Hellcats of the Navy

Hellcats of the Navy is a 1957 black-and-white World War II submarine film drama from Columbia Pictures, produced by Charles H. Schneer and directed by Nathan Juran. The film stars Ronald Reagan and his wife, billed under her screen name Nancy Davis, and Arthur Franz. This was the only feature film in which the Reagans acted together, either before or after their 1952 marriage.

Hellcats of the Navy
Directed byNathan Juran
Produced byCharles H. Schneer
Written byDavid Lang
Raymond Marcus
Bernard Gordon
Based onHellcats of the Sea
1955 novel
by Charles A. Lockwood
Hans Christian Adamson
StarringRonald Reagan
Nancy Davis
Arthur Franz
William Leslie
William Phillips
Harry Lauter
Michael Garth
Joe Turkel
Don Keefer
Selmer Jackson
Maurice Manson
Robert Arthur
Max Showalter
Music byMischa Bakaleinikoff
CinematographyIrving Lippman
Edited byJerome Thoms
Morningside Productions
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • May 1957 (1957-05)
Running time
82 minutes
CountryUnited States

The film's storyline concerns Commander Casey Abbott, skipper of the submarine USS Starfish, being ordered to retrieve a new type of Japanese mine in the waters off the Asiatic mainland. When diver Wes Barton, Abbott's rival for the affections of Nurse Lieutenant Helen Blair, gets into a life-threatening situation, Abbott must keep his personal and professional lives separate when dealing with the crisis.

The story is based on the non-fiction book Hellcats of the Sea by Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson.


Commander Casey Abbott (Ronald Reagan), commander of the U. S. submarine USS Starfish, is ordered to undertake a dangerous mission which sees him attempting to cut off the flow of supplies between China and Japan in the heavily mined waters off the Asiatic mainland. When a diver, who is Abbott's competitor for the affections of nurse Lieutenant Helen Blair (Nancy Davis) back home, gets into a dangerous situation, Abbott must struggle to keep his personal and professional lives separate in dealing with the crisis.

The results arouse ill feelings in the crew and especially Abbott's executive officer, Lt. Commander Landon (Arthur Franz), who asks his captain to let him air his views in confidence. The results lead Abbott to write in Landon's efficiency report that he should never be given command of a naval vessel, resulting in further ill will between the two.



Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz appears as himself to introduce the film, and he is later played in the story by actor Selmer Jackson.[1] Retired Navy officer Charles A. Lockwood, chief author of the book on which this feature was based, is also portrayed briefly by an actor.

It was the second film Nathan Juran directed for producer Charles Schneer.[2]

Reagan said in his autobiography that he was disappointed, overall, in the film, having expected a result more like Destination Tokyo, a major Warner Bros. submarine film made during World War II. The diminishing status of the feature films that Reagan was being offered, plus his increasing involvement with television, led to his leaving the big screen forever.

The United States Navy provided extensive cooperation by allowing portions of the film to be shot at Naval Base San Diego and aboard an actual U.S. submarine, possibly USS Besugo. The executive officer of the submarine was Lloyd Bucher, who would go on to command the USS Pueblo during its capture by North Korea in 1968.[3]

During the film's production, as USS Besugo was about to get underway, an argument ensued between the director and one of the unions. Note: it was difficult for a submarine tied up in San Diego to get underway while a tide was running, so there was only a short window of opportunity to maneuver the boat away from the pier. Besugo was one of the first submarines to employ nylon rope lines, and when stretched, the lines could get about "as big around as a pencil" and become lethal if they broke under strain. The order was given to the helmsman to answer all bells. Reagan happened to be on deck practicing his dialog lines and hollering out, "Ahead one third, starboard back full ..." About this time, the nylon ropes were stretched to their breaking point when an officer gave the command, "All stop, ALL STOP, Goddammit, ALL STOP!" and Reagan, totally oblivious to what was going on, continued to practice his lines, rocking back and forth on his feet with his hands behind his back, as if nothing were wrong.

Among the stock music used in the film were excerpts from The Caine Mutiny March, composed by Max Steiner, the main title theme for the 1954 Columbia Pictures feature film The Caine Mutiny. That film was also about World War II U.S. Navy operations in the Pacific theater; Arthur Franz appears as well in the minor role of Lt. (jg) Paynter.

Film premiere

Hellcats of the Navy had its official premiere in San Diego, California, at the downtown Spreckels Theater. The film's stars were in attendance, as were local U. S. Navy brass and submariners. A program preceded the showing of the film. On a flatbed trailer in front of the theater were displayed one Mark 14 and one Mark 16 torpedo, the two types used by navy submarines during World War II.

DVD reviews

Glenn Erickson of DVD Talk reviewed the DVD release of Hellcats of the Navy and thought that although the direction was "competent", the script was "completely derivative and cornball". He went on to criticize the lack of realistic supporting characters and the film's use of obvious stock footage, especially that of a U. S. Navy patrol boat portraying a Japanese ship. Overall, he described the film itself as "fair".[1] David Krauss of Digitally Obsessed described the production values as "bargain basement" and found that the cast's stiff performances alienated viewers. He gave the film a C for style and a B- for substance, although he also described the direction as "dry as a military briefing" on CNN.[4]

Erick Harper at DVD Verdict has written that Hellcats followed a series of submarine war film clichés, like the "love triangle" and familiar elements of the action sequences. He compared parts of the film to the TV series Star Trek (which premiered almost a decade later), in that it follows a standard Hollywood formula for its plot. He described Ronald Reagan as "comfortable" and "believable",[5] and said that the film was "worth checking out for the historical value, if nothing else".[5]

See also


  • Charles A. Lockwood; Hans Christian Adamson (1955). Hellcats of the Sea. New York: Greenberg. OCLC 2364890., a non-fiction account of the U.S. Navy's Pacific submarine fleet's Operation Barney in World War II,[6] of which Hellcats of the Navy is a fictionalized filmed version. The book's title implicitly compares the submarines to the Hellcats of the air, the Grumman F6F Hellcat carrier-based fighter aircraft.

See also


  1. Erickson, Glenn (3 May 2003). "DVD Savant Review: Hellcats of the Navy". DVD Talk. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
  2. Swires, Steve (April 1989). "Nathan Juran: The Fantasy Voyages of Jerry the Giant Killer Part One". Starlog Magazine. No. 141. p. 61.
  3. p. 44 Skinner, Kiron K.; Anderson, Annelise & Anderson, Martin Reagan: A Life In Letters Simon and Schuster, 29/11/2004
  4. Krauss, David (2 July 2003). "Hellcats of the Navy (1957)". Digitally Obsessed. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
  5. Harper, Erick (18 June 2003). "Hellcats of the Navy". DVD Verdict. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
  6. "Hellcats of the Sea: Operation Barney and the Mission to the Sea of Japan, by Charles Lockwood, Hans Adamson". Goodreads. Retrieved 2015-08-21. Hellcats of the Sea, first published in 1955, recounts the activities of the U.S. Navy's Pacific submarine fleet in World War Two. Much of the book details Operation Barney the secret mission to bring the war closer to the islands of Japan, as the war had never extended to the Sea of Japan.
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