K-19: The Widowmaker

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K-19: The Widowmaker
Harrison Ford glaring at the viewer with angry stare while his and Liam Neeson's names are written above him while the film's title, credits, tagline and release beneath him.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKathryn Bigelow
Produced by
Screenplay byChristopher Kyle
Story byLouis Nowra
Music byKlaus Badelt
CinematographyJeff Cronenweth
Edited byWalter Murch
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • July 19, 2002 (2002-07-19) (United States)
  • September 5, 2002 (2002-09-05) (Germany)
  • October 25, 2002 (2002-10-25) (United Kingdom)
Running time
138 minutes[1]
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Germany
  • Canada
Budget$90 million[2]
Box office$65.7 million[3]

K-19: The Widowmaker is a 2002 historical submarine film directed and produced by Kathryn Bigelow, and produced by Edward S. Feldman, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Christine Whitaker and Matthias Deyle with screenplay by Christopher Kyle. An international production of the US, UK, Germany and Canada, the film takes place in 1961 and focuses its story on the Soviet K-19 submarine.

The film stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson alongside Peter Sarsgaard, Donald Sumpter, Christian Camargo, Michael Gladis and John Shrapnel in supporting roles.

K-19: The Widowmaker was released by Paramount Pictures on July 19, 2002 in the United States while on September 5, 2002 in Germany and October 25, 2002 in the United Kingdom. Upon release, the film received generally mixed reviews from critics, which particularly praised the performances and the dramatic atmosphere but criticized the screenwriting. The film became a box-office bomb grossing $65 million against a production budget of $90 million.


In 1961, the Soviet Union launches its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine, the K-19, commanded by Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), with executive officer Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), the crew's original captain. Vostrikov is alleged to have been appointed through his wife's political connections, as well as Polenin's tendency to put crew morale and safety before Soviet pride. Discovering the reactor officer drunk and asleep on duty, Vostrikov fires him, receiving a replacement, Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard), fresh from the academy. Bad luck surrounds the launch; the medical officer is killed by a truck and replaced by command's foremost medical officer, who has never been out to sea, and the inaugural bottle of champagne fails to break on the bow.

The K-19's first mission is to surface in the Arctic, test-fire an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile, and patrol the Atlantic within striking range of New York City and Washington, D.C.. Vostrikov orders K-19 to submerge past its maximum operational depth, then surface at full-speed to break through the Arctic pack-ice. Protesting the dangerous maneuver, Polenin storms off the bridge. The test missile launches successfully.

En route to the patrol zone, a reactor coolant pipe bursts. Control rods are inserted to stop the reactor, but reactor temperature rises and the crew learns back-up coolant systems were not installed. K-19 surfaces to contact fleet command but the long-range transmitter antenna cable is damaged, possibly by the Arctic maneuver. Engineers rig a makeshift coolant system, working in shifts to limit radiation exposure. The first team emerges vomiting and blistered; the second and third teams cool the reactor, but all suffer radiation poisoning. With radiation levels rising, the submarine surfaces and most of the crew are ordered topside. Radtchenko balks after seeing the first team's injuries, and the crew chief takes his place on the third team.

A Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw helicopter from a nearby United States Navy destroyer offers assistance, which Vostrikov rejects. The Soviet government grows concerned when the K-19 ceases contact but is spotted near the destroyer. Hoping diesel submarines will be sent to tow the K-19, Vostrikov orders a return to port, but the pace could kill the entire crew. The repaired pipework leaks and reactor temperature rises again, and torpedo fuel ignites a fire. Initially ordering the fire suppression system activated – which would suffocate anyone in the area – Vostrikov is talked down by Polenin, who personally assists the fire crew. Two officers mutiny against Vostrikov, and Radtchenko enters the reactor alone to attempt repairs.

Polenin deceives the mutineers into handing over their weapons, arrests them, and frees Vostrikov. Unaware of Radtchenko, Vostrikov, at Polenin's behest, announces his plan to dive and attempt another repair, fearing an overheating reactor could set off their warheads and incite nuclear war. The crew responds positively, and K-19 dives. Radtchenko's repairs are successful, but blind and weakened by heavy radiation, he is dragged out by Vostrikov. A meltdown is prevented, but irradiated steam leaks throughout the submarine.

A Soviet diesel submarine reaches K-19, with orders to confine the crew on-board until a freighter can pick them up, but as it is too dangerous to stay, Vostrikov orders an evacuation, knowing he may lose his command and be sent to a gulag. Returning to the Soviet Union, Vostrikov is tried for endangering the mission and disobeying a direct order, but Polenin comes to his defense.

