Monday, April 22, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Sink the Bismarck!" (1960)

"Sink the Bismarck!" is the sort of movie you make 15 years after the war's end, not while it's still going on or freshly seared into memory. This straightforward, largely historically accurate take on one of World War II's great naval engagements has a slightly detached feel, much like its protagonist, Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More). 

He comes into his new job as the British Navy's chief of operations resolved to make decisions without any emotion or personal regard. In the end, Shepard breaks down and relinquishes his vice grip on his own humanity. It's a lot more touchy-feely take than you'd see back in the 1940s, I think.

It covers the brief war record of the Bismarck, the largest battleship Germany ever built. It was launched into the North Atlantic in 1940 to attack British convoy lines, and in its first major engagement easily destroyed the HMS Hood, the pride of the British navy. This led Prime Minister Winston Churchill to order every available ship and plane to hunt down the Bismarck, which they eventually did after much heroism and stupidity.

About that stupidity: At one point some British torpedo planes actually launched an attack against one of their own ships, because they hadn't been told it would be operating in the area and mistook it for the German juggernaut. Luckily, their new-fangled magnetic torpedoes malfunctioned and exploded as soon as they hit the water, otherwise hundreds of British seamen could've been lost.

To its credit, the screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on the book by C.S. Forester, depicts both the brilliance and incompetence of the men (and a few women) involved in the war at sea. At one point the commanders order a new ship with an ill-trained crew to take on the Bismarck, and it comes away -- barely -- after a terrible pasting.

The battle scenes are generally quite good, using a mix of models, stock footage and on-set recreations. The studio also had the cooperation of the navy, which allowed them the use of some actual WWII vessels that were about to be decommissioned. The shift between these different types of footage is nearly seamless. Although director Lewis Gilbert has a tendency to re-use certain shots over and over again, such as the one where the German officer orders the big guns to "Fire!"

Gilbert also directed several other military-themed films, including the outstanding "Damn the Defiant!". I guess he had a thing for punctuation in his titles. And he made the original "Alfie" and a couple of middling James Bond flicks.

Shepard is not the name of the real Navy C.O.O. at the time of the Bismarck engagement -- one of the movie's few "pumping up" of the narrative. They also shrink the time scope to give it more of a cinema vérité scope. There's also the addition of a supposed rivalry between Shepard and Admiral Günther Lütjens (Karel Štěpánek), the actual German fleet commander.

In the fabricated exposition, we learn that Lütjens commanded the German ships that sunk Shephard's vessel out from under him the previous year. This sets up a chessboard match between the two, with Shepard working on a large schematic map with little models representing the warships, while Lütjens stands on the Bismarck's bridge and barks orders to the Bismarck's commander, Ernst Lindemann (Carl Möhner).

"Sink the Bismarck!" is generally pretty evenhanded in its depiction of the Axis forces -- again, something you wouldn't see in a contemporaneous WWII film. Though the story is unequivocal in portraying Lütjens as a jingoistic fool, who continues the mission even after the Bismarck has sustained serious damage to its oil tanks. The impression left is that the more conservative Lindemann would've saved the Bismarck to fight another day.

The film is also notable for being the rare war picture with a substantive female character. Women's Royal Naval Service Second Officer Anne Davis acts as Shepard's right-hand woman, relaying his orders, offering advice and acting as go-between for the command staff he (at first) treats rather shabbily.

There's even a hint of a budding romance, or at least camaraderie, as Davis allows Shepard a moment of privacy when he learns that his son, who was thought lost in the hunt for the Bismarck, has been rescued. Davis is a model of upper-class British professionalism and refinement. Ironically, actress Dana Wynter was actually born in Germany (to English and Hungarian parents).

I certainly enjoyed "Sink the Bismarck!", though its quest for a documentary-like style leaves it less viscerally engaging than one might hope for. That very British stiff upper lip only takes you so far, movie-wise.

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