Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Few movies take on the task of depicting full-scale naval battles between the kind of capital
ships made somewhat obsolete by air power.
In Harms' Way captured some
of the drama,
if not the realism, of immense battleships engaging in combat on the high seas. Savant's favorite is
Michael Powell's Battle of the River Plate, a.k.a. Pursuit of the Graf Spee. It's an
exciting tale of the cornering of the German battleship, a surface raider with giant guns
that could outshoot anything the British had to offer. Before
the Americans entered the war, England had to fight these monsters alone. Built as the pride of a
German Navy squandered by Hitler, several of these ships made big news. The
British tricked the captain of the Graf Spee into scuttling his own ship, as dramatized in the
Powell film. The Tirpitz was harassed and finally sunk in a Norwegian fijord. But
the most famous encounter, maybe the most famous sea battle of all time, was the effort to stop
the Bismarck in 1941. Sink the Bismarck! is a dramatized account of its pursuit that stays
reasonably close to the events, and an exciting chase on the high seas.
Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More) takes command of the Admiralty's war room
under Whitehall in London during the Blitz. He seems a martinet, yet his 2nd Officer Anne
Davis (Dana Wynter) gives him the benefit of the doubt, and the First Sea Lord (Laurence Naismith)
is glad to have such an unemotional tactician in charge. The Bismarck breaks out into the North
Sea, its Captain Lindemann (Carl Möhner) much hampered by having a Nazi propagandist on board,
Admiral Lutjens (Karel Stepanek). Lutjens expects miracles from the ship and places prestige over
sound warfare. With few ships available to search, Shepard is elated when a pair of destroyers
makes contact with the Bismarck. Perhaps there is a chance to stop the ship before it can attack
Britain needs to survive. But in her very first encounter, the German leviathan scores a perfect
broadside on The Hood, one of England's best ships, obliterating it in one shot. Now Shepard will
need all the luck he has, and must commit every ship available in a desperate struggle to put
an end to the surface raider.
Sink the Bismarck! has some closing text acknowledging that its 'Shepard' character is
fictitious, distancing itself from the naval officer who presided over the real events.
Apparently the actual man wanted nothing to do with a dramatization of his part, and producer
Brabourne proceeded with a true story populated with fictional characters.
This extremely entertaining chase film is something of a throwback; by 1960 the Brits had exhausted
patriotic films that replayed war glories, a subgenre put to bed with David Lean's
Bridge on the River Kwai. The next
year would bring The Guns of Navarone, a
post-modern caper film where historical events took a back seat to escapist adventure. Capable
writer Edmund H. North
(The Day the Earth Stood Still,
Patton) clearly delineates
the heroics along national lines. The English are stoic automatons, with the human touches reserved
for a goldbricking junior officer and a 'rating' who stays on duty when he's down with the flu.
The German Navy was reportedly the least Nazified of the services, but the movie's Bismarck is
a symbolic showboat, dominated by a party zealot whose
idea of Nirvana is a birthday greeting from Der Führer. Within those restrictions, and the
unfortunate decision to make the Germans speak English, Sink the Bismarck! is superb, a
taut thriller that focuses on one easily understood objective and shows the enormous effort made
to achieve it.
The able script gets away with having 80% of the story play out in two or three rooms in the
underground Naval war room in London. In one of his best roles, the studiously civilized
Kenneth More bandies words with worried superiors like Laurence Naismith and Geoffrey Keen while
nursing a growing relationship with his top female staff officer, the dreamy Dana Wynter of
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wynter gets as much sex appeal out of being a straightlaced
officer, as Glynis Johns does from her much more feminine roles. It's fun seeing good English actors
personify the ideals of English command - terse, polite orders always delivered with perfect diction
and subdued emotion. There's no small talk or jokey banter around this
war room; Kenneth More's commanding officer is so capable, he should be running the war. When his
self-denied emotions get the best of More, the tone of the film turns a corny little moment into
a very warm one.
