Why Harrison Ford's K-19: The Widowmaker Was A Box Office Flop

The late '90s/early 2000s were a rough patch for Harrison Ford. Aside from 2000's "What Lies Beneath," the veteran star just couldn't seem to pick the right projects, with everything from 1999's "Random Hearts" to 2002's "Hollywood Homicide" (in which Ford agreed to star without seeing a finished script) struggling to make a critical or financial impression. But perhaps the lowest point came in 2002 when Ford starred in Kathryn Bigelow's sort of historical retelling of a narrowly averted Soviet submarine disaster, "K-19: The Widowmaker."

Loosely based on the story of the Soviet Union's first nuclear-powered submarine, which malfunctioned in 1961 and caused the death of 28 sailors from radiation poisoning, "K-19" was doomed from the outset. The film, as the Chicago Tribune put it, used a "fraction of the truth," noting that this was the National Geographic Society's first foray into blockbuster filmmaking. The company's then head of production for the feature film branch, Christine Whitaker, said at the time, "This is an inspiring story and we wanted to tell it adhering to the same high standards of our magazine and documentaries."

Unfortunately, things didn't get off to a great start when the first version of the script infuriated the Russian veterans who'd been advising the production. The historical inaccuracies and a script that seemed to imply the soldiers were at times incompetent didn't sit well. But none of that necessarily predicted the shoddy box office returns that would start trickling in when the film debuted on July 19, 2002.

K-19 the money loser

"K-19: The Widowmaker" wasn't the best submarine movie ever made — in fact, it was arguably a pretty disappointing movie across the board, especially in terms of its financials. All in all, the film ended up making $65 million globally, $30 million of which came from the international box office and $35 million from domestic sales. That means on a budget of $100 million (other estimates have that number at $90 million), "K-19: The Widowmaker" was a certified flop.

But why? Harrison Ford had been a bankable star up until that point. Who wouldn't want to see him being Harrison Ford on a submarine? Well, apparently quite a lot of people, especially internationally, where the film struggled to break the $2 million mark in any market other than Spain or Japan, where it made $2.7 million and $9.8 million, respectively.

In the United States, things were bad from the start, with "K-19" bringing in a dismal $12.7 million on its opening weekend — well below the $25 million that some, including Entertainment Weekly, were predicting at the time. The film came in fourth on its debut weekend, opening behind "Road To Perdition," "Stuart Little 2," and "Men In Black II," the latter of which had already been out for three weeks. (It did, at least, manage to beat the debut of "Eight Legged Freaks.")

Harrison Ford's change of direction

Until "K-19," Harrison Ford had made a name for himself playing charming all-American heroes. From Indiana Jones to playing the literal American President battling Soviet terrorists in "Air Force One," Ford was a bonafide action hero. But as Robert Daniels, writing for RogerEbert.com, noted, "K-19" was "the film that changed Harrison Ford's career," and not necessarily for the better. In Kathryn Bigelow's film, as Daniels put it, "Ford turned his back on his best qualities: He sported a hammy Russian accent, and barely brandished his beguiling smile or popped a witty joke."

Did that hurt the film's box office? Well, considering the man was paid a hefty $25 million for 20 days of work on the movie, he certainly didn't help the film's break-even point. And while there's no definitive proof that audiences weren't interested in the film specifically because their beloved Indiana Jones was playing an austere Soviet captain, we're betting it contributed in some way. "K-19' certainly wasn't one of Harrison Ford's best movies. In fact, this could very well have been the precise moment Ford began his transformation from lovable rogue to grumpy Hollywood vet — who would want to witness that in real time?

Still, it seems Ford himself remains a fan of his performance in "K-19," since he told THR in 2023, "I'm proud of '42.' I'm proud of 'K-19: The Widowmaker,' where I played a Russian submarine captain. But I think they're good movies — that's why I'm proud of them." And so you should be, Harrison Ford. After all, there was much more that led to the film sinking at the box office.

