In the Cold War-era submarine movie “Phantom” — in theaters this Friday — Ed Harris plays an about-to-retire Russian captain who’s forced to take one last voyage on a now-out-of-date ship. His crew includes a comrade on a mysterious mission (David Duchovny) who might put them all in peril.

Of course, peril is part of the job for able-bodied seamen. There are many ways to die at sea and movies have shown several grim ways to go: Radiation from a nuclear sub, drowning, fire — and that’s only if the men you’re serving with don’t turn against you, which is almost guaranteed.

However, instead of simply ranking our favorite submarine movies ever, we took a look at the ones that examine the dread and claustrophobia of being trapped underwater in cramped quarters with men who may lose their nerve — or minds — at any moment.


  • 11. The Enemy Below

    The action is divided between an American destroyer captained by Robert Mitchum and a German U-boat led by Curt Jurgens, whose character is disillusioned with the Nazi regime, drinks too much, and just wants to go home. Although they’re enemies, the tense cat-and-mouse between the two leads to a grudging respect of each other.

  • 10. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

    In this classic 19th-century Jules Verne tale, three castaways, (Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre) find themselves aboard Captain Nemo (James Mason)’s Nautilus in an era when submarines didn’t even exist. Nemo first tries to kill them, but after they survive a submersion (outside the sub!) he lets them stay on. When a dying Nemo decides to take the entire crew with him to the bottom of the ocean, the castaways must fight to the death for their freedom.

  • 9. The Hunt for Red October

    When a typhoon-class Russian nuclear sub goes AWOL, the Americans scramble as they try to determine if its Captain Ramius (Sean Connery) intends a first strike against America or — as lone voice of reason, CIA Analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) argues — to defect to friendlier shores. The most nerve-wracking scenes are after Ryan boards the Red October, his hunch having proven correct — but there’s still a Russian loyalist aboard who’s intent on sabotage or death.

  • 8. The Bedford Incident

    When you put an ambitious reporter (Sydney Poitier) aboard a sub with a controversially hawkish captain (Richard Widmark) of the USS Bedford, the sparks are going to fly. Set at the height of the Cold War, the tension mounts as the captain’s pursuit of his prey, a soviet sub off the Greenland coast, becomes an all-consuming obsession. It’s a dangerous course that leads to destruction that could have easily been avoided.

  • 7. U-571

    A group of American sailors are tasked with intercepting a German U-Boat and retrieving an all-important Enigma code machine to turn the tide of WWII. But when their boat is torpedoed, they must stay aboard the enemy sub. Everything is in German, their captive Nazi is plotting to kill them and — in one of the most harrowing sequences — a young sailor must make a risky swim through a flooded compartment to save the other men’s lives.

  • 6. Crimson Tide

    One of the most tense films ever set aboard a submarine. Two radically different officers (a never-better Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman) are destined to clash in a Def Con 3 situation as they await orders after a Chechnyan rebel gets access to nuclear missile codes. An incomplete Emergency Alert Message leads to one relieving the other of duty, an eventual mutiny, and a near-sinking, as the enemy’s torpedoes disable the ship. Add in low morale, a galley fire, and some tragic drownings and that is one boat we’re glad we’re not on.

  • 5. Below

    This atmospheric thriller adds a supernatural element to the usual terrors of being submerged underwater: a ghost that’s slowly and fatally taking its revenge on the living. Having a woman (Olivia Williams) aboard is also considered bad luck and this crew has it in spades. As she says, “a submarine isn’t a good place to keep secrets” and all of them come out, for better or worse.

  • 4. The Abyss

    There is a submarine, but it’s sunk at the beginning of the movie. It’s the rescue effort aboard an experimental underwater oil platform where the most nerve-wracking events occur, thanks to a Navy SEAL (Michael Biehn) who is suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome, making him paranoid and violent. His actions set in motion a disastrous chain of events.

  • 3. Morning Departure

    This little-known British postwar film conveys true claustrophobia as a routine exercise goes terribly wrong when the Trojan runs into a stray mine. The sub is stuck on the bottom of the ocean and running out of air. Out of a crew of 65, only 12 remain alive and only eight can escape via the hatch and conning tower. That leaves four men, including the captain whose wife begged him to leave the Navy (John Mills), to wait for a slow, doubtful rescue.

  • 2. K-19: The Widowmaker

    Based on a true (and long covered-up) incident about a deadly radiation leak on a Russian nuclear sub, this box-office disappointment marked a turn for future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow from mere entertainment to a more journalistic approach of real-life subjects. The doomed sailors are deliberately exposed to lethal levels of radiation wearing only plastic suits, which they are falsely told will protect them. Watching stars like Peter Sarsgaard succumb slowly to radiation poisoning is rough going.

  • 1. Das Boot

    The most realistic and grim entry in the submarine genre, this Oscar-nominated German subjects its viewers to claustrophobic, terrifying, and sometimes tedious life aboard a German U-boat. The tensions between the men, the actual battle scenes, and the bleak ending all make this film one of the most sobering you’ll ever see.