A good shepherd in war
We don’t make films about belief these days because belief is very uncomfortable. But it does happen every now and then, and in 2020 the most famous Orthodox Christian in America, Tom Hanks, surprised everyone by writing and starring in Greyhound, a wonderful World War II drama about the Christian faith. 2020 was a very bad year, bad for cinema too, with dire consequences for the years to come – and this was the light of hope.
Christianity and virtue
Tom Hanks plays a destroyer commander on a convoy mission. It is his first command and he leads the escort for ships that are painlessly defenseless and steam from America to England in early 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, to supply the British and stay at war.
But before we get to World War II, let’s look at the allegorical framework of the story. The danger in the story is the wolf pack, the German submarines – the devil below. Hope is the air force, allied planes across the Atlantic – the angels, if you will. Our protagonist, the captain of the USS Greyhound, is stuck on the surface of the water in between.
Nor is he just a Christian soul lingering in this world on his way to his reward – as a captain he has the powers of life and death. In a joking mood, he threatens young sailors who get into a fight to rain hell. With similar ease he asks her to bring him back to peace. In fact, the CS Forster novel is called Hanks’ adapted The Good Shepherd to emphasize the theme of leadership and domination.
Hanks is equally dedicated to his work as a career officer in the Navy and his Christian faith. America going to war is therefore a double test for him. Christianity makes a lot of sense in the Peace Navy – one lives by the rule of service and duty without having to face horror. Humility is also very helpful because the prospects for promotion are slim. This keeps a man away from that darker side of his soul that asks him how does he know what he is worth if he has never been tested?
The Navy is an entirely different matter, not least because England had been at war for nearly three years in 1942, which made this American captain worse than an innocent man. All the preparation and experience of his career that make him a competent commander couldn’t mean anything in a fight when every action is dictated by the enemy. But at least the prospect of sacrificing your life is Christian. In John 13:15 it says: No man has greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Accordingly, we see a burial at sea with worship read – the hope of resurrection and the judgment of Christ after the end of the evils of this world.
But this admirable sacrifice can neither promote nor prevent the need to kill enemies, and that is, after all, the necessary business of war. However, Hanks can’t celebrate when he receives confirmation that he’s sunk his first submarine – he’s instead worried about their souls. He doesn’t want personal fame either. In order for the Navy to recognize his victory, he had to gather evidence of the doom, which would take precious time. Instead, he puts duty first and rushes back to the convoy. That loyalty seems to have cost him his wife, perhaps because there isn’t much private life left after so much service, but he is loyal to her nonetheless. One could excuse oneself for considering him an incurable romantic when declaring his eternal love.
This intensity of feeling goes hand in hand with an ascetic self-control. Hanks sleeps and eats during the time of greatest danger, the 48 hours in the Black Pit, during which the convoy has no air protection from either side of the ocean. Of course, he continues to drink coffee, but this asceticism gives the allegory of angel and devil a certain moral force – the whole drama is about his soul being tested as well as the safety of the navy.
The destroyer Greyhound and the ships it protects are pursued by the Gray Wolf, the leader of about half a dozen submarines trying to sink the convoy. The submarine captain is as cruel as Hanks mild, but both are trained for war and argue over what the German captain calls a herd. He tries to arouse desperation in the convoy’s sailors by broadcasting threatening, bestial radio messages. Accordingly, every time the Germans find the channel they are using, Hanks has to order a frequency change so that his young crew retains the self-control necessary in a crisis. The whole tension of the film stems from this threat to our morals: will the gray wolf make his threats a reality? Will Evil Triumph?
Submarine warfare is terrifying because we are not aquatic animals and therefore we are defenseless in the depths. This may have encouraged Hanks to ponder the resemblance to the passions of the soul, as we understand ourselves very little and are therefore prone to terrible, unexpected suffering. But what makes submarine warfare particularly diabolical is the denial of any chance for the enemy in battle or any help after defeat. The Germans, not a maritime nation, were undoubtedly the worst offenders when it came to drowning the defenseless, thus denying any claim to common humanity. Because of this, they earned a special hatred. Greyhound does a very good job of portraying the ships’ vulnerability, the escort’s helplessness in many situations, and the fear and pity it evokes suggests the need for piety in the face of such an enemy.
But of course you also need knowledge about the war. Hanks as captain is competent but ordinary which fits an escort destroyer situation – we are not talking about any of the great battles of WWII, nor an incident of remarkable combat effectiveness. This is a story about the defense of the economy and logistics of the Allied war effort. We know what America fought for in World War II, and everyone contributed in some way to the great victory, but here we see things at the level of the ordinary person who is in danger and yet paradoxically trying to avoid fighting altogether, if possible.
This very unusual perspective does not exclude either exciting fight scenes or the dominant emotion of the film, fear. But it helps to ask questions about the necessary moral upbringing of an armed force, and the film does much of the gentleness with which Hanks treats his crew, whose lives he feels responsible for, without at the same time feeling entitled to kill them to send . He leaves the harshness to his officers – he’s tough only to himself for his mistakes. They are all trained in the use of their weapons and ready to do so. he worries about what this does to the soul.
Instead, the film draws our attention to fuel and ammunition – the tools the convoy lives or dies with. As for fuel, Hanks is doing his destroyer very well, but he loses the tanker in the convoy. As for ammunition, he sinks a submarine with his deep cargoes, but then wastes them and does not track his reserves. Circumstances run away with him, leaving him almost defenseless. This failure with regard to weapons suggests a link to mercy – he is insufficiently devoted to the task of killing. After all, the type of ship is called destroyer because it is supposed to destroy torpedo launchers.
Mercy gets him into trouble on another occasion when he is forced to choose between rescuing the survivors of an already sinking ship or helping another ship that is imminent. Knowing that there are living men in the water, he turns off his engines and stays to rescue them. This is philanthropy, love of people, but it’s not what the art of war requires. The ship should be a priority for strategic reasons, as everything he does is about making a major war effort despite the cost of living. – Then, however, a more troubling problem arises, because showing mercy towards those in imminent danger means leaving others to a cruel fate. In this world one cannot be gracious to everyone – everyone but a tyrant has far more love than power to protect.
All these actions reveal the soul of the captain and at the same time make the war history a reflection on the Christian contribution to the Second World War. Hanks has never written a story that deals so much with piety, and I can’t remember the last time a major film company last portrayed the Christian faith with this combination of competence and decency. The story itself is told in such a way that nothing dirty is avoided in order to show the fulfillment of duty in the best light. Perhaps its running time is part of this effort – at 90 minutes it is short for a contemporary film – to avoid sentimentality and even to protect the audience from becoming too obsessed with horror.
Maybe we could use more stories like that, so we should praise Hanks as a writer, not just as an actor. And we should also remember the writer whose work he is adapting. CS Forester was once famous as the author of the Horatio Hornblower series of adventure novels about the Napoleonic Wars of the Sea. The series has been adapted to film in both old Hollywood with Gregory Peck and more recently in the UK in the 90s in a series of eight television films ideally suited for teenage boys as they are noble warriors rolled into one Film is a just cause.
Forester also wrote The African Queen, which John Huston adapted in the famous Oscar-winning film with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. This is more than most novelists achieve, and a good example of the point the story highlights: It’s not just great writers who can achieve something of value and help educate our passions. Hanks seems to have learned that lesson too. It is hoped that conservatives will learn, too, as we can take it as a certainty that Hollywood cannot. It is up to us to rethink what cinema is and should be.