U-571 (film)

U-571 is a 2000 French-American submarine film directed by Jonathan Mostow and starring Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi, Jake Weber, and Matthew Settle. The plot concerns a World War II German submarine boarded by American submariners to capture her Enigma cipher machine.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byJonathan Mostow
Produced byDino De Laurentiis
Martha De Laurentiis
Screenplay byJonathan Mostow
Sam Montgomery
David Ayer
Story byJonathan Mostow
Music byRichard Marvin
CinematographyOliver Wood
Edited byWayne Wahrman
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • April 21, 2000 (2000-04-21)
Running time
116 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$62 million
Box office$127 million

Although the film was financially successful and reasonably well received by critics,[1][2] the plot attracted substantial criticism. British sailors from HMS Bulldog captured the first naval Enigma machine from U-110 in the North Atlantic in May, 1941, months before the United States entered the war and three years before the US Navy captured U-505 and its Enigma machine.[3] The anger over these inaccuracies reached the British Parliament, where the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, agreed that the film was an "affront" to British sailors.[4] The film was also criticized for portraying German U-boat crews in a negative light by showing them gunning down Allied survivors instead of giving them assistance or taking them aboard as prisoners.


During the Battle of the Atlantic, after sinking a merchant ship from an Allied convoy, German U-boat U-571 has her engines badly damaged by depth charges from a British destroyer. U-571's skipper Kapitänleutnant Günther Wassner makes a distress call that is intercepted by American intelligence. The US Navy has its submarine S-33 modified to resemble a German resupply U-boat, to try to steal the Enigma machine coding device and sink the U-571. Before the crew of S-33 receives its assignment, the submarine's executive officer Lieutenant Tyler is unhappy about a recommendation for command of his own submarine being blocked by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Dahlgren.

During a storm, S-33's boarding party surprises and overwhelms the crew of U-571. After securing U-571, the American S-33 is torpedoed by the arriving German resupply submarine. Dahlgren is blown off the deck and seriously wounded; while struggling in the sea he refuses rescue and orders the boarding party on the captured U-boat immediately to submerge. Tyler takes command of U-571 and dives below the surface, where they subsequently engage and sink the resupply submarine.

After making repairs and restoring its power, Tyler decides to route the disabled submarine toward Land's End in Cornwall. However, they are spotted by a German reconnaissance plane, which is unaware that U-571 has been commandeered by Americans. A nearby German destroyer sends over some crew, but before they arrive, Tyler gives orders to fire a shot from the deck gun, which destroys the ship's radio room, preventing it from reporting the situation and revealing that the Allies have the Enigma. The submarine then dives beneath the German destroyer, which begins to drop depth charges. U-571's original master Kapitänleutnant Wassner escapes captivity, and kills one of Tyler's crew, but he is subdued before he can sabotage the engines.

Tyler attempts to deceive the destroyer into stopping its attack, by ejecting debris and a dead crew member out of a torpedo tube, faking their own destruction. However, the destroyer continues to drop depth charges. The crew realizes that Wassner, despite being shackled, is using Morse Code to tap out a signal that the submarine had been captured, so they knock him unconscious. U-571 drops below 600 feet (180 m), and is damaged by high water pressure. They start to sink, and can only reverse this by ascending uncontrollably. Tyler orders crewman Trigger to submerge himself in the bilge underwater to repressurize the single remaining torpedo tube.

Trigger uses an air hose to breathe inside the flooded compartment. He closes the air valve to the stern tube, but finds a second leak, which he can't reach. U-571 surfaces heavily damaged and begins to flood, unable to fire its last torpedo. The pursuing destroyer fires with its main guns: the damage pins Trigger's leg, when he is beyond reach of the air hose. Unable to turn back, he manages to close the valve before he drowns. Tyler orders Tank to fire the torpedo; the destroyer is unable to take evasive action and is sunk. As the crew sigh in relief, Tank reports Trigger's death. However, the submarine has taken severe damage, and so the crew abandons it with the Enigma in their possession. They watch U-571 as she slips beneath the waves taking her own master Kapitänleutnant Günther Wassner down with her once and for all. They are eventually spotted and rescued from their lifeboat by a US Navy PBY Catalina flying boat.



