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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

"The ordeal lasted for eight hours," recalled retired Capt. 2nd Rank Yuri V. Yerastov, who at the time was the commander of the unit in charge of the sub's nuclear reactor. In addition to the eight crewmen who died immediately afterward, other K-19 submariners died from illnesses in later years that might have been related to the radiation in the sub.

"They were real heroes," Yerastov said from his home in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. "They knew how lethal the danger was, but they also knew that they had to go down and do it to prevent the imminent nuclear catastrophe." The film posits the doomsday scenario that had the meltdown occurred aboard the K-19, it would have triggered a Chernobyl-like explosion that could have led to an East-West confrontation.

The crew's heroism, however, was kept a secret for more than 30 years by the Soviet government. Only with the fall of Communism did the story become public in the 1990s.

It is ironic that the National Geographic Society, of all groups, is producing a film whose historical accuracy is being challenged.

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.

Since its founding in 1888, the Washington-based organization has funded some of the world's great expeditions. Among them have been Robert E. Peary's trek to the North Pole in 1909, Richard E. Byrd's first flight over the South Pole in 1929, Jacques Cousteau's pioneering ocean exploration and Robert Ballard's series of spectacular underwater finds, including his discovery in 1985 of the sunken Titanic.

In more recent years, the society has expanded beyond its flagship magazine with such publications as Adventure, National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic World for children, as well as books and CD-ROMs. For television, the society has created the National Geographic Channel, and produces the program "Explorer," as well as its signature specials.

Realizing that questions are bound to be raised when "K-19: The Widowmaker" is released by Regency Enterprises through 20th Century Fox in the U.S. and overseas by Paramount Pictures, the society said it plans to produce a documentary about the submarine accident to coincide with the movie's debut--scheduled for 2002--so audiences can study the historical events upon which the film is based.

The society also plans a Web site that will seek to answer questions the public might have when trying to sort fact from fiction.

Rick Allen, president and chief executive officer of National Geographic Ventures, the for-profit subsidiary of the society responsible for television programs and films, said the Web site will ask the "big questions" that inspired the film. Those include why filmmakers make the choices they do, what pieces of the historical record filmmakers include or leave out, and how they consolidate the number of real people who took part in an event into a fictional composite character.

"This is a dramatic film based on real events," Allen said. "That leads to judgment calls by the filmmakers. When you are dealing with real events, those judgment calls have to be made in an incredibly thoughtful manner."

Added Tim Kelly, president of National Geographic Television: "We think when the [Russian] submariners see the final product, we hope they will be satisfied that we were true to what happened." The society also has other fictionalized projects on the drawing boards that are based on real-life events. They include a movie called "Endurance," based on an Antarctic expedition by explorer Ernest Shackleton, which is set up at Sony Pictures Entertainment with Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm") attached to direct, and a four-hour miniseries called "Lewis and Clark," which is based on the Stephen Ambrose book "Undaunted Courage."


As recently as Dec. 8, Ford and the "K-19" filmmakers had a cordial meeting in St. Petersburg with surviving crew members.

"The meeting was very pleasant," Yerastov recalled. "A lot of good words were said. I saw him in the movies before. I think he is a good actor. He was very good in this film where he fought against fascists and fell in this pit with snakes ['Raiders of the Lost Ark']."

But events were occurring in Los Angeles that would have an impact on their emotions.

A Russian-born film producer named Inna Gotman, who had been developing a movie script by Australian screenwriter Michael Brindley about the K-19, was crying foul. Gotman said she had obtained written permission from Zateyev in 1994 giving her production company, Drawbridge Films, the exclusive rights to his life story. Zateyev died of cancer in 1998.

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