You can’t send a tank over a telegram.
In World War II, there was only one way to get American-made resources and weapons to desperate Allies in Europe: by boat. They would need to be ferried across the cold Atlantic Ocean, with sailors braving ice and wind and waves as big as buildings.
Oh, and beware of the U-Boats.
They lurk underwater, torpedoes at the ready. They know that every supply ship sunk means fewer men and machines Germany must face. Every lost cargo is a victory for the Fatherland, and a step toward ultimate triumph. Their favorite hunting ground: a five-day stretch of ocean called the “Black Pit,” where Allied convoys must cross without a breath of air cover.
It’s 1942, and Ernest Krause has been given his first command—managing four small destroyers as they shepherd a convoy across the dangerous Atlantic and through the Black Pit. He helms the U.S.S. Keeling, a destroyer nicknamed Greyhound. It’s quite the honor, if a little intimidating. He’s determined to do his duty and sees his charges safely home.
But a U-Boat wolfpack lurks in the heart of the Black Pit, hoping to make the captain’s first crossing his last.
Want to know why the folks who fought in World War II are sometimes called part of the Greatest Generation? Greyhound offers a fictional data point answering that question. This is an old-fashioned war film—not one that glorifies war, but one that honors those who took part in it and did their duties under some horrifying conditions.
Captain Krause leads the roster, of course. Played by Tom Hanks, this is his movie from the beginning. We see him struggle with his own uncertainties as he does what he can to safeguard the convoy first, his ship and crew second. He stays on the bridge for days at a time—until his feet literally bleed—feeling the weight of every decision he makes.
An example: Early on, the captain is about to rescue survivors from a sinking ship when he receives a distress signal from the back of the convoy. Sail to the signal, and the men will surely drown. Stay for the rescue, and his mission—and other lives—might be at risk. I won’t give away what decision the captain ultimately chooses in this no-win situation, but audiences know that he tried to make the best one possible. He agonizes over this and every decision, and he deeply feels that even his best isn’t enough.
“What you did yesterday got us to today,” one of his officers tells him.
“It’s not enough,” the captain says. “Not nearly enough.”
But there’s plenty of heroism to go around on this boat. Sure, not everyone performs their duties exactly as they should: The crew is largely made up of kids barely out of high school, remember. Still, the bravery they show, and the ability to perform their duties under literal fire as well as they do, is inspiring.
Captain Krause is a man of tireless faith. On bended knee, he prays when he gets up: “Dear Lord, let Your angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.” He prays when he goes to bed: “I thank You, my heavenly Father, that You have graciously kept me this day. Into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul. Amen.” He prays silently before every hurried meal. A paraphrase of Scripture is stuck in his bathroom mirror, “Yesterday. Today. Forever,” along with a reference to Hebrews 13:8. And sometimes, it seems he even makes decisions based on biblical verses.
For instance: As the Greyhound pursues a German U-Boat, the captain whispers under his breath Proverbs 3:6: “Acknowledge him, and he will direct thy path.” But he gives the verse a different context. Not wanting the U-Boat to direct Greyhound’s path—that is, set the tone for the battle—Krause turns away from the sub (thus not acknowledging him) and manages to lure the U-boat in.
We hear other verses throughout the movie, sometimes as liturgically tinged descriptions of the situation Greyhound finds itself in. The ship’s executive officer tells the captain, for example, that “the night cometh when no man can work,” a reference to John 9:4. The captain whispers to himself the need to be “as wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove” (Matthew 10:16).
People do die, and the captain buries them at sea with the Navy’s traditional epitaph, taken from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1928):
“Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”
The captain and his apparent fiancée meet in a San Francisco hotel lobby, and Krause looks at his beloved as she stares at an angel decorating the tree. (He also gives her a Christmas ornament.)
When disciplining two sailors who got into a fight, the captain tells them that if they repeat their behavior, it’ll “bring hell down from on high.” (The executive officer then tells the sailors to count their blessings.) We “hear” several telegraphed messages in the vein of “God bless” and Godspeed.”
None. But younger viewers may giggle when they learn that one of the ships under Captain Krause’s command is nicknamed “Dicky.”