U-571 was filmed in the Mediterranean, near Rome and Malta.[5] Footage, sets and models from the movie have been reused for other productions, including Submerged, depicting the loss of USS Sailfish, and the fictional Ghostboat. A non-diving replica of the US submarine S-33 is located in Grand Harbour, Valletta.[6]

In the U.S. the film was originally rated "R", because of a scene where Lt. Emmett is beheaded by flying debris. To get a "PG-13", the shot was redone with Emmett instead knocked overboard. This left the audience not knowing what had happened to his character. A death scene was also filmed for Major Coonan, but the effect did not work well, so it was cut.[7]

Critical reception

The film was generally well received by critics, with 78 out of the 115 reviews aggregated by the website Rotten Tomatoes giving positive reviews, resulting in a 68% score, with the critical consensus reading: "Excellent cinematography and an interesting plot accompanied by a talented cast and crew make U-571 a tense thriller."[1] It performed well at the box office.[8]

The film's depth charge sequences, which produce rumbling bass tones below 25 Hz, are widely cited as a way of testing subwoofers in a home theater set up.[9]

Awards and nominations

The film was nominated for two awards at the 73rd Academy Awards: Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing (Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker, Rick Kline and Ivan Sharrock). It won the sound editing award.[2]

Historical correlation

Historic events

The depiction of American heroics in capturing an Enigma machine angered many members of the British military and public. The Allies captured Enigma-related codebooks and machines about fifteen times during the War; all but two of these by British forces. The Royal Canadian Navy captured U-744 in March 1944 and the U.S. Navy seized U-505 in June 1944. By this time, the Allies were already routinely decoding German naval Enigma traffic.

While U.S. involvement in the Second World War commenced in mid-1941 with Lend-Lease, direct and open participation did not begin until the United States Navy began engaging the Kriegsmarine in the fall of 1941, months before Pearl Harbor, by which time Enigma machines had already been captured and their codes broken in Europe. An earlier military Enigma had been examined by Polish Intelligence in 1928; the Polish Cipher Bureau broke the Enigma code in 1932 and gave their findings to Britain and France in 1939, just before the German invasion of Poland.[10]

The first capture of a naval Enigma machine with its cipher keys from a U-boat was made on 9 May 1941 by HMS Bulldog of Britain's Royal Navy, commanded by Captain Joe Baker-Cresswell. The U-boat was U-110. In 1942, the British seized U-559, capturing additional Enigma codebooks. According to Britain's Channel 4, "the captured codebooks provided vital assistance to British cryptographers such as Alan Turing, at the code-breaking facility of Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes."[10]

During Prime Minister's Questions in June 2000, Labour MP Brian Jenkins said the film was an "affront to the memories of the British sailors who lost their lives on this action." Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "I agree entirely with what you say...we hope that people realise these are people that, in many cases sacrificed their lives in order that this country remained free."[4] In response to a letter from Paul Truswell, MP for the Pudsey constituency (which includes Horsforth, a town proud of its connection with HMS Aubrietia), U.S. president Bill Clinton wrote assuring that the film's plot was only a work of fiction.[11]

However, David Balme, the British naval officer who led the boarding party aboard U-110, called U-571, "a great film"[12] and said that it would not have been financially viable without being "americanised". The film's producers did not agree to his request for a statement that it was a work of fiction, but[11] the end credits dedicate the film to the "Allied sailors and officers who risked their lives capturing Enigma materials" during the Second World War. The credits acknowledge the Royal Navy's role in capturing Enigma machines and code documents from U-110, U-559 and the U.S. Navy's capture of U-505.[12]

In 2006, screenwriter David Ayer admitted that U-571 had distorted history, and said that he would not do it again.[13] He told BBC Radio 4's The Film Programme that he "did not feel good" about suggesting that Americans, rather than the British, had captured the naval Enigma cipher: "It was a distortion...a mercenary decision...to create this parallel history in order to drive the film for an American audience. Both my grandparents [sic] were officers in the Second World War, and I would be personally offended if somebody distorted their achievements."[13]

Factual accuracy

The Kriegsmarine's destroyers never ventured out into the open Atlantic Ocean, but stayed in European coastal waters. During the destroyer's depth charge attack more than eighty depth charges are detonated in the film, despite the fact that they rarely carried more than thirty. Furthermore, when U-571 is being depth-charged, the German destroyer is using active sonar pings. The Kriegsmarine never developed active sonar, but used passive sonar (basically a very sensitive listening device) instead.[14]

The German resupply U-boat would most likely not have been sunk by U-571. This would have been difficult for a German U-boat to achieve, as German sonar was not as advanced as British during the war. The only instance of a submerged submarine sinking another submerged vessel was in February 1945 when HMS Venturer sank U-864 with torpedoes.[15]

