July 01, 2006

Criticism of the critics - U571 2000 Movie

Caught that movie again on USA, from when the US submarine blew up.

So I did some searching to find out the background of the movie and in greater respect, the Enigma Machines themselves. I had read some parts of how code and code breaking worked when reading A Bio of a Space Tyrant by ANthony Piers. Basically, a code is simply a mathematical construct that when used, will turn a normal sentence into a bunch of unreadable random letters. Which can only be unrandomly descrambled by the decryption algorhythmns. So there are approximately two parts to the code. The message to be decoded, and another code book that details how many letters to shift this or that to the left or right of the alphabet to come up with the right settings, and then you put the message into a machine to decode them or just do it in your head. So, you have the thing that encrypts it and then decrypts it, and then you have the physical machine that reads the message. Sorta like Mp3s. Codecs. Without the code, the message is just a bunch of garbage. Any code can be broken by massive computer CPU power, like say a password for a computer or literally any single mathematical algorhytmn, as far as I know. But the best codes are the ones that require two pieces to work, as best I heard it described was that after decrypting the message, there is another layer of encryption on it, that only if you knew the code for could you read it then. So even if you decrypted the message, it would still be garbage without the second code. Since the encrypter only had one of the codes, this meant it could not be cracked by capturing the code books of one side or the other.

I'm sure there are other details an expert in communication specialist could drudge up, but this is the extent of my amateur understanding of secret codes.

Now to get back to the submarine movie, basically the link in the title goes to a criticism of the movie for being American propaganda.

So I got a bright idea, I'll demolish the person trying to demolish U571. I'm no fan of Hollywood or big budget SFx movies, but... well keep reading.

Even though the movie director says: "U-571" is a work of fiction,"
the movie will be considered "the real story" by many viewers (like Pearl Harbour) and that really gets on my wick. Especially when the movie is touted as ‘based on a real event.’

Many cannot even point out when and where the War took place, and information coming from "historical" movies like "U-571" provide nothing but distortion and confusion; finally become a newly accepted fact.

Well I can’t go around standing for that sort of thing. So get the film out on video knowing this: the only historically accurate part of the film is the last five seconds of the movie, where the viewer learns that the real events of the capturing Enigma Machine and its codebooks took place onboard of U-110, U-559, and U-505.

Of course, there's no mention of the true heroes of this war: the Polish team of the Mathematicians, lead by Marian Rejewski, who already in 1932 broke an Enigma Machine and later, an excellent British group working in Bletchley Park.

Hollywood can be today's American Propaganda Ministry, working hard to rewrite history with different heroes.

So to the facts. Below is the story of events from the UK Guardian.


There's more historical accuracy than the credits, I can personally attest to. Now I might not have caught any of it when I was still clueless back in 2001, but giving the number of years I've spent studying military history and the military, I have the knowledge to judge now.

There is no real story, since there was no U571. The AMericans did not capture submarines, this is a fictional story. Fictional, as in "Sum of All Fears" fictional. But fiction does not equate to fantastic or fantasy, however.


The film shows the Americans, rather than the British, capturing an Enigma cipher machine, a factor which, not surprisingly, makes the film much more likely to do well in the US. However, the real-life story of the British capturing an Enigma from the U-110, on which the film is based, is, if anything, even more dramatic and moving than the action shown in the movie.


I doubt that. And here's why.

The U-boat was the U-110. It might have sunk a third ship had it not been for an accident. The final torpedo fired had remained stuck inside the tube. This was to have fatal consequences for many of the crew. Normally, after a torpedo was fired from the U-boat's bow, water was pumped into the tanks in the bow to compensate for the departure of the missile. However, given that the torpedo on this occasion never left the U-boat, the pumped-in water merely unbalanced it for just long enough to stop it diving out of harm's way. By the time its 28-year-old commander Fritz-Julius Lemp was able to give the order to dive, it was too late.

So the submarine skipper got his ship totalled because... of a fluke of luck? This is dramatic? Could be, that is until you read the rest of the story.

Lemp's crew winced as HMS Aubretia's depth charges exploded and the whole U-boat vibrated. There was a scraping, creaking sound, as the metal deck plates rubbed together and bent, until it seemed inevitable that the deck itself would be torn in half under their feet.

When the extinguished lights came on again, all eyes in the control room were fixed on Lemp. Leaning nonchalantly against the periscope, with his cap pushed on to the back of his head, he murmured soothing words of reassurance to those around him. "It's OK. We're all going to be fine," he said, followed by the grim joke: "You don't think I'm going to let them catch me and shoot me, do you?"


What kind of commander says what Lemp said? Maybe he's making a joke, you know, letting off the steam in a way his sailors can't.

Lemp was eventually forced to announce to his men that he could not control the U-boat, and there was nothing more he could do. "We must wait and see what happens," he muttered, and to anyone still listening, he added: "I want you all to think of home, or of something beautiful."

Maybe not, maybe Lemp was just incompetent and didn't know what the hell he was doing. This further detail bears me out. Remember, Lemp's incompetence is supposed to be "more dramatic" an account than U571 the plot of the movie.

Two large warships were steaming towards the crippled U-boat, as if intent on ramming it. At the same time, guns were firing on them from all sides. They were surrounded.