The captain asks his girlfriend to travel with him to the Caribbean “so I can ask you to marry me on a tropical beach.” We see the captain in an undershirt and boxers.
Hundreds of people die during this rolling battle across the Atlantic, though few casualties are seen onscreen. One man is hit by a bullet or shrapnel in Greyhound’s bridge, tearing through his face: He covers the wound with his hand, but we still see the blood and hear the man’s agony. Another explosion kills three men. We only see the blast’s fiery aftermath—no injuries—but the captain is told that the victims were mutilated almost beyond recognition.
We also see ships and U-boats explode and sink, and we know (partially from casualty reports) that those blasts were accompanied by a grave human cost.
Death is something that Captain Krause takes no joy in, by the way. When Greyhound sinks its first U-Boat, some sailors and officers are overjoyed: “Fifty less Krauts!” one crows to the captain. “Yes,” the sad, irritated captain retorts. “Fifty souls.”
Far more souls than that perished in what Winston Churchill called the Battle of the Atlantic. We’re told in a concluding slide that more than 72,000 people died during the six-year battle, with 3,500 ships sunk.
Bullets fly, sending men to the ground. Two crewmen get called before the captain for fighting, and both of their faces bear the evidence in the form of cuts and a bad black eye. The captain rubs his feet and, when he withdraws his hands and looks at them, he can see they have blood on them.
Do our heroes here swear like proverbial sailors? Not while Captain Krause is in command. We do hear the occasional profanity, but it’s almost always followed by an embarrassed apology directed toward the captain.
Still, we do hear one f-word, three uses of “b–ch” and one use of the British profanity “bloody.”
Sailors smoke. Captain Krause tells his girlfriend that his training for active duty will take place in the Caribbean, the land of “rum and Coca-Cola.”
As admirable as the crew of Greyhound might’ve been in many ways, the ship still shows the racial divide of its day. All the combat sailors seem to be white: black sailors are, apparently, only allowed to serve in the mess—with one dutifully and deferentially making sure that the captain eats as he should. Though both men seem to respect one another, the movie seems to imbue their relationship with a sense of imbalance and, thus, unease.
A German U-Boat captain taunts Captain Krause via radio.
Greyhound, the ship, is the scene of some tragic casualties. In the world of entertainment, though, the movie is one itself—but one that came roaring back in modified form.
Greyhound was set for a theatrical release for June 12, 2020, which its makers at Sony Pictures had hoped might launch a lucrative box-office run. Obviously, because of the coronavirus, it was not to be. The movie was shelved and delayed, then delayed again before Sony finally sold it to Apple TV+. In a season when many motion pictures have been pushed to streaming services or video-on-demand platforms, Greyhound is arguably the highest profile of the bunch.
Still, in some ways, a smaller screen might fit this cinematic throwback just as well. While a bigger screen would have made the battle sequences all the more perilous and the roiling Atlantic all the more stormy, the film is, in some ways, more concerned with smaller spaces. Most of the scenes take place in claustrophobic compartments, and watching it at home augments that inherent intimacy.
Moreover, we better feel what it must’ve felt like on that ship, full of low-tech gadgetry and grease pencils. Paths are plotted with protractors. The cantankerous radar machine goes belly up. The wet, icy windows are kept imperfectly clear with wipers that look like they came off a 1973 Datsun. We feel this rocking space on Greyhound. And because the movie does such an effective job bringing its cabins and corridors to life, the dangers the crew faces feel that much more perilous.
The tone of the movie suggests an earlier era, too. Perhaps we can thank the obscenity-adverse captain for some of the story’s restrained decorum, but regardless, the decks are surprisingly free of profanity (with a few notable exceptions). For a war movie, it’s remarkably free of blood and gore, too—and really, at no detriment to the harrowing story. We don’t need gore to remind us of the cost of war. An effectively told story does that heavy lifting for us—and this is indeed an effectively told story. Greyhound gives us reasons to be cautious, but fewer than we might expect.
Sony, I’m sure, would’ve still loved to have seen Greyhound head to theaters. But for those who have Apple TV+, they’ve received a rare cinematic gift: a gripping story with little to gripe about.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.