German Type XIV supply U-boats or Milchkühe ("milk cows") did not have torpedo tubes or deck guns, being armed only with anti-aircraft guns for defense, and therefore could not have attacked other vessels.[16]

One character mentions S-26 sinking in a test dive. The real S-26 did not sink in a test dive, instead sinking in a collision with a patrol combatant, USS PC-140, in January 1942.[17]

Negative portrayal of U-boat sailors

The film portrays U-boat sailors machine-gunning Allied merchant crewmen who have survived their ship's sinking, so that they are not able to report the U-boat's position. While that did happen, U-boat crewmen are far more often known to have assisted survivors with food, directions and occasionally medical aid.[18] Such assistance only stopped after Admiral Karl Dönitz issued the "Laconia order" following a U.S. air attack on U-boats transporting injured survivors under a Red Cross flag in 1942. German U-boat crews were thereafter under War Order No. 154 not to rescue survivors, which parallelled Allied policy. Even afterwards, U-boats still occasionally provided aid for survivors. In fact, out of several thousand sinkings of merchant ships in World War II, there is only one case of a U-boat's crew deliberately attacking the survivors: that of U-852 after the sinking of the Greek ship Peleus.[19]

Historical fates of U-571 and S-33

The actual U-571, captained by Oberleutnant zur See Gustav Lüssow, was never involved in any such events, was not captured, but was in fact lost with all hands on 28 January 1944, west of Ireland.[20] She was hit by depth charges, dropped from a Short Sunderland Mk III flying boat, EK577, callsign "D for Dog", belonging to No. 461 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and based at RAF Pembroke Dock in Wales. The aircraft's commander, Flt Lt Richard Lucas, reported that most of the U-boat's 52 crew managed to abandon ship, but all died from hypothermia.

The real USS S-33 was stationed in the Pacific Ocean from June 1942 until the end of the war. She was sold for scrap in 1946.[17]

See also


  1. "U-571 (2000)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 11, 2016.
  2. "The 73rd Academy Awards (2001) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved November 19, 2011.
  3. Moseley, Ray (March 4, 1999), "Hollywood Insults British Intelligence: Captain's Son Says Film About Capture Of Nazi Encoding Device Is Distortion Of History", Chicago Tribune
  4. "U-boat film an 'affront', says Blair". BBC News. June 7, 2000. Retrieved August 18, 2006.
  5. "U-571 (2000) Filming Locations". imdb.com. Retrieved October 11, 2016.
  6. "U-boat back in Grand Harbour for German TV series - TVM News". TVM English. Retrieved March 19, 2019.
  7. "Salon interview with Jonathan Mostow". Salon.com. May 4, 2000. Archived from the original on June 7, 2011. Retrieved July 13, 2009.
  8. "'U-571' Runs Noisy, Runs Strong". The Los Angeles Times. May 2, 2000. Retrieved November 10, 2010.
  9. Graphics, Back Nine. "Subsonic Review - from Sound & Vision, June". Pinnaclespeakers.com. Retrieved November 6, 2017.
  10. "History". Channel 4. Retrieved March 9, 2013.
  11. "Storm over U-boat film". BBC News. June 2, 2000. Retrieved August 18, 2006.
  12. "Capturing the real U-571". BBC News. June 2, 2000. Retrieved August 18, 2006.
  13. "U-571 writer regrets 'distortion'". BBC News. August 18, 2006. Retrieved August 18, 2006.
  14. Williamson, Gordon (2003). German Destroyers 1939–45. Osprey Publishing. p. 6.
  15. "The Type IXD2 U-boat U-864 – German U-boats of WWII". Uboat.net. Retrieved November 6, 2017.
  16. "Type XIV Milch Cows (supply boats) – U-boat Types – German U-boats of WWII – Kriegsmarine". Uboat.net. Retrieved November 6, 2017.
  17. "SS-105 S-1". Globalsecurity.org. July 30, 2007. Retrieved July 30, 2007.
  18. Blair, Clay (1996). Hitler's U-Boat War – The Hunters, 1939–1942. Modern Library. pp. 81, 85–86, 144. ISBN 0-679-64032-0.
  19. "NOVA Online: Hitler's Lost Sub". PBS. December 16, 2006. Retrieved December 16, 2006.
  20. "uboat.net, ''U-571''". Uboat.net. Retrieved March 9, 2013.


  • Kahn, David (1991). Seizing the Enigma: the Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes, 1939–1943. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Sebag-Montefiore, Hugh (2001). Enigma: the Battle for the Code. Phoenix.
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