A timely trivia quiz for movie buffs:
1. What 1980 pandemic disaster movie used a Canadian submarine as a set?
2. Which submarine?
3. Who were the lead actors?
4. Which minor actor appears in the credits but not on screen?
1 “Virus”. According to TV Guide, “An all-star international cast and location shooting done all over the globe contributed to the $17 million price tag for this, one of the most expensive films ever to come out of Japan.“ In the United States and Canada it was released as a home video, with a shorter version broadcast later on television.
2 HMCS Okanagan served as the interior of the British nuclear submarine Nereid as well as of a Soviet boat. Exterior shots were the Chilean submarine Simpson, filmed in some gorgeous Antarctic settings.
3. The better known American names, at least to an older generation, included Glenn Ford, George Kennedy, Robert Vaughn, the less well remembered Bo Svenson (who had played alongside Robert Redford in “The Great Waldo Pepper”) and Chuck Connors (television’s “The Rifleman”) as Captain of “Nereid”. The male lead was Japanese heart-throb Masao Kusakari and the female lead Olivia Hussey, who had risen to fame at seventeen starring in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 classic “Romeo and Juliet”. Only Kusakari, Svenson and Connors were involved in the submarine sequences.
4. Me, and I’ll explain why.
As Okanagan’s Executive Officer I was to take charge of the evolution. Some of us had our doubts about “artsy“ types using our boat, but any concern was quickly dispelled at the first planning meeting. The director, Kinji Fukasaku, had experience with navies, having co-directed Tora! Tora! Tora!, a 1970 epic about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. We quickly agreed that, except for security and safety, it would be his set whenever we were filming and my submarine when we were not. That would keep lines of authority and communication clear. Meanwhile the movie and submarine crews bonded quickly; the submariners coming to respect the professionalism of the movie team and the movie-makers discovering that there’s a lot of creative technical and acting talent in a submarine crew.
Fukasaku asked if I would serve as continuity and reality checker for each shot, as well as coach to Connors on submarine matters. He also asked me to review the script, which was just as well because I suspect that the originally planned order to surface the submarine – “OK, blow the tanks boys!” – would have generated howls of laughter from a naval audience.
Connors was a pleasure to work with but, being best known as a cowboy actor, there were a couple of challenges in transforming him into an English naval officer. The language coach had the harder job, trying to help with getting the accent right. Mine was simpler: his periscope technique looked all wrong although I was hard-pressed to explain why. So, at lunchtime I slipped back to the Control Room to analyse what came naturally to me so that I could choreograph it for him. Meanwhile, the director was sitting alone studying the afternoon’s script. His interpreter was at lunch but I wanted to suggest something that could improve a future scene. Somehow, with much gesturing and the help of the bilingual English-Japanese script, we re-wrote it.
On the last day of filming the director‘s interpreter relayed that he wanted to film me in costume. I replied that I was perfectly happy working behind the scenes but Fukasaku smiled and reminded me of our first conversation: “Except for safety and security it’s my set while we’re filming!” After I’d changed and the shot was done the interpreter said “He liked your facial expression and wants you to write a speaking line.” Knowing that time was precious and extraneous shots unlikely to appear in the finished version I tried to decline again, but he grinned as the interpreter repeated “It’s my set while we’re filming!” so I spoke some deathless line of prose like “I have the watch”. It seemed a waste of time to me, but some months later I learned what it had been all about.
According to union rules, and much to the annoyance of some of our naval superiors, submariners contributing to the production had to become temporary members of ACTRA, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. Much later, each received a cheque in the mail, whether as a technical contributor or an acting extra. To my surprise I‘d not only been classified as technical advisor as well as an extra but, because of that one solitary line, had also been upgraded to speaking actor for the week. Unsurprisingly my face never did grace the silver screen but there was one more pleasant surprise when the video was released. As the final credits rolled to the cast of “British Nuclear Submarine Nereid Crew Members” they read:
Captain McCloud …..Chuck Connnors
First Officer…..Lt–Cmdr David Griffiths
This brief brush with fame has left me with the greatest respect not only for the technical and artistic discipline and skills of film-makers, but also for their professional courtesy and grace. To this day I rarely leave a movie theatre until I’ve watched all the credits to those great and small who made the film possible. .
p.s., Bonus trivia points to anyone who spots the deliberate error in Connors’ uniform, included by mutual agreement to amuse sailors.
The full 2½ hour version in English, although with captions in Japanese, is at https://archive.org/details/VirusFukkatsuNoHi1980 The shorter 1hr 45 min American version in low definition is at https://archive.org/details/cco_virus