The articulate speech around the plot map is so entertaining, we hardly notice that important
expository points are restated two and three times each. More's son, a naval airman, is stationed
on an aircraft carrier that must be pressed into hazardous duty, a fact that North doesn't want us
to forget. The higher officers repeatedly express the emotional risks, and More curtly takes the
The action on board the British ships is as sober as can be imagined, with a half-dozen familiar
faces (including Michael Hordern, a wonderful comedian in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to
the Forum) impressing us with their straight-arrow delivery. Most bridges have an easy-to-read
ships' name somewhere, helping us landlubbers keep our boats straight. With both sides speaking
English, a compromise was found during the ping-pong cutting in the battle scenes: the English
officers order their guns to "Shoot!" while the Germans bark out the command, "Fire!" Powell's
Battle of the River
Platte had a more complicated (and messy) sea battle, but his officers showed a sense of humor
fitting a different kind of combat. Not since George killed the Dragon
has such a tale been told, and the almost mythical dimensions of the Bismarck pursuit elicit the
proper awe. It's great fun. 1
Sink the Bismarck! is perhaps the best-looking naval battle movie. Powell's VistaVision and
Technicolor epic for the most part used real ships, and had to shy away from depicting some events.
large models were used for In Harm's Way but Otto Preminger compromised them by insisting
that all detail be removed and their waterlines be lowered to an absurd level. The miniatures of
Sink the Bismarck! were supervised by Republic master Howard Lydecker, probably working under
better conditions than ever in his career. The enormous models were shot in large
tanks of water with excellent camera work, lighting, smoke, etc. The water sprays from near-misses
look great, and when the big guns fire, the scale of the smoke isn't bad either. Lydecker doesn't
try to position his ships too dynamically - they remain at a distance, and thus resemble shots taken
from the credible viewpoint of another ship. 'Optimized' comic-book views are a failing of
almost all CGI films, which undercut their own heightened realism. Sink the Bismarck! reminds
us of a sea battle;
Pearl Harbor looks like a video game.
Not shooting in color makes it
possible to use all manner of stock shots to fill in detail, and the coverage of the mechanisms
used to reload the giant cannons in the ships is fascinating.
The end of the Hood is beautifully done. The Germans have just fired a full broadside salvo, and
we're presented with a shot that doesn't telegraph the idea that the boat is about to be
hit. Plumes of water strike fore and aft of the ship, and then suddenly four or five direct hits
land on the Hood itself, which explodes all at once. This miniature shot matches the impact of
live action, and for once we share the goggle-eyed reactions of sailors on other ships.
Sink the Bismarck! does a good job of expressing the excitement of such a sea battle, with
these giant cannon-studded steel islands blasting away at each other while those manning them
direct their actions with unshakable nerve. The actual events of the famous pursuit are exciting
enough not to need exaggeration - even as the British fleet moved in for the kill, there was no
guarantee that the crippled German ship wouldn't shoot its way free. The point is stressed, that
were it not for a critical lucky hit on the ship's steering mechanism, stopping the Bismarck might
have been a hopeless effort - the boat took several torpedo hits with minimal damage!
Edward R. Murrow, who may have reported the original events from London, makes an appearance as
himself and gives the picture his professional blessing. The many small speaking roles guarantee
work for practically every familiar non-star face in
Actors' Equity. Genre fans will want to be on the lookout for familiar Hammer lackeys Michael
Ripper, Michael Balfour, and Sam Kydd as lookouts and civilian workers. Rising faces Ian Hendry
(Repulsion) and Edward Judd
(Day the Earth Caught Fire) each have
brief one liners as officers.
Fox's DVD of Sink the Bismarck! is a beauty, looking trim and fit in glorious B&W
CinemaScope. The lenses used might not have been the best, for some early shots in the war room
have a slightly squashed look, as if the anamorphic mechanism wasn't properly set. The miniatures
were almost certainly shot flat, and then cropped to 'scope for maximum impact. The image is much
clearer and cleaner than on the old laser disc.
Country singer Johnny Horton had a 1960 hit with his novelty single Sink the Bismarck, and
must have had some Fox deal to provide title tunes, because his singing is prominently featured
in the same year's North to Alaska. But, like Gene Pitney and The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance, his ballad didn't make it onto the screen for this war picture ... somebody had
There's a rather good website,
The Battleship Bismarck, in both English and Spanish versions,
that has more hard facts about the boat and the battle.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sink the Bismarck! rates:
Supplements: trailers, actual newsreel about the battle
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 18, 2003
1. Favorite exchange from
Battle of the River Plate, communicated between two ships by semaphore: "How did you steam
here so quickly?" "A-n-t-i-c-i-p-a-t-i-o-n!"
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson