Home > Pet Peeves, Writing > Anachronisms


Watched some of U571 this morning, a naval adventure movie set in WWII.  You see, this broken down U-Boat has an Enigma machine, so our heroes, mostly Navy submariners, disguise themselves as Germans to get on board.  Lots of action and explosions.

But it took me back to the first time I saw it and I am again convinced that the writers had it wrong.  Lots of the dialogue seemed too modern.  One officer tells his commandos to “lock and load!”  Maybe this was a common command back in the forties, but I grew up watching war movies and never heard it.  If it was a common command, you would think Hollywood would have caught onto it at the time.  I connect the phrase more with Vietnam movies and the M-16.

More jarring is the technical submarine jargon.  It seems like it is out of a Tom Clancy movie.  Again, I grew up watching lots of war movies – I mean almost completely WWII movies – and many of them were submarine movies.  I love submarine movies.  Thing is, the command crews in all of these movies, whether made during the war or during the three decades that followed, gave commands in pretty much the same way.  “Dive! Dive!” Ah-ooooo-gah, ah-oooo-gah.  “Flood negative!  Take her down!  Make your depth 100 feet.”

I won’t repeat the dialog from U571.  There is probably a word limit on this blog.  But they use a very long-winded style, taking the longest possible way to say any command, and say it very fast because they don’t want to get killed by the enemy.  If you want to see the movie, fine, or go see “The Hunt for Red October” or “Crimson Tide” if you want to get the gist.

I have always connected this long-winded style with Admiral Hiram Rickover, the man who gave us the Nuclear Navy.  He was not a man who was much loved, though probably respected.  He created this very precise, absurdly scripted way of speaking in order to avoid accidents.  I suppose, but do you really think that a chief petty officer with twenty years experience on submarines really needs to be told exactly how to sound the diving alarm every time he does so?

The Air Force, by the way, also had a flag officer long on checklists and procedures in charge of all things nuclear, name of Curtis LeMay.  But LeMay was more fun.  Just google the man and you should find lots of tall tales about him charging security checkpoints and such.

In any case, Rickover started all this in the 1950s, long after the war.  While it is entirely possible that every submarine movie I watched got all this wrong – we are talking about Hollywood, after all – I rather doubt it.  All of those movies had technical advisers with naval ranks – someone would have listened to them.

No, I think this was just a case of an ongoing problem: a poor understanding of history by many of Hollywood’s writers, or indeed many people in general.  I think the writers just took crib-notes from a Clancy novel.  The producers probably also hired former submariners as technical consultants, but almost anyone they found would have grown up in Rickover’s navy, not Nimitz’s.

Obviously, I am not worried about the fate of one poor action movie and maybe it is me that is wrong.  But writers should be aware that every time they throw in an anachronism, some people are going to notice and some of them are going to be taken right out of the story.  Historical accuracy is a sort of currency, giving you some credit with your audience.  If you are not sure of your history or how someone would have said something “back then,” either research it or write around it.  Try to avoid confirming your ignorance.


Categories: Pet Peeves, Writing
  1. John
    July 16, 2012 at 10:10 PM

    I grew up with war movies and would agree with your observation that the term seemed to appear with Vietnam era movies.

    So I looked it up.

    Apparently “lock and Load” was standard terminology for the time. According to a few sources it originated with the M1 rifle. So it would appear it was Hollywood that was slow in picking up the terminology. The movie U571, apparently did use it correctly.

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