An epilogue reveals Vostrikov was acquitted, but the K-19 crew was sworn to secrecy and Vostrikov never given submarine command again. All seven men who went into the reactor chamber died of radiation poisoning, and twenty others later died from radiation sickness. Only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union decades later could the crew discuss what happened.

In 1989, an aged Vostrikov meets Polenin and other survivors at a cemetery on the anniversary of their rescue. Vostrikov informs the men that he nominated the 28 deceased crewmen for the Hero of the Soviet Union award, but was told the honor was reserved for combat veterans. Remarking "what good are honors from such people," Vostrikov toasts the survivors and those who sacrificed their lives.



"The Widowmaker" nickname was used only in the film. In real life, the submarine had no nickname until the nuclear accident on July 3, 1961, when it received the nickname "Hiroshima".[4]

K-19: The Widowmaker cost $100 million to produce,[5][6] but gross returns were only $35 million in the United States and $30.5 million internationally.[3] The film was not financed by a major studio (National Geographic was owned by National Geographic Partners, a joint venture with 21st Century Fox and The National Geographic Society), making it one of the most expensive independent films to-date. K-19: The Widowmaker was filmed in Canada, specifically Toronto, Ontario; Gimli, Manitoba; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The producers made some efforts to work with the original crew of K-19, who took exception to the first version of the script available to them.[7] The submarine's captain presented an open letter to the actors and production team, and a group of officers and crew members presented another. In a later script, several scenes were cut, and the names of the crew changed at the request of the crew members and their families.

The most significant difference between the plot and the historical events is the scene that replaces an incident where the captain threw almost all the submarine's small arms overboard out of concern about the possibility of a mutiny; the film instead portrays an actual attempt at mutiny.

The Hotel-class submarine K-19 was portrayed in the film by the Juliett-class K-77, which was significantly modified for the role. HMCS Ojibwa portrayed the Soviet Whiskey-class submarine S-270. HMCS Terra Nova portrayed USS Decatur. The Canadian Halifax Shipyard stood in for the Sevmash shipyard of northern Russia.

Klaus Badelt wrote the film's late-Romantic-styled score.


K-19: The Widowmaker received mixed reviews. It has a 61% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 170 reviews, with an average score of 6.09/10. It is summarized as being "A gripping drama even though the filmmakers have taken liberties with the facts."[8]

When K-19: The Widowmaker was premiered in Russia in October 2002, fifty-two veterans of the K-19 submarine accepted flights to the Saint Petersburg premiere; despite what they saw as technical as well as historical compromises, they praised the film and, in particular, the performance of Harrison Ford.[9]

In his review, film critic Roger Ebert compared K-19: The Widowmaker to other classic films of the genre, "Movies involving submarines have the logic of chess: The longer the game goes, the fewer the possible remaining moves. K-19: The Widowmaker joins a tradition that includes Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October and goes all the way back to Run Silent, Run Deep. The variables are always oxygen, water pressure and the enemy. Can the men breathe, will the sub implode, will depth charges destroy it?"[10]

Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic wrote: "Why did movie moguls think that this was the right moment for a tale of unflinching loyalty to the Soviet Union?"[11]



  1. ^ "K-19 - The Widowmaker". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  2. ^ – The Widowmaker' (12A)." The Numbers. Retrieved: April 28, 2017.
  3. ^ a b "K-19 The Widowmaker (2002)." BoxOfficeMojo.com. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  4. ^ Huchthausen 2002, p. 167.
  5. ^ "K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)." DVDmg.com, March 14, 2009. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  6. ^ "Hollywood's biggest names- Are they still worth their price?" EZ-Entertainment.net. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  7. ^ Gentleman, Amelia. "Hollywood infuriates Russian veterans." The Guardian, February 23, 2001. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  8. ^ "K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 28 September 2009.
  9. ^ Titova, Irina."K-19 Film Premieres at Mariinsky Theater." The St. Petersburg Times, 2002.
  10. ^ Ebert, Roger. "K-19: The Widowmaker Movie Review (2002)." RogerEbert.com, July 19, 2003. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  11. ^ Stanley Kauffmann at rottentomatoes.com


  • Huchthausen, Peter. K-19, The Widowmaker: The Secret Story of The Soviet Nuclear Submarine. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7922-6472-9.
  • K-19, The Widowmaker: Handbook of Production Information. Los Angeles, California: Paramount Pictures, 2002.

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