Some of the crew jumped into the water immediately. Others hung around on deck, hypnotised by the sight of the destroyers bearing down on them. Radio operator Heinz Wilde, who still lives in Germany, climbed up the conning tower ladder to ask Lemp whether he should destroy the Enigma machine and code-books. Lemp merely shouted back at him to get out, so Wilde followed the other crew members into the sea.


The Captain of a ship is responsible for ensuring that no information falls into enemy hands, even if he was scuttling his ship, the Captain should have made sure any sensitive documents or equipment was purged and destroyed. He did not do that, either by ordering someone to do it or doing it himself. So another "fluke" chance then intercedes.

They then jumped overboard with Lemp, mistakenly believing the U-boat would sink in a matter of minutes. It was only when it failed to sink that Lemp called out to another officer that they should try to climb back on board to see what could be done. But, at that moment, the U-boat was swept beyond their reach. That was the last time anyone saw Lemp.

So that's it, basically the plotline of the first Enigma machine grabbed. They left their sub, the sub didn't sink, the destroyers boarded the sub and acquired the machine. Wouldn't take more than a few hours from start to finish.

Now compare this with the movie's plotline. They take the boat by armed raiding party. While transfering the enigma machine, the US sub gets torpedoed by a supply sub. The 7 men onboard the enemy sub had to disable their own scuttling charges, rescue men that were drowning in stormy waters, and also operate an enemy submarine in order to destroy the enemy resupply sub.

Then, they have to evade a destroyer, after being sighted, then they had to abandon ship. The details are why I say that there is more historical accuracy here than not. By historical accuracy, I mean "realism".

The LT was in command of the men, about a squad in total (10). The LT was new, so his aura of command wasn't well established. Their skipper had drowned, while they were busy submerging and fighting off the enemy submarine. They had to abandon their friends in the water, because to remain where they were was to invite being torpedoed by the enemy, then there would be no one to help. When they surfaced, victorious against the enemy, they saw that the skipper was dead.

The LT's first words were that "he didn't know what to do". My alarm bells went off, and I was like "what kind of idiotic commander tells his crew (in a stressful situation) that he does not know what the hell he is doing"? A commander is supposed to project an aura of calm, the eye in the storm, in order to bolster the morale of his troops. It is a fiction, and a very useful one at that. So I was like, arg that's not realistic. Then the chief petty officer (a grizzled veteran) had a chat to chat iwth the brand new LT, and told him what I just wrote right now. And I was like, "cool, at least they got the military command structure down and are starting off on a solid base".

When I first watched this movie, I didn't know jack what they were doing. But after playing Silent HUnter III (a very good submarine simulation) as well as learning some naval military history, it was not nearly as frustrating this time.

When the LT was talking about tactics and where to move the submarine, I could actually visualize what was going on. This probably left a civilian audience puzzled and in the dark. For example, you kept having this guy in a little niche yelling out to what degree the enemy submarine was. Most people would be like, how would he know, is he using radar or what, he isn't using the captains' periscope for sure. Well, most people wouldn't know that that guy was the hydrophone operator, he wears a big headphone that is connected to a 120 (more or less) degree hydrophone, which allows him to hear where noises are coming from. So when he said "enemy submarine at 15 degrees", that means he hears the engine sound of a submarine at that degree when he has turned the hydrophone towards it. The LT ordered the heading to be 15 degrees, and I was like "why are you going to head towards the enemy, shouldn't you try evading and heading away"? Then the LT said to engage engines in reverse, and I understood. He was going to point his 4 fore tubes at the enemy, while heading backwards which gives him some maneuverability as well as reducing the surface he presents to enemy torpedoes.

It was so less frustrating when you could visualize this kind of tactical movement in 3d water, than to just have to rely on what the movie shows you.

Well, that's bout it for the movie. Conclusion.


The documents and Enigma machine seized from the U-110 did not, in spite of what is stated in the U-571 film, help the British code-breakers to break the main naval Enigma code for the first time. That was achieved thanks to the capture of Enigma code-books from a series of German trawlers. Even the capture of the Enigma machine was no help. Other Enigma cipher machines and apparatus had already been captured by the British. But in the envelope seized by David Balme there was something almost as valuable: the settings and procedure to be used for "Offizier" Enigma messages, the especially important doubly enciphered messages sent to officers in U-boats while they were at sea. These crucial messages might never have been read by the British had it not been for the capture of the U-110.


So let me get this straight. U571 was supposed to "state" that the documents and enigma machine acquired at heavy cost, was a help to the breaking of the Enigma code? And then the author says that this isn't true, that it was a historical mistake?

Look at the first and last sentence of the above quoted portion. These "crucial messages" might never have been read by the British had it not been for the capture of the U-110, meaning without a freaking enigma machine in the first place they didn't have a hope of breaking even the first level encryption. Code book or no code book. Again, reference my first paragraph about secret codes. This is a two part system. You need the CODE and the Machine to decode. You can't just have one, it don't work like that.

SO if U571 was supposed to be based upon U110, then obviously the capture of the Enigma machine DID help, and U571 did the correct thing by focusing on the capture of an Enigma Machine.

I'm still doing research on this, so corrections might be forthcoming.

update background links

Miliary history site

Movie review

1 Comments:

Blogger ec_for_life said...

You simply must read an article titled 'Where did social studies go wrong?" (Leming,Ellington & Porter, 2003)! It can be retrieved from the ERIC database (#481621). If you do do not have access to this, I would be happy to email it to you.

03 July, 2006 07:56  

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