K-19: Sub Disaster Inspires Geographic's First Movie

Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News
June 28, 2002
The harrowing story of a nuclear submarine disaster that was narrowly
averted on July 4, 1961—at the height of the Cold War—is the
basis of the soon to be released major motion picture K-19: The
The gripping tale of heroism and sacrifice was buried in
the dusty archives of the former Soviet Union for more than 30 years.

Starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, the film will be released in theaters across North America July 19. The film was written by Christopher Kyle, from a story by Louis Nowra.

The story is about "ordinary people who became heroes when faced with a tragic situation," said Kathryn Bigelow, the film's director.

The Paramount Pictures and Intermedia Films presentation marks a new adventure for the 114 year-old National Geographic Society—its first feature film production.

Nuclear Disaster Narrowly Averted

What happened on K-19 is certainly harrowing and suspenseful enough to inspire a movie. It involves a frightening nuclear event at the height of the Cold War, when the world's two superpowers were locked in a nuclear standoff of mutually assured destruction.

Rushed into service because of the Cold War arms race, the atomic submarine was on patrol when its cooling system malfunctioned. This caused the reactor core to gradually heat up to dangerous levels. If the overheating core was not cooled, it could meltdown and cause a thermal explosion that would doom the ship.

The only way to repair the sub's cooling system was to open and enter the sealed reactor compartment, though doing so would expose the ship and its crew to deadly radiation.

Faced with a horrible choice, the submariners sacrificed themselves to do their duty and repair the cooling system. Eight men died painful deaths from acute radiation sickness shortly after repairing the damaged system.

Though the crew's actions were heroic, Soviet authorities buried the incident.

"Understandably, the Communist regime did not consider it a shining moment in history," said Bigelow, the film's director. "So, because it did not happen in wartime they assigned no heroism to it. They classified it as merely an accident. I hope K-19: The Widowmaker will change all that."

Moving to Feature Films

The chilling story of K-19 first came to the National Geographic Society as a documentary that premiered on National Geographic's EXPLORER television series. National Geographic producer Christine Whitaker, and her predecessor the late Hank Palmieri, knew from the start that the story was a great fit for the Society's burgeoning feature film unit.

"It does what the best National Geographic stories do," she said. "It brings you into another place, another culture, and it humanizes the people who inhabit that world. Historically, Russians have been portrayed in the movies as our traditional enemy, but this story gave us the chance to show the heroism of these people in a moment of real crisis."

While some observers have expressed surprise at the venerable institution's foray into major motion pictures, National Geographic executives are quick to point out that the project is a natural extension of the Society's longtime tradition of storytelling.

"It's a natural extension and progression of the Society's mission," Whitaker said. "We've provided stories about adventure and discovery for 114 years, we've been on television for nearly 40 years, and more recently we've produced large format films or IMAX-style films, so this is just a kind of natural extension of the kind of storytelling we've been doing."

The powerful reach of Hollywood films may make National Geographic more accessible to a wider audience, added Rick Allen, president and CEO of National Geographic Ventures.

"We're always looking for new platforms to tell the stories audiences expect from us," he said. "An advantage of the feature films is that it reaches audiences we may not reach through print, television, or the web, and that's important to us as a mission-based organization."

Tim Kelly, president of National Geographic Television, hopes that the Society can bring a new approach to the feature film business based on its rich treasure trove of subjects, which are grounded in real-world events. "What we're about in features is telling stories based on the real world, which to my mind is often more interesting than fiction," he said.

Balancing Fact and Fiction

Because the story is inspired by real people and events, the K-19 crew took great pains to ensure the film would look and feel historically accurate.

Bigelow went to Russia to speak with survivors and their families prior to filming. Once production got underway, it sprawled through three different countries over 85 days, and included some unique locations not previously seen by Western moviegoers.

"We got clearance to film within military academies that had never before been open to Westerners," said Whitaker. "I believe we were also the first Western film production to be able to shoot in the Moscow metro system."

One of the film's stars is, of course, the submarine itself. To replicate the doomed ship, which is now contaminated and rotting, the production crew leased a cold-war era sub that was being used as a restaurant. The submarine was retrofitted by extending the tail 90 feet (27 meters) and the sail 30 feet (9 meters). "By the time our production designers did their magic," Whitaker said, "it looked like the genuine item."

Dramatizing History, Inspiring Exploration

While painstakingly chosen locations, costumes, and cast lend K-19 an accurate feel, any feature film must weigh dramatic license and historical fact against one another in a delicate balancing act.

"This is a dramatic film based on real events and that leads to judgment calls by the filmmakers. We're very definitely making movies, not documentaries, when we do these feature films," Allen said. "It's not intended to be a documentary."

The film is intended, however, to inspire its viewers to learn more about the true story behind the movie. Whitaker hopes "the dialogue that movies stimulate will encourage audiences to learn more about the real history, and nobody is better suited to do that than National Geographic."

To achieve that goal, National Geographic is producing companion pieces in several media, which elaborate on the real story of K-19. Moviegoers inspired by the dramatic interpretation of the K-19 story will find plenty of offerings to feed their need for additional information. They include a documentary titled Lost Subs, which will air on National Geographic EXPLORER, and K-19: The Widowmaker: The Secret Story of the Soviet Nuclear Submarine, a book by Peter Huchthausen, Capt. USN (Ret.) which features the diaries of captain Nikolai Zateyev. An interactive web module will be available on

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