Critics were less than impressed

While some critics praised Kathryn Bigelow's direction and thought the film succeeded at sustaining dramatic tension, i's fair to say others were bewildered by "K-19." Stanley Kauffman, writing for the New Republic, is an oft-quoted source in dissections of the "K-19" box office debacle. His question is a damning but relevant one: "Why did movie moguls think that this was the right moment for a tale of unflinching loyalty to the Soviet Union?" The Cold War was well and truly over by 2002, and people were arguably ready to embrace more positive tales of the former perennial on-screen foe of the U.S. But that doesn't mean they were necessarily excited to do so. What was the pop culture appeal of the Soviet Union in the year following 9/11? Arguably non-existent.

Other criticisms were simpler, with some maintaining the 138-minute film was too long. But the general feeling seemed to be that "K-19" was yet another submarine movie which failed to do anything innovative with the genre. In the decade leading up to 2000, audiences had been treated to the controversial "U-571," "Crimson Tide," and the Sean Connery-led "The Hunt for Red October." And of course, any submarine film plays out in the shadow of 1981's "Das Boot," which is widely thought to be the best example of the genre. By the time "K-19" debuted, there was significant pressure to do something new, but as Robert Koehler put it in his review for Variety, the movie "obediently follows the verities of the submarine movie and its true story origins but without the imagination needed to refresh the genre."

With a less than stellar critical response, combined with an audience generally unenthused by the film's plot, "K-19" debuted against odds even Harrison Ford couldn't beat.

'A very unconventional film for American cinema'

While Kathryn Bigelow displayed a knack for action/thriller direction with "K-19," at the time it debuted, her Hollywood caché wasn't at its strongest. Bigelow's best movies were ahead of her, with 1995's "Strange Days" performing poorly at the box office and garnering mixed reviews, and 2000's "The Weight Of Water" performing decently at the box office but met with negative reviews. So, when "K-19" debuted and once again failed to make much of an impression, Bigelow was ready to retreat from directing for a while, only returning some six years after "K-19" with the Best Picture-winning "The Hurt Locker."

Did Bigelow's seemingly declining career hurt "K-19" at the box office? It's impossible to say. I suppose a more bankable director may have helped change the film's fortunes, but at the time, Harrison Ford didn't see any issue with his director. As Variety reported, the actor had some insights of his own as to why "K-19" flopped, telling reporters at the 2002 Deauville Film Festival:

"This is a very unconventional film for American cinema. It's not a cowboys-and-Indians, good guys/bad guys movie. It doesn't depend on the usual devices of submarine movies [...] These are men fighting against an invisible and insidious enemy that is not represented by another nation. It's rather more complex and perhaps slightly more difficult for an audience. I think this film may find an easier reception in Europe and in other parts of the world than it did in the summer of 2002 in the United States."

Sadly, as we know, "K-19" did not find a better reception on the continent, which reinforces the fact there was more to the film's failure than American audiences expecting a more simplistic "America vs. the bad guys" narrative.

Bad timing

"K-19" flopping isn't an easy event in Hollywood history to parse. It's not one of those clear-cut cases of a film just being bad and having awful reviews. The film was by no means terrible, and there have been many re-evaluations of it since, with the AV Club publishing a 2015 defense of the film arguing that it was "an undervalued and gripping addition to the deep-sea subgenre." Even we at /Film called it a "can't-miss entry into the genre for sheer scale alone."

Again, this retrospective praise of "K-19" makes it difficult to pinpoint why audiences and critics were as unenthused as they were back in 2002. The overall sense you get is that bad timing helped sink "K-19." Ford's career wasn't quite at its apex, Kathryn Bigelow was in a bit of a slump, and audiences just weren't interested in embracing a tale of Soviet heroism. All of that combined to make "K-19" an undeniable failure at the box office. And, just to add insult to injury, as per The Hollywood Reporter, the actual submarine used in the film caught fire as it was being dismantled in 2021, going out in flames much like the movie in which it was used.

Thankfully, time has been kinder to "K-19," proving Harrison Ford did at least get one thing right when he told reporters at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, "I do not consider the box-office showing to be a true measure of the effect of the film. I think it's going to be around a long, long time."