Saturday, March 08, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Sink the Bismarck! (1960)

One good British naval film deserved another, so I followed MORNING DEPARTURE (1950) with a film made a decade later, SINK THE BISMARCK! (1960).

SINK THE BISMARCK! stars Kenneth More, who also appeared in a smaller role in MORNING DEPARTURE. He plays the fictional Captain Shepard, Naval Director of Operations, in what is otherwise a fact-based story of the critical 1941 battle to sink the fearsome German battleship.

SINK THE BISMARCK! might be thought of as somewhat of a naval "procedural," as the majority of the film is set in the British navy's operations bunker in London. In those pre-computer days, naval commanders moved ships around on a huge map as though playing a life-and-death game of chess, plotting the next moves as bulletins come in 'round the clock. The movie is fascinating not only because of what the British navy accomplished, going on to defeat the Bismarck after the sinking of the "pride of the British navy," the HMS Hood, but because of the detailed depiction of how they did it.

For the most part the movie admirably sticks to a cut-and-dried docudrama style, only allowing More's Captain Shepard a couple of scenes depicting his reaction to events regarding his son, and More nails both of those moments. His performance is all the more affecting given that he has very little time to connect with the audience emotionally. Dana Wynter plays a Navy Wren who assists Shepard, and their interactions provide the opportunity to humanize his seemingly cold and preoccupied character.

The movie only makes a couple of small missteps. One is that the admiral (Karel Stepanek) on the Bismarck is portrayed so cartoonishly he almost comes off like an over-the-top James Bond villain. (Funnily enough the movie was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who later made three 007 films.) A little underplaying would have been welcome here and would have better fit the movie's style.

I also felt that a few gruesome moments in battle scenes were unnecessary, as the awful destruction was quite clear even in more restrained shots. This was particularly true at the end of the movie; sinking the Bismarck was a great victory, critically important to Britain's survival, but the depiction of individual human suffering seemed out of keeping with the rest of the film's measured tone.

The script by Edmund H. North was based on the book by C.S. Forester, who also wrote the fictional Horatio Hornblower series and THE AFRICAN QUEEN.

The film was shot in black and white CinemaScope by Christopher Challis. The supporting cast includes Carl Mohner, Laurence Naismith, Geoffrey Keen, Michael Hordern, Esmond Knight, and many more. The film runs 97 minutes.

This movie is available on DVD in the Fox War Classics series. It can be rented from Netflix and ClassicFlix.

It also had a VHS release, and it's been shown recently on Fox Movie Channel.

The trailer is at IMDb. The strangely jovial song used in the trailer does not appear in the film itself.

This movie would make a fine double bill paired with another film of the same year, Robert Montgomery's THE GALLANT HOURS (1960) starring James Cagney. Both films examine the courage of those in naval leadership working to win the war under enormous stresses, at points in time when all might still be lost.



Blogger Jerry E said...

Fine movie. And another film that is almost documentary in style and is an essay in wartime decision-making and the painful choices sometimes needed - the superb "THE CRUEL SEA". Made by Ealing Studios in 1952 it stars Jack Hawkins in (perhaps) a career-best role. From a famous novel by Nicholas Monserrat.

I highly recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of movie but has not yet seen it.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, thanks so much for the tip on THE CRUEL SEA. I discovered that I recorded that one to a VHS tape some time ago but have not yet watched it, so I'll be digging it out! (It's on the same tape as Powell and Pressburger's ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING so I expect I have some good viewing ahead!)

Best wishes,

9:31 AM  
Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

I second the endorsement for "The Cruel Sea". The book is fantastic!
One of Our Aircraft is Missing is also great viewing. (Follow that with another P&P produced film, "The Silver Fleet").
Another superb Stiff Upper Lip British Navy film: In Which We Serve.

8:07 PM  
Blogger mel said...

What a beautiful picture of the lovely Dana Wynter.

Thanks, Laura.

5:26 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Crocheted Lace, thanks to you and Jerry I pulled out my tape with those films yesterday! Not sure how quickly I'll get to it but hopefully before too long!

Mel, so glad you liked that photo. I was surprised to come across it since the movie was B&W but it was so nice I wanted to include it!

Best wishes,

10:12 PM  
Blogger Quaestor said...

I just watched this - what a change to have emotionally balanced performances rather than the action blockbusters of today where destruction is greeted with whoops and cheers.

Kenneth More's performance was astonishing. I broke down during his agonising scenes of discovering his son is missing and discovering he is safe. All conveyed through silence, tightened lips and one slightly halting sentence. What an actor, ably supported by the immensely sensitive Dana Wynter.

When Michael Hordern's Commander of the Home Fleet sink's the Bismarck, there is no delight in the fact, just a quiet "Gentlemen, let's go home."

If only we could bring this nuance to our portrayals of war today, that seem to be more and more jingoistic and gung-ho, relying on blood 'n' guts rather than acting prowess.

Another book well worth reading is Forester's "The Good Shepherd", about submarine hunting. Never has man made a book that's effectively about changing bearings in the frozen North Atlantic so gripping and affecting. I don't know if a film was made.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this fine film, and thanks as well for the book recommendation. I always enjoy submarine movies and a book on that topic sounds interesting too!

Best wishes,

12:43 AM  

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