Behind the scenes of ''U-571''--The controversial submarine thriller starring Matthew McConaughey has caused some international intrigue

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated April 21, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

They stared down death in the North Atlantic, ducked Nazi depth charges, and dodged enemy torpedoes. They helped turn the tide of the war. Made the seas safe for democracy.

Still, there’s no excuse for talking during a movie.

And the small corps of retired U.S. submarine officers sitting in this Washington, D.C., screening room — where they’re getting a special sneak peek of U-571, Universal’s new World War II drama about the capture of Germany’s infamous Enigma code-making machine — are chattering full speed ahead. ”Very authentic,” barks one old sea dog when Bill Paxton pops up on a submarine deck sporting what looks like the Gorton’s fisherman’s hat. ”That’s what they wore.” A few rows back, two ancient mariners are debating Matthew McConaughey’s torpedoing tactics — ”How many meters did he say?” one of them bellows into the other’s hearing aid — so noisily you half expect the actor to break character and shush them.

They’re even more talkative after the screening. ”They got the details exactly right,” gushes retired admiral William D. Smith, who once served aboard an American sub not unlike the one in U-571. ”The feeling of claustrophobia. The relationship between the captain and his crew. The way the water poured in when he lowered the periscope. I’ve never seen a more realistic depiction of a submarine battle.

”Of course,” he adds, ”the story is total fiction. That’s not what really happened. But I don’t think too many people will care….”

Not too many — only about 50 million of them in England, where U-571 started making waves the day it began filming.

Turns out that for all the painstakingly authentic detail in U-571 (a full-scale replica of a Nazi U-boat was even built for the estimated $60 million production), the filmmakers have always maintained that the plot is pure fiction. (”It’s a yarn,” as McConaughey puts it.) Still, the movie’s historical detours have left some people feeling a bit lost at sea. The hitch: The sailors who apparently inspired the film, who really raided a scuttled German sub in 1941 and swiped an Enigma machine (a pivotal event in the war that allowed the Allies to eavesdrop on Hitler’s secret military plans), spoke with veddy different accents than McConaughey’s good ol’ boy drawl. They were Brits, not Yanks.

”It’s an action movie,” says the drawler himself, defending his portrayal of U-571‘s all-American Andrew Tyler, the heroic lieutenant who shoots his way into a German sub to snatch the encryption gizmo (it looks like a typewriter with attitude) and ends up sea-jacking the entire U-boat. (Incidentally, the real English sailors found the U-boat abandoned; the Nazis prematurely jumped ship thinking they were about to be sunk.) ”Did it happen just like this? No. And we’re not saying it did. But any time you’re cutting something down to two hours of celluloid, you have to take some theatrical licenses.”

Paxton, who plays McConaughey’s equally fictional American skipper, offers a similar take. ”We aren’t trying to be Saving Private Ryan,” he says.


  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 116 minutes
  • Jonathan Mostow