapologetic for making the decisions he feels are vital for survival, personal and for his culture. When Finlander is in over his head he seems more intent on the challenge of the hunt overcoming his personal beliefs while at the same time reinforced by them. It takes a strong, confident actor to play opposite such a force as Widmark presents and with Poitier the challenge is more than met. Poitier represents the every-man, the one in the film that the audience can identify with. He shows us Munceford as a civilian, tossed into the highly structured world of the Navy, unaccustomed to the rigid life under a man with complete authority over your very existence. It is through Poitier that we get to express our fears. The battle of wills extends here beyond the men to the circumstances, all thanks to the talent of these actors. With such intensity between these two men there has to be characters introduced to soften the mood, to present alternative viewpoints. Balsam, one of the great character actors of his time and Portman do this job in a manner few actors could have pulled off. James MacArthur has a brilliant role as the young ensign that nearly worships his captain. While trying his best he always seems to fall short of the perceived perfection of his role model.

The director here was James B. Harris. This was his freshman effort and a stellar on at that. Although he did not go on to well known movies The Bedford Incident permitted him to write, produce and direct some four subsequent films. His style in directing The Bedford Incident is straightforward. No cinema school tricks or devices, a refreshing change for most first time big film makers. Instead Harris provides the audience with a matter-of-fact view into a turbulent time aboard the Bedford. Each scene is crafted to near perfection. The decision to use black and white gives a touch of documentary to the film. In 1965 when The Bedford Incident was released an audience viewing this would look at this with the familiarity generated by the many newsreels of the Vietnam War. You have to remember that when The Bedford Incident was released the events of this film where not far fetched but represented the worse nightmare of the general public. Harris shows us this brutal reality with his use of camera angles and the effective use of light and shadow. The shadowing visually depicts the duality of the incident and times. The decisions are not black and white but varied shades of grey. The cinematography that Harris presents nails this on the head.

The DVD is fairly well done. The anamorphic widescreen video shows us the film they way the director indented with all the details intact. There are some little defects in the video but not to the level that will be too annoying to watch. The Dolby Surround sound may seem dated to some but it gets the job done. It created a reasonable sound stage although those used to the more technologically advanced six channel sounds may be disappointed. The Bedford Incident is a DVD that you should get not for the technology of the media but rather for the merits of the film.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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