One Ping Only: The 30th Anniversary of The Hunt For Red October

The name Tom Clancy is now synonymous with the techno spy thriller and realistic military-based stories. For most younger people it is also synonymous with several video game series including Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell, among many others. Clancy’s early career was in insurance however he used to write novels in his spare time. In 1984 he sold his first novel for $5,000 to a small publishing house in Maryland. That novel was The Hunt For Red October. The book was a huge hit and became a national best seller. The main character, Jack Ryan, went on to appear in 10 novels written by Clancy, and a further 11 novels that were written by other authors. By the end of the 1980s Tom Clancy had become a household name, Alec Baldwin remarked that Clancy’s novels were so popular that he would often look around in business class on a plane to see that 8 out of 10 people were reading a Clancy novel.

Tom Clancy

It was a natural progression for the character to make the jump from the literary pages and onto the big screen. This process was being looked at since before the novel was even published. Mace Neufield sent a young man from the development department down to a local book fair to look for any new books that might be of interest for an adaptation. The young man returned with The Hunt For Red October, Neufield started reading it and before he had finished the book he started the ball rolling on optioning the film rights. As part of the negotiation he managed to secure the rights to The Hunt For Red October, and any subsequent novels and the characters therein. Neufield is still active in the Jack Ryan world to this day with his role as Executive Producer on the Amazon Prime series, Jack Ryan. John McTiernan had read the book whilst he was working in Europe, where it was released first, and he tried to option the rights himself, however Neufield had gotten there first.

Neufield worked on getting the film made for several years, he approached Larry Ferguson to write the screenplay. Ferguson had not read the original novel at this time, so he agreed to write the script and then started reading the novel. It was good fortune that he did it in that order because if he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have taken the job. Ferguson was very intimidated by the novel, the detail and depth that it presented was something he felt was impossible to adapt. So, he decided to try and reduce the story down to a singular human story, which itself was incredibly difficult.

In 1986, whilst looking for a director, Neufield managed to get a look at the dailies for Predator and was impressed with what John McTiernan was doing. He hired McTiernan as the director, he read Larry Ferguson’s script and said to Ferguson, “I liked your screenplay very much, but I don’t want to use any of it.” McTiernan wanted to be as faithful to the original novel as possible and so he and Ferguson threw out the original script and worked together to craft a new one.

Whilst McTiernan and Ferguson were working on the screenplay Mace Neufield was looking for his Jack Ryan. He approached Kevin Costner for the role who turned it down to go and work on, “A buffalo movie.” That buffalo movie was Dances With Wolves which, looking back, arguably was the better career move for Costner. The next actor that he approached was Alec Baldwin, who had at the time a few supporting roles under his belt but no leading roles. Baldwin was cast after one meeting with Neufield. Baldwin impressed a lot of his cast members with his ability to memorize pages of dialogue overnight, and in a documentary about the film over 20 years later could still remember his Russian dialogue. His performance as Jack Ryan is fantastic, he manages to capture the analytical nature of the character in the way he just looks at something, you know that he is thinking of something and working it out. Jack Ryan is a thinker, he isn’t the action hero, he’s the guy who figures out the information that the action hero needs to be the hero. He just finds himself thrust into the role of the hero.

Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) and Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones)

James Earl Jones as Admiral James Greer was an inspired casting choice, Greer is Ryan’s mentor and a friend. Jones’ gravitas gives him an authoritative prescience immediately, he doesn’t even have to do anything to present this to the audience. Jones’ casting is an interesting one because Jones himself has no idea how he was cast, he never auditioned for the role. He was just contacted by the producers and offered the role. When Jones was cast the production drew more interest from other actors who wanted the chance to work with Jones and it gave the project some legitimacy, Jones would not be the only actor cast in the film that would have this effect.

The producers had cast Klaus Maria Brandauer for the role of Captain Marko Ramius, but Brandauer dropped out of the role two weeks into production. Thankfully, they received a call from Richard Hatton who was looking for a film role for his client. The client was former James Bond star, Sean Connery. Connery was looking for a new role to take on at some point soon and was actually in Marbella at the time. The script was faxed over to him and he loved it. However, he turned down the role because it didn’t make any sense to him given the political situation at the time with tensions easing so much between the US and Russia. Neufield asked if he’d read the first page that explains that it’s a period piece set in 1984. As it turned out when the script was faxed over, they omitted the very first page which had the opening text that appears in the film, Connery had them fax that over and called back. He took the job. He had originally planned to go back to Scotland for a golfing holiday after Marbella, but as the film was already in production and he loved the script so much he cancelled the holiday to take the role.

Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius

When Connery came on board Baldwin thought at the time that nobody will even notice him in the film. So, he stepped up his game even more so to make them remember him, doing everything he could, even to the point of suggesting to McTiernan to have a shot of him looking at the camera as he cuts away from the helicopter and falls into the ocean. Rounding out the main cast was Scott Glenn in the part of Captain Bart Mancuso. In preparation for the film Baldwin and Glenn both spent some time on the USS Salt Lake City, a Los Angeles class fast attack Submarine. Captain Tom Fargo, who was in command of the Salt Lake City, instructed his crew to treat Glenn as if he was of equal rank to himself during his time on board. Not only that but the crew would deliver their reports to Fargo and then turn to Glenn and deliver the same report to him and then Fargo would explain to Glenn what they were going to do in response to the report.

Tom Fargo served as a major influence on Scott Glenn’s performance, Glenn even joked that it was the easiest job he ever had because all he had to do was just copy Fargo. Fargo commanded respect and authority over his men but he was also incredibly relaxed with them. He never raised his voice and had the upmost loyalty of his crew, when he issued an order it was carried out immediately, but it never seemed like a command. But he also took into consideration the opinions and recommendations of those under his command. It was these elements that Glenn infused into his portrayal. He never needed to bark orders, he just instructed the crew on their assignments and they carried them out.

Scott Glenn as Captain Bart Mancuso

Director of Photography Jan De Bont spent a lot of time on board real Submarines to get a feel for how it was to be on a Submarine. One thing he noticed immediately was how cramped and enclosed they were. The other thing he noticed was how there was a massive lack of space and that how everything was designed to make as much use of the space they had to work with. He wanted to shoot the film in a way to encapsulate that feeling and put the audience in the shoes of the sailors on the Submarines themselves. One of his biggest challenges De Bont faced was how to visually differentiate each Submarine from each other quickly for the audience. He came up with the idea of a distinct color palette for each Submarine, the Red October was blue, the Dallas was red and the Konovalov was green. De Bont wanted the Red October to be the slickest and newest looking of the Submarines which was in contrary to what he felt would be the norm as it was usually the American ships that looked the coolest in films of this nature.

The Submarine sets were built on incredibly strong gimbles which meant that they were able to tilt the set as far as 45 degrees backward and forward to represent them diving and surfacing. The dials and instruments were all hooked up to the gimble so when the Submarine “dived” the instruments would show this. Scott Glenn usually likes to be the first person on the set to get a feel for it and get himself into character, on The Hunt For Red October he didn’t get onto the set until they were ready to shoot. The USS Dallas set was accurate to the finest detail in where the instruments, screens and gauges were placed. However, the furnishings of the set were made from materials that were used by aeronautical engineers as opposed to naval engineers. Because of the gimble camera operators were tied to various railings on the set in order to steady themselves when the gimble was in use. There was a lot of handheld photography employed on the production to help create the claustrophobia of being on a Submarine. McTiernan and De Bont came up with a lot of elaborate camera movements on the fly by repeating them over and over again correcting bits each time to get it right. McTiernan would focus on making sure that the actors placement was working and De Bont would focus on getting the camera movements and the lighting right. They would repeat these shots sometimes five or six times before they perfected it.

The gimble the set was on

Once principal photography was completed there was still work being done on the Submarine effects themselves. Industrial Light and Magic were employed to do the effects work on the film, because there had been talk of computer generated imagery being able to be employed for a variety of effects work there was at one point a request that they did the effects completely in computers. However, they had to explain that the CGI was not there yet, but they did use computers to create the water and plankton effects to sell that the Submarines were actually underwater. They built models that were intricately detailed and could be photographed up close, however because of the size of the cameras it would have been impossible to get the camera as close to the model as they wanted. They came up with an ingenious idea to use a series of mirrors to allow them to literally skirt the hull of the Submarines with the camera.

The film was released on March 2nd 1990 to critical and commercial success. The film managed to adapt an intricate and detailed novel to the big screen without losing anything of what made the novel such a success. Adapting a novel is always a difficult endeavor for any film production because of the detail that can be put into a novel just from the sheer length of story that you can tell in a novel format than a film. However, they managed to faithfully adapt and capture the essence of the original novel. It is a prime example of how to adapt a novel to the big screen successfully. It remains one of, if not the, best page to screen adaptations.

The film launched the screen version of Jack Ryan, a character who has become an American James Bond, having been portrayed by five different actors in the 30 years since The Hunt For Red October was released. The most recent of which is John Krasinski for the Amazon series Jack Ryan. Harrison Ford would take over the role from Alec Baldwin for the sequel Patriot Games and a further sequel, Clear and Present Danger, both films would be commercial successes but neither would reach the same critical success that The Hunt For Red October achieved. The film is a clear example of an espionage film done right, it is extremely well paced and there are no plot holes that need to be filled by additional scenes, nor are there any scenes that need to be cut. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who hasn’t seen it, managing to balance the political elements, the action elements and the analytical elements of the story so perfectly it remains in my list of favorite films.

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[…] The name Tom Clancy is now synonymous with the techno spy thriller and realistic military-based stories. For most younger people it is also synonymous with several video game series including Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell, among many others. Clancy’s early career was in insurance however he used to write novels in his spare time. In 1984 he sold his first novel for $5,000 to a small publishing house in Maryland. That novel was The Hunt For Red October. The book was a huge hit and became a national best seller. The main character, Jack Ryan, went on… Read more »

[…] One Ping Only: The 30th Anniversary of The Hunt For Red October […]