Walter Rossi received the 1958 Academy Award for Best Special Effects.
The American Buckley-class destroyer escort USS Haynes detects and attacks a German U-boat that is on its way to rendezvous with a German merchant raider in the South Atlantic Ocean. Lieutenant Commander Murrell (Robert Mitchum), a former officer in the merchant marine now an active duty officer in the Naval Reserve, has recently taken command of the Haynes, even though he is still recovering from injuries incurred in the sinking of his previous ship. Before the U-boat is first spotted, one sailor questions the new captain's fitness and ability. However, as the battle begins, Murrell shows himself to be a match for wily U-boat Kapitän von Stolberg (Curt Jürgens), a man who is not enamored with the Nazi regime, in a prolonged and deadly battle of wits that tests both men and their crews. Each man grows to respect his opponent.
Murrell skillfully stalks the U-boat and subjects von Stolberg and his crew to multiple depth charge attacks. In the end, von Stolberg takes advantage of a moment of vulnerability in Murrell's pattern of attacks and succeeds in torpedoing the destroyer escort. The destroyer escort is mortally wounded but still battle capable. However, Murrell has one last trick up his sleeve. He orders his men to set fires on the deck to make the ship look more damaged than it actually is. Then he orders the majority of his crew to evacuate in the life boats. But he keeps a skeleton crew on board to man the bridge, engine room, and one of his ship's three-inch guns. As Murrell had hoped, von Stolberg decides to torpedo on the surface what he perceives to be a crippled ship. Murrell orders his gun crew to fire thus knocking the U-boat's main deck gun out of action. Murrell orders his executive officer, Lt. Ware (Al Hedison), to steer the ship toward the U-boat at flank speed and ram it. With his boat crippled, Von Stolberg orders his crew to set the scuttling charges and abandon ship.
Murrell, the last man aboard, is about to join his crew in the lifeboats when he spots von Stolberg trapped on the conning tower of the U-boat with his injured executive officer, Korvettenkapitän Heini Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel). Von Stolberg salutes Murrell, who returns it. Murrell tosses a line to the submarine and pulls the injured XO on board while von Stolberg climbs hand over hand to the Haynes. Once on board, it is clear Schwaffer is dying and von Stolberg refuses to leave his friend behind. Murrell's executive officer, Lt. Ware, returns with a group of American & German sailors in the captain's gig to the sinking destroyer in order to help the last three men off the doomed ship. They manage to clear the tangled wrecks just before the U-boat's scuttling charges detonate, sinking the boat. Later, aboard another American ship, the German crew consigns Schwaffer's remains to the deep in a traditional ceremony, as the American crew respectfully observes.
The movie script differs substantially from the original book. The ship is changed from British to American. More importantly, the final scenes of mutual respect and potential friendship between the protagonists is not how the book ends. In the book the destroyer captain hates the German captain so much he takes a swing at him while they are in the lifeboat. The movie also vaguely alludes to the "enemy" being evil (or the devil), not particularly the Nazis ("You cut off one head and it grows another..."). This gives the title "The Enemy Below" a double meaning not present in the book.Robert Mitchum as Captain Murrell
Curd Jürgens as Kapitän von Stolberg as (Curt Jürgens)
Theodore Bikel as Korvettenkapitän 'Heinie' Schwaffer, von Stolberg's second in command
David Hedison as Lieutenant Ware, the executive officer of the Haynes (as Al Hedison)
Russell Collins as Doctor
Kurt Kreuger as Von Holem
Frank Albertson as Lieutenant (junior grade) Crain
Biff Elliot as Quartermaster
Ralph Manza as Lieutenant Bonelli (uncredited)
Doug McClure as Ensign Merry (uncredited)
Darryl F. Zanuck as Chief (uncredited)
Curt Jürgens was imprisoned in 1944 in an internment camp in Hungary by order of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels during World War II. Contrary to some reports, it was not a death camp. He was released when the war ended. Theodore Bikel was an immigrant Austrian Jew who was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1924. He and his family fled to America by way of Palestine in 1937.
The destroyer escort USS Haynes (DE-181) was portrayed by the USS Whitehurst (DE-634), filmed in the Pacific Ocean near Oahu, Hawaii. Many of the Whitehurst's crewmen acted in the film: The phone talkers, the gun and depth charge crews, the sailor fishing, and all of the men seen abandoning ship, were the real Whitehursts crewmen. The ship's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Walter Smith, played the engineering officer. He is the man seen reading comics (Little Orphan Annie) during the lull before the action. In the same scene an enlisted man can be seen reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The lead ship of the destroyer escort class portrayed in The Enemy Below, USS Buckley (DE-51), actually rammed a U-Boat in combat and sank it on 6 May 1944, capturing many of the German crew. The actual DE-181 was a Cannon-class destroyer escort, USS Straub (DE-181).
The tune sung by the U-boat crew on the ocean floor between depth charge attacks is from an 18th-century march called "Der Dessauer Marsch". As a more popular song, it's also known by the first line of lyrics as "So leben wir" ("That's how we live").The 1966 Star Trek episode "Balance of Terror" is closely based on this film, with the USS Enterprise cast as the destroyer and the Romulan vessel, using a cloaking device, as the U-boat. It is reported that Gene Roddenberry later paid a fee to the estate of Gary Cooper, who owned the rights to the film.
The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode "Killers of the Deep" was not only based on this movie, it also re-used substantial amounts of footage from it. Also David Hedison (then Al Hedison) who played Lieutenant Ware, the executive officer of the Haynes, played Commander Lee Crane.
At the beginning of the movie Crimson Tide (Tony Scott, 1995), the crew of the USS Alabama goes on board and talks about submarine movies, citing The Enemy Below.
In the movie Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) when the cruise liner is led to a head-on collision with an oil tanker, one of the employees aboard the tanker is shown watching The Enemy Below on TV. One of the other employees also asks the first one a small trivia quiz about the film.