Tom Hanks’ movie Greyhound is based on a novel and not a true story, but it takes inspiration from a real-life (and very important) WWII battle.
Tom Hanks’ Greyhound isn’t based on a true story, but it was inspired by a real historical event. It’s no secret Hanks has a passion for stories about the second World War. Three years after he teamed up with Steven Spielberg on the Oscar-winning WWII drama Saving Private Ryan in 1998, Hanks and Spielberg produced Band of Brothers, a miniseries about the “Easy Company” of the U.S. Army and their operations during the war. The pair would later reunite for a companion miniseries titled The Pacific (which follows U.S. marines as they fight in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater), and are currently developing a third installment called Masters of the Air (a miniseries about the Eighth Air Force of the U.S. Army in WWII).
Hanks’ new film, Greyhound, once again takes place during WWII, but with a twist. Rather than being adapted from a non-fiction book like Hanks and Spielberg’s previous miniseries, the movie is based on The Good Shepherd, a 1955 novel written by C.S. Forester (author of The African Queen and the Horatio Hornblower series). Directed by Aaron Schneider (Get Low) from an adapted script by Hanks, Greyhound follows the U.S. Navy Captain Ernest Krause (Hanks) as he commands the destroyer USS Keeling – call sign Greyhound – and is charged with helping to protect 37 Allied ships while they cross the North Atlantic to deliver materials to the U.K., even as a group or “wolfpack” of German U-boats close in on them.
Krause might not be strictly based on a real-life person, but Forester did model the character and his experiences after actual events from WWII. Both the Greyhound movie and its source material revolve around The Battle of the Atlantic, which got underway shortly after the war began in September 1939 and didn’t conclude until the Germans surrendered in May 1945 (a few months before WWII officially ended), making it the longest military campaign waged during the second World War. Greyhound takes place over a few days in the winter of 1942, so it offers a mere snapshot of just how taxing and repetitive (not to mention, miserable and wet) the battle truly was.
The Battle Of The Atlantic Explained
Being an island nation, the United Kingdom was dependent on imported goods and materials – as much as a million tons per week – from other Allied countries from the very beginning of WWII. (Later, after Germany launched its invasion of the federal socialist state in June 1941, the Soviet Union similarly received needed supplies from Allied ships coming across the Arctic Ocean.) In order to keep them supplied, the Allies would send upwards of 40 merchant ships carrying goods across the North Atlantic at the same time, protecting them with warships and aircraft. As one might imagine, it was incredibly challenging to keep all these vessels moving in cohesion and avoid leaving them open to attacks by German U-boats. The Germans had an advantage during the earlier years of the campaign, but things gradually began to change in the Allies’ favor, especially after the U.S. entered WWII in December 1941 in direct response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The natural conditions of the battle – what with the North Atlantic being a regularly cold and treacherous region – weren’t the only complicating factors, either. There was also a particularly dangerous area known as The Mid-Atlantic Gap (or Black Pit) which lay beyond the reach of the land-based Royal Air Force (RAF) antisubmarine aircraft. This is the same location where the majority of Greyhound is set; the film even opens with the Greyhound’s air escort telling them they’ve reached the limit of their range upon arriving at the Black Pit, and wishing them good luck as they prepare to cross it. Further, the movie takes place several months before the gap was “closed” in May 1943, after the RAF Coastal Command had became operational from Newfoundland.
What Greyhound Gets Right About The Battle
One of the big things Greyhound gets right about The Battle of the Atlantic is how, broadly speaking, unglamorous the whole thing was. According to Frank Blazich (the lead curator of military history for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History), it was “a very complicated battle that require[d] massive amounts of coordination, the development of new weapons technologies, tactics [and] science.” Greyhound does a nice job of illustrating this; Krause and his crew are forced to continuously patrol their convoy to prevent any German U-boats from sneaking past their watch, and even when they catch one their counter-attacks are frequently obstructed by the shortcomings of radar and sonar technology at the time (making it all the more difficult to pinpoint a U-boat’s exact location once it’s dived underwater). This can also lead to other problems, like when the Greyhound gets too close to a U-boat to destroy them with its big guns and resorts to using smaller weapons instead. Per the Smithsonian, this specific fight bears a resemblance to the real-life duel between the U.S.S. Borie and U-boat U-405 in November 1943 (which resulted in U-405 sinking and the Borie suffering such massive damage it had to be “scuttled” afterwards.
How Accurate Greyhound Is To WWII Naval Warfare
Due to the nature of its story (a tightly-paced, virtually non-stop series of battles between the Greyhound and various U-boats), Greyhound admittedly has a harder time depicting just how tedious Naval warfare could be. As Blazich put it, “It’s very hard, rough work, and it can be very boring. U-boats can go on entire patrols and never see another ship.” Greyhound never shows the conflict from the Germans’ perspective either, which is why Blazich feels Wolfgang Petersen’s classic 1981 WWII submarine warfare movie Das Boot makes for a good companion piece to Hanks’ film. Life was relatively better for U.S. Navy sailors, but they still had to deal with being relentlessly chilly and wet (due to the never-ending salt spray of the North Atlantic) and having to go long periods where nothing happened before having to stay on high alert for extended amounts of time. Greyhound is arguably more accurate in this regard; in one scene, it reveals Krause’s feet are actually bleeding from wearing his shoes and pacing so much while he’s captaining for hours on-end (before he slips into more comfortable footwear).
Still, for a film that only runs just over 90 minutes long, Greyhound more or less accurately summarizes what The Battle of the Atlantic was like: it was cold, wet, and exhausting, and the Allied’s destroyers were frequently obstructed in their attempts to protect their convoys by the limitations of their detection equipment. A miniseries adaptation of Forester’s novel might’ve been able to dive deeper into the sheer monotony of the military campaign and how it affected Krause and his men psychologically, but otherwise Hanks’ movie makes for a visceral (and, in a general sense, accurate) dramatization of real-world historical events.