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‘Greyhound’ battles for realistic destroyer action: How accurate is Tom Hanks’ World War II drama?

  • July 10, 2020

Tom Hanks enters dangerous seas in his World War II drama “Greyhound.”

Hanks’ Navy officer Commander Ernest Krause leads the destroyer USS Keeling (code-named Greyhound), escorting vital troops and supplies to England through the infamously dangerous section of the North Atlantic while battling wolf packs of Nazi U-boats.

“Greyhound” (streaming Friday on Apple TV+) states onscreen that’s “inspired by actual events,” with Hanks adapting the screenplay from C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel, “The Good Shepherd.” Director Aaron Schneider says it was crucial to continue Hanks’ streak of realistic World War II dramas following his starring role in “Saving Private Ryan” (Hanks also wrote and produced “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” mini-series.) 

“Tom has history of telling great war stories that also maintain a respectful level of accuracy, which is a way of honoring the service,” says Schneider. “I wasn’t going to be the one that screwed that up.”

Here’s what “Greyhound” gets right (and wrong).

Ernie Krause (Tom Hanks, right) wrestles with life-or-death decisions and physical exhaustion in Greyhound.

The fictional source material describes real historical events in the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’

Everything from first-time commander Krause to the Keeling destroyer are fictional. However, Forester, best known for his “Horatio Hornblower” book series, was fastidious in his quest to detail the 1942 crossing of the perilous 5-day “Black Pit” stretch of the Atlantic, where the Navy convoy were too far from land for valuable air support.

“C.S. Forrester was rarely wrong about anything in his books and wrote ‘The Good Shepherd’ with the help of two senior Naval officers working as his advisors,” says marine historian Gordon Laco, who served as one of two “Greyhound” military technical advisers. This ethos was transferred to the movie.

The complicated tactics Krause employs to battle the U-boats and rapid-fire technical interactions on the ship’s bridge convey the accuracy, though there were dialogue tweaks to enable viewer comprehension. “You don’t want to be so technically perfect that the audience has no idea what they’re seeing, then you’ve lost them,” says Laco.

Captain Krause (Tom Hanks) rolls into dangerous seas in Greyhound.

The destroyer was legit, as was the big gun

“Greyhound” relies heavily on CGI scenes depicting the expansive sea battles. But the sea drama was shot on USS Kidd, a decommissioned WWII-era Fletcher-class destroyer, and a highly accurate interior sound stage set on gimbals to recreate water movement. For example, even the gain control knob – which controls static on the radar – was period correct when Hanks turned it.

“I’m going to put the effort in to make sure that when we switched this knob, it’s the right damn knob,” says Schneider.

Special effects were needed to make the Kidd’s long-dead onboard analog computer seem like it was still working. But the ship’s dominant, inoperable, Oerlikon 20 mm cannons were restored to pristine condition with added pneumatics so that the gun barrels recoiled back and forth, at over 100 times a minute, to precisely simulate firing.

“We even took pains to show we had the same rate of fire,” says Laco. “They were loud as hell.”

The intense drama has historical precedence

During one close encounter (seen in the trailer), Greyhound comes within feet of an aggressively attacking U-boat on the surface. While played for drama, there were instances of such proximity at sea, such as a point-blank 1942 encounter between a German U-boat and the Canadian destroyer, HMCS Assiniboine. That ended with the U-boat sinking after a furious close-up gun battle. “They were literally blasting each other with pistols, rifles, revolvers.” says Laco. “The cook even came out of the galley and threw an empty case of Coca Cola bottles down the submarine hatch.”

As for the torpedo that precariously runs along the side of furiously turning Keeling, harmlessly bouncing off, that’s a real scenario. The Germans relied on contact fuses in the North Atlantic, says Laco, with a stud on the torpedo front setting off the 600 pounds of TNT upon contact. 

“A torpedo hitting at an oblique angle so the front tip didn’t hit is something that could happen and did,” says Laco. “But the ship would have to be extraordinarily lucky to survive it.”

Captain Krause (Tom Hanks) and Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham) salute during an onboard funeral in Greyhound.

The onboard burial at sea was necessary

In the middle of the “Black Pit” fraught waters, the Greyhound crew assemble on deck in their dress uniforms to bury at sea three fallen seaman. “That was rehearsed and choreographed,” says Schenider. “We needed to make it completely accurate, and we did it by the manual.”

The fallen comrades had to be removed from the ship, making the ceremony necessary. “You couldn’t keep the bodies, they would become objectionable,” says Laco. “Despite being in combat, they would stop engines and let the ship glide. Those who were not manning guns would take part in their best uniforms.”

Tom Hanks captains a Navy destroyer against pursuing U-boats in the World War II thriller Greyhound.

The German taunting broadcasts didn’t happen

“Greyhound” features haunting moments when the unseen German U-boat hack the convoy’s inter-ship intercom. The German speaker broadcasts blood-curdling messages proclaiming certain doom over the ship’s loudspeakers. While effective storytelling, these mind games are not based in history.

“It’s certain that the Germans sometimes stumbled onto the transmitting frequency and could listen to the escorts talking to each other,” says Laco. “It would be very difficult to transmit on that frequency. But the scene does show it’s not just machines they are fighting. They were fighting other men.”

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