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I would never have thought that the great Michael Powell - Emeric Pressburger team's "Archers" logo would appear on a movie not directed by the celebrated English filmmakers. It did, right in the middle of the war, on a morale-building picture that probably wasn't the kind of story Michael Powell wanted to direct personally. Misters P & P followed through with their joint creative team theory by crediting Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley jointly as writers and directors. To what degree the writer and director operated like Powell & Pressburger, I can't say. But The Silver Fleet is a superior tale of wartime intrigues in occupied Holland. Emeric Pressburger is on record as being incensed that his original story wasn't followed more closely -- his envisioned the Nazi villains in a much harsher light.
The Silver Fleet is so detailed and convincing that only afterwards do we realize that it is not entirely a true story. The film was made with the cooperation of the Dutch Royal Government in exile in London, as portrayed in Paul Verhoeven's stirring Soldier of Orange. Author Pressburger was impressed by the news story of the arrival of a German submarine that had been commandeered by the Dutch workmen that built it, and sailed to England. Earlier on, The Archers made thrilling spy stories with a maritime theme, starring defecting German actor Conrad Veidt. The Spy in Black was a WW1 story about spies with designs on the British fleet. Contraband is about a Danish sea captain who traces a spy ring into foggy London. The Powell-Pressburger films tended to be fanciful in concept, and took a wider view of the war -- instead of telling a combat story, their beautiful A Canterbury Tale expresses what is precious about England that makes her survival an absolute necessity.
The Silver Fleet is about resistance to Nazi oppression. Dutch shipyard foreman and part owner Jaap van Leyden (Ralph Richardson) agrees to finish the construction of two submarines for the new occupiers of his country. He agrees to help the Gestapo chief Von Schiffer (Powell favorite Esmond Knight) without giving his exact reasons. The striking shipyard workers consider van Leyden a Quisling (look it up) and both his wife Helene (Googie Withers of Night and the City) and his young son Willem (Willem Ackerman) are shunned by their neighbors and peers. Von Schiffer forces the workers to come back by denying them ration cards, and van Leyen gets the work back on track. Messages from a resistance operative going by the name Piet Hein then instruct the workers to get ready for a major sabotage operation. Nobody suspects that van Leyden could be Piet Hein, but he organizes a plan for a dozen workmen to seize the first submarine on its initial trial run.
Smartly written and directed, The Silver Fleet balances its thriller aspects with the drama of a patriot who must wear the disguise of a collaborator. The utterly calm and calculating van Leyden beats his German masters at their own game, getting them to show leniency for his workers. His real problems come from the Dutch patriots, some of which plan their own sabotage actions. Van Leyden must even deal with a real Quisling, a young man eager to turn in his own uncle to the Nazis so he can inherit the family business. Our hero arranges for the traitor to be caught, by a means that will be recognized by any viewer who has seen Fritz Lang's "M".
Sewell 2 and Wellesley's final script takes an unusual turn with its love story. Van Leyden can't explain what he's doing to his wife and instead watches as she rejects him for siding with the Nazis. At one point van Leyden must claim to have shot a worker, not long after he promised Helene that nothing would happen to him. Unable to explain himself but certain that she will eventually understand, van Leyden puts his apologies and explanations down in a journal, for Helene to read later.
Archers fans will be familiar with some of the cast of The Silver Fleet. Everyone's favorite deranged nun Kathleen Byron has a brief but good scene as a schoolteacher praising the heroic Piet Hein, who helped sink the Spanish Fleet centuries before. Esmond Knight, who plays the colorful Gestapo agent, is even more impressive. The actor was injured during the battle to sink the Bismarck and plays his entire role blind. It's an amazing job -- viewers that don't know will never suspect. The conspiratorial yard boss who leads the sub-hijacking team is played by John Longden, an actor well remembered by fans of Quatermass 2. Longden must weigh 40 pounds less here, fifteen years earlier.
Ralph Richardson carries the picture in fine style. His character does heroic and selfless things, yet he doesn't play up great qualities of nobility or saintliness. Interestingly, all the Dutch characters are played by English actors, and certain German roles are played by Dutch exiles, especially the navy personnel.
Emeric Pressburger's complaints about the Nazis made less bloodthirsty was probably considered a wartime necessity, to not give the German occupiers of Holland an excuse for more brutality. There's actually a hilarious scene where von Schiffer actually uses a lollipop to bribe information from a cute little Dutch girl. If I were a German, I'd laugh at this scene. The softer tone may have been a request of Queen Wilhelmina's advisors. Jaap van Leyden persuades the Germans to go easy, to insure that his workers have no reason to revolt or cause more sabotage. But besides the theft of the first submarine, a gas works is blown up and the Germans intercept a powerful bomb. The only real consequence of the lost submarine is that a number of German officers are re-assigned (but not the Gestapo chief in charge of security). In most occupied industries the Germans used harsh methods at the first sign of insubordination or a work stoppage. A grisly scene in the film The Counterfeit Traitor shows how they really operated to force conquered populations to work. In other words, to get the shipyard hands back at their jobs, Von Schiffer wouldn't pull their ration cards; he'd start killing workmen until the others showed up for their shifts as scheduled. Hostages would be shot in retaliation for every instance of sabotage. The working ranks would be infiltrated with informers, to squelch resistance groups in the bud.
Not only that, but political necessities cause another hostage issue to be overlooked. Various Dutchmen take the first submarine, and another prominent patriot makes an attempt to destroy the second. Nobody seems concerned for what might happen to his relatives left behind. Oppressive occupations thrive on making examples of people, and occupying Germans were not known for acts of mercy and understanding.
All this makes The Silver Fleet all the more remarkable: the movie is so well constructed that we accept everything that happens. Although not given Michael Powell's directorial flourishes, the excellent work of some of The Archers' favorite collaborators is here: designer Alfred Junge, cameraman Erwin Hillier, composer Allan Gray. The best parts of the movie sees Richardson's van Leyden wistfully regarding the plans he's put in motion, somehow untroubled by the knowledge that he personally may not witness the victory. The show is a stirring call for patriots to take risks to defeat their oppressors. Does VCI even know what a great picture they have here?
VCI's DVD of The Silver Fleet is a very good encoding of a transfer element in fine condition. Allan Gray's music score is a beauty and Erwin Hillier finds great compositions in his shipyard exteriors. The production is very impressive for Britain in the middle of wartime; apparently Michael Powell was shooting The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp at the same time.
A nice touch for VCI is the addition of English subtitles. There are some serious spelling mistakes, 1 but the subs help us follow some of the dialogue. Powell-Pressburger fans will want to see this show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Silver Fleet rates:
1. And we know that Savant neee-ver makes spelling mistakes..... (cough)
2. Any monster fan will recognize Vernon Sewell as the director of Ghost Ship (1952), The Blood Beast Terror and Curse of the Crimson Altar. Well, the truly disturbed monster fans will.
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T'was Ever Thus.