It’s back to the Powell/Pressburger box-set for this and the next Sunday, with the 1956 film The Battle of the River Plate. The film is about a notable naval engagement in the early months of World War 2. It is unusual in the Archers’ collection in being an entirely straight film, lacking any of the flair or fantasy that the pair usually brought to their roles, and it is also the earliest of their films that I saw, less than ten years after its making, in our first house at Brigham Street, in black and white on our old 405-line telly, on what must have been a Sunday afternoon.
The film breaks down into three phases. A voiceover explains the set-up: that in order to disrupt the British War Effort, the German Navy targeted merchant ships to deprive Britain of supplies and starve it out. The film begins with the sinking of the MS Africa Shell by the fast-moving, heavily armoured Admiral Graf Spee, underhe command of Captain Hans Langsdorf (Peter Finch). Africa Shell‘s Captain, Dove (Bernard Lee) is taken aboard the Graf Spee and treated decently and honorably by Langsdorf.
During the War, the Archers faced a lot of difficulty over their depiction of sympathetic Germans, and with Langsdorf we’re here again. But this is apparently an honest depiction: indeed, the film sets out to be as truthful to the actual facts as it can, basing itself on the book written by the real Captain Dove (who was a technial advisor and also played a minor role as a fellow prisoner of Captain Dove!)
The first part of the film takes place on the Graf Spee. Langsdorf gives Dove (and the audience) an exposition of their tactics and actual superiority, Dove is allowed to see a lot of the ship, before the rest of the prisoners are transferred abroad, after which we only see them in their cramped quarters, and hear the sinking of the MS Doric Star.
The scene switches to the South Alantic, off the coast of South Africa. A British hunting pack, consisting of Ajax (the flagship), Achilles and Exeter is under tthe command of Commodore Harwood (Anthony Quayle). Harwood has been studying the Graf Spee‘s movements and is convinced it will be heading for their waters. He draws up plans to attack, to split theGerman fire by having Ajax and Achilles attack one flank and Exeter the other.
There is a long, tense sequence as everyone stands ready and lookouts are constantly searching the horizon, until at last one sees smoke. This leads into the battle sequence, which takes up twenty minutes of the film, and is a pretty comprehensive depiction of every stage of the action, even though it’s telescoped from the hour the battle took in real life, with the first six minutes in real time.
The authenticity of the battle, and indeed of all the scenes at sea, in enhanced by the generous co-operation of the Royal Navy in lending actual ships, and even more so that Achilles was ‘played’ by the original ship, still functioning over fifteen years later (the same thing went for the Cumberland, which arrives late in the film).
Though Exeter is so badly damaged it has to withdraw, the attack forces the Graf Spee to flee, ending up in Montevideo, Uruguay, a neutral country. This signals the film’s third and most impressive phase, as the tension slowy rises over the outcome. The original audience, only a decade after the War’s end, would have knwn what was coming, but not perhaps the step by step details.
Because Uruguay is a neutral country, the International Conventions require that the Graf Spee is entitled to remain for such time as is needed to restore it to seaworthiness, but it may not receive any assistance towards making it fit for battle. The Germans want two to three weeks, the British and the French 24 hours. The Uruguayans, a small nation but a proud one, determinedly reject German protest and the implicit threat of international blackmail and the consequences of German victory in the War.
What might happen is the subject of much debate and preparation. Harwood, newly promoted to Rear Admiral and knighted, analyses Langsdorf’s options and determines he will attempt to break out, under cover of night, and try to lose the British. Harwood’s squadron is enhanced by the arrival of Cumberland, but the clever spread of misinformation gives everyone in Montevideo the impression of a large British fleet lying in wait.
The climax comes on a bright Montevideo evening (the scenes of Montevideo harbour are filmed on location with thousands of local extras). American reporter Mike Fowler (Lionel Murton) provides a live commentary that is radioed to Ajax. Harwood decides to move in, despite the risk of infringing neutrality. Interned or sunk, either would be a massive blow to German propaganda.
Graf Spee sets out with a skeleton crew, followed by a German merchant vessel. It travells three miles, at sunset, and stops. A party of men are taken off. At 8.00pm exactly, the end of the Uruguayan ultimatum to depart, the ship is wracked with explosions from stem to stern. It has been scuttled. The Battle is over.
One historical fact is omitted from the film, though a final scene in which Dove, a fellow Captain, commiserates with the shaken and morose Langsdorf hints at it. In true Captain’s tradition, Langsdorf wanted to go down with his ship but was persuaded to return to shore to ensure his crew receied the amnesty due to them, and which is promised unasked in the film. Having secured this, Langsdorf committed suicide.
Though it lacks the characteristics we expect from a Powell/Pressburger film, and whilst it is a low-key film emotionally, led by the stiff upper lip, and an almost entirely masculine one, The Battle of the River Plate was all the better for being treated in this semi-documentary fashion. You can’t imagine any War film being made like this film now, for there are no personal stories, no heroic actions nor tragic deaths, the story is not milked for screen drama, and because it is true to what happened. This approach was needed, in respect for the men who fought the battle, and in respect for the audience of men who had lived what happened, if not in Ajax, Achilles or Exeter, then in other heavy and light cruisers, in battleships and destroyers, and merchant ships, only a little more than a decade, and knew the score. My Uncle was one.
In a way, it would have been better to have bypassed this film today, saved it for a month, for the Sunday of the week I am going to Portsmouth, to the Naval Dockyard, to see what I can of my father’s National Service in the Royal Navy. It would have set the scene remarkably well.
As for my memory of this being the first Archers film I saw, let me return at the last to Lionel Murton, as the American reporter, Mike Fowler, who gets the film’s last line. Murton was English/Canadian but, because of his accent, generally played Americans. This war film didn’t attract me much, but I recognised Murton with whom I was familiar for his role as sidekick to Dickie Henderson, a popular English comedian (popular with my parents, certainly, not least because he was clean), whose successful sitcom was one of those converted to comic strip form in, I think, TV Comic, which I read avidly back then.
Murton stayed in my mind because I knew him, and he iss an integral part of that final phase of the film, where one does not have to know how things end in order to feel the rising tension, as the diplomats plot and deflect, and the crowds wait to see what will happen.
The Battle of theRiver Plate was made because Powell and Pressburger couldn’t justify a trip to a South American film festival without it being a working holiday. Their partnership was coming towards an amicable end. They had suffered four successive commercial flops, but this would be a final success. The film was ready for release in 1955 but Rank held it back a year to have it selected as the Royal Film Command Performance. It was Britain’s fourth most popular film of the year.
And in its strange, deliberately stilted fashion, it is a minor masterpiece. There are better films (and worse) in this eleven-disc boxset, but I wouldn’t swap this for any of the omissions.