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Sunday, 13 October, 2002, 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
Sub film's tricky Russian outing
Harrison Ford in K19
Harrison Ford stars in K19: The Widowmaker

For 40 years, the story of Soviet submarine K19 was a closely-guarded secret. Now Hollywood aims to tell it to the world.

"K19: The Widowmaker" goes on general release in Russia next week. But real-life veterans of the sub say the film's interpretation of their history is an insult.

The first USSR atomic submarine to be equipped with ballistic missiles, K19 was on maiden exercises just off the American coast when disaster struck.

The submarine's nuclear reactor cooling system sprung a leak, sending the core temperature soaring towards meltdown.

It was 1961, the height of the Cold War, and the crew feared an explosion so close to the United States would provoke all-out war.

Instead, 8 men sacrificed their lives on a suicide repair mission that dealt them ten times the lethal dose of radiation.
K19: The Widowmaker
The film recreates a real-life Soviet sub tragedy

Pirate ship

The Soviet Union never recognised these men as heroes. Now survivors say this American film is heaping insult on injury.

Yury Mukhin was on board K19 when the accident happened. His memories are as powerful as ever.

Like many of the veterans he has seen an early script for the film, and feels Hollywood is taking artistic license too far.

It's as if the Americans are making fun of us personally, and of the whole Russian fleet

Yury Mukhin, K19 survivor

"It's offensive!" Mukhin complains, surrounded in his living room by photographs of his crewmates.

"Our submarine is made to look like a pirate ship. It's total chaos. It's as if the Americans are making fun of us personally, and of the whole Russian fleet."

Just two years after the sinking of the Kursk submarine with the loss of 118 lives, any suggestion of naval incompetence is especially hard to swallow.

Film stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson - who play the crew's captain and executive officer - travelled to Russia with director Kathryn Bigelow to meet the veterans before filming began.

The survivors say they received assurances they would be portrayed as heroes. Many of them feel that promise has been broken.

The tense, conflictual relationship between Ford and Neeson drives the drama but veterans say that is a distortion and an outrage.
K19: The Widowmaker
Survivors of the tragedy have called the film "inaccurate"

Fictitious

As the disasters on-board mount, the crew is reduced to panic; the film includes an attempted mutiny the veterans deride as incredible; and at one point, crewmen taking-in fresh air on top of the sub drop their trousers in defiance at an American helicopter overhead.

The veterans complained so bitterly about scenes of drunkenness and foul language that some episodes have been removed from the final script. But film-makers had their limits.

Liam Neeson admits to having the deepest respect for the men of K19, but is keen to strike a note of balance. "We're certainly very close to the real events" he says,

"But we have to keep reminding people that we're not making a documentary about submarine warfare. This is a fictitious film, inspired by a real incident."

Neeson was in St. Petersburg for the film's gala premiere earlier this month. With 52 survivors of K19 in the audience, as well as relatives of the dead, the screening had special resonance.

After months of rumour and upset, for many survivors it was their first chance to see the finished product. Filing into the turquoise splendour of the Mariinsky Theatre they were braced for the worst.

Respectful

But as their story unfolded on screen, loud sniffles punctuated the soundtrack from around the hall.
Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson attended the premiere in Russia

As the final credits rolled the veterans rose to their feet in respectful applause, all anger abandoned for a moment as they honoured their comrades.

The lights then went-up to reveal a mixed response. Most veterans shook their heads at a catalogue of factual errors, but for many, the film's emotional pull had diminished their anger.

The key disaster scenes, they admitted, portrayed their brave crewmates as true heroes, paying them a tribute that was long overdue.

But Yury Mukhin's final verdict was one of rueful resignation. "It's an impressive film," he conceded, visibly moved "It's just not about our submarine."

See also:

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