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Venturing Into Rough Seas

National Geographic's first foray into features hits controversy over its portrayal of a 1961 Russian submarine crisis and the path it took to production.

March 04, 2001|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

As actor Harrison Ford goes before the cameras this month in Moscow for his new big-budget Cold War naval thriller, "K-19: The Widowmaker," the screen star finds himself at the center of a raging controversy over whether Hollywood is accurately portraying the actions of Russian sailors who struggled to avert a nuclear accident on board a Soviet submarine in 1961 that could have brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Even as shooting began, some of the surviving crewmen and relatives of the dead submariners who served on the Soviet nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine K-19 expressed outrage over an early draft of the movie's script they had read. They contend, in a letter to Ford and the filmmakers, it portrays the crew as "uncultured, uneducated people who suffer from lack of discipline, alcoholism and technical illiteracy." They called the tone of the script a sacrilege to the Russian submarine fleet and asked the Russian navy not to cooperate with the production.

The protest has not only placed Ford and the filmmakers at the center of a debate over historical accuracy in movies, but has also focused attention on one of the film's producers--the National Geographic Society. The project represents the venerable society's first foray into the world of Hollywood-style movie-making.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 18, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Film distributor--Intermedia will be the primary overseas distributor of "K-19: The Widowmaker." Paramount Pictures will be a partner with Intermedia in some territories. A story in the March 4 Sunday Calendar provided incorrect information about the film's foreign distribution.

"In the script, our crew [is] depicted as a bunch of stupid, ignorant and unruly characters," said retired Capt. 1st Rank Yuri F. Mukhin, who was commander of the combat missile unit aboard the K-19. "In the script, when an emergency situation is announced on the submarine, the crew begins to study the instructions to find out how to behave in the given situation. It has nothing to do with reality. We were well-trained and knew quite well what we had to do in any situation. . . . Even Harrison Ford can't save this story."

Said Irina N. Zateyeva, daughter of the sub's late commander, Capt. Nikolai Zateyev. "When I first heard last fall that Ford will be playing my father, I was so happy. I thought it was a miracle. I didn't know about the script then."

The controversy also comes as lawsuits have been filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by competing movie companies over who has the rights to the submariners' life stories.

Ford, who has starred in such blockbusters as the "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones movies as well as portraying a U.S. president in "Air Force One," has sought to reassure the Russians that the film will in no way besmirch the heroism of the doomed submariners.

When asked about complaints that the script depicts the submariners as uneducated drunks who play cards while the alarms sound, Ford replied: "That has never been the case. No version of the script that I saw ever had that particular incident as part of it.

"The whole success of the piece depends on the audience coming to an appreciation of the men who served on that crew," he continued. "Like any crew, they were like any group of men. There were variations. Some of them were more educated than others. Some of them came from different circumstances. Some of them were scared and some of them were brave. We are talking about what we think is very heroic and selfless behavior. It's no aid to the success of this story to have these guys made out to be fools and louts and drunks."

Ford, who is being paid about $25 million to star in the movie, stressed that the relationship between his character and the executive officer played by Liam Neeson "is entirely fictionalized," adding, "It's a movie."

The film's producers said movies, by their very nature, compress events or make composite characters out of several people to tell a dramatic story. In recent years, Hollywood has been criticized for the way its films play loose with the facts when telling stories of real-life personalities and events.

"Certainly, the essence of the real story is there--that is what is most important when you are making a dramatic film," said producer Joni Sighvatsson of Palomar Pictures, which is producing the film with the National Geographic Society and director Kathryn Bigelow's production company, First Light. Christine Whitaker, a producer who represents the National Geographic Society, added that the film won't be a parody of the Russian experience.

With a production budget approaching $100 million, the film was written by Christopher Kyle, Louis Nowra and Tom Stoppard. After filming for 10 days in Moscow, the production will move to Toronto and Halifax, Canada.

The independently financed movie has its roots in the real-life drama at sea four decades ago when Zateyev asked for volunteers among his crew of 128 men to go into the K-19's reactor compartment and try to repair the damaged cooling system.

As radiation levels rose to lethal levels, crew members heroically entered the compartment and welded the cooling system, but eight submariners died of radiation poisoning within days of the accident.

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