The U.S.S. Bedford is an American destroyer patrolling the North Atlantic between Greenland and Iceland, and journalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) has just arrived by helicopter onto the deck to do a story about the goings-on there. He is accompanied by the new medical officer, Lieutenant Commander Potter (Martin Balsam), who wants to get to work straight away, though Munceford finds himself confined to quarters and flung around the cabin as the Captain, Finlander (Richard Widmark), manoeuvres his craft drastically. This Captain is something of a tyrant, as the new arrivals will discover...
The director of this, James B. Harris, usually distinguished himself in crime thrillers of an offbeat variety, adapting novels, though it was his career as a producer that he perhaps would be most famous for as it was he that assisted Stanley Kubrick in bringing that director's works to the screen. This even though they had parted professional ways before Kubrick made his acknowledged classic black comedy Dr. Strangelove, which had many drawing comparisons between both his and Harris's choice of subject matter for their next, nuclear war themed efforts. Of course, Kubrick got most of the attention, but The Bedford Incident was by no means worth neglecting.
It was true Harris's drive for realism here tended to offer proceedings a documentary-style matter of fact quality almost until it was too late, but when the tension arrived you could appreciate all the solid work to bring us to that finale. The political climate of the time was just emerging from the Cuban Missile Crisis which had made everyone a lot more paranoid that World War III was around the corner, and so a lot of the mood and detail of that period was informing the events unfolding fictionally here, where the more hawkish members of the powers that be were taken to task, though the doves were by no means let off lightly for their weak attempts to stand up to them.
Captain Finlander is our hawk, a man who rules his ship with an iron fist, so much so that his men (there's not one woman in the cast) are constantly on edge, something he is warned about by those willing to stand up to him, but not so much that they get him to ease off from the reputation of being a mean "bastard" that he so clearly relishes. One of those warning him is a N.A.T.O. officer from West Germany, an ex-Nazi played with slightly sinister tenor by Eric Portman, though we begin to understand that he is all too aware of his past and is holding back from being too domineering where this post is concerned. Which leaves Munceford as the sole man aboard who can make a difference - or so he believes, yet leans towards subtlety when that is not going to do.
Poitier was notable in The Bedford Incident for finally, after making his movie debut in 1950, appearing in a movie where his race was not only not mentioned, but not essential to the plot, which in its own quiet way was as much a strike for equality as his groundbreaking fifties work had been. But it was the Cold War worries that you would most take away from the unfolding drama as Finlander spots a Soviet submarine straying out of international waters and resolves to pursue it to bring the crew of the craft to book. A cat and mouse suspenser results as the Bedford ensures the sub cannot rise for air, forcing it to surface eventually, or that's the idea, but in reality it's making both sides increasingly anxious and we begin to see where this is inexorably heading. Although that ending smacks of plot contrivance to make a point, it reflected the true stories we have heard since of the globe being brought to the brink of devastation simply because of human error brought about by plain old fear, and as such remains very effective. Music by Gerard Schurmann.