In the fall of 1939, the German heavy cruiser (referred to as a pocket battleship) Graf Spee seems to have command of the Atlantic. In the first three months of World War II, she was responsible for sinking 9 ships. The British sent three cruisers commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood to confront her. The battle took place on December 13, 1939 and the British came out on top. The Graf Spee headed for the neutral harbor of Montevideo, Uruguay. They were given only a short time to effect repairs and the British did their best to make them believe a British fleet of 6 or 8 ships awaited them. Rather than chance the loss of his men, the German captain ordered the Graf Spee scuttled. Written by
The original English version of the film omits the tragic final act of the story. A few days after scuttling his own ship, German Capt. Hans Langsdorff committed suicide in a hotel room in Buenos Aires. He was dressed in full uniform and wrapped in the battle flag of his sunken vessel. In the German dubbed version, the final voice-over was changed to explain what happened to Langsdorff. See more »
When Benard Lee is on the deck of the "Graf Spee", one of the main battery turrets plainly has a U.S. Navy "E" on it. See more »
The "pocket battleship" (in armor and armament, somewhere between a battleship and a heavy cruiser) Graf Spee is abroad in the Atlantic, sinking British merchant shipping. She is tracked down by three British and New Zealand cruisers and after a fierce battle takes refuge in the harbor of Montevideo, Uruguay. In accordance with the Hague Convention, the Graf Spee's Captain Langsdorff is given barely enough time to make his ship seaworthy, without improving her fighting efficiency, before having to leave port. We aren't told exactly what her fighting efficiency is like but we learn she's taken more than fifty hits on the superstructure alone from the British 8-inch guns, and those are big guns. There are shenanigans going on at the embassies in Montevideo, in which the French and British try to force the Graf Spee to leave as soon as possible, while the Germans argue for more time. All of this is reported by an opportunistic American from a well-positioned outdoor cafe where the proprietor demands he keep ordering scotch if he's going to sit there and take up the customers' space. Langsdorff is cleverly led by the British to assume that the three cruisers waiting for him outside the harbor have been joined by several other capital ships including an aircraft carrier. The rumor has been deliberately spread by British staff (over an unscrambled phone line in a hilarious scene) and everyone believes it, including Langsdorff. The German captain takes his ship out of the harbor at the appointed time but scuttles her after ordering the crew off. The British have won the Battle of the River Plate, partly through courage and partly through intelligent use of misinformation.
Actually, considering that it's a "war movie" it's pretty good natured. The British crack jokes in the midst of battle. When a shell hits nearby and burns up some possessions, one sailor approaches another bearing a pair of charred boots on a tray and asks, "You ordered the toast?" When sailors die, they do so almost nonchalantly, with time for a brave few words like, "See to the others." As far as that goes, the film gives you a fairly decent picture of what sea duty can be like: operating the rudder from the steering aft position, for instance. (What a job!) The movie demonstrates the advantage of using real ships instead of models. The problem with model work has to do with texture. The splashes of exploding shells, for instance, send up drops of water as big as basketballs. But here there is some drop-dead gorgeous photography of ships making smoke and heeling around. Not even modern computer graphics could manage so effectively.
The Germans are treated humanely too, this being 1956 and not 1946. The Germans have a number of British prisoners aboard the Graf Spee and they celebrate Christmas together, with the captors presenting the captives with Christmas decorations. When a German officer announces to the prisoners that they will soon be released in Montevideo, he cheers along with the British.
Among the funniest scenes are those involving the blowhard American reporter. "The whole world is watching and waiting with suspense for the Battle of the Ages," or something like that. "Lays it on a bit thick, doesn't he?" asks one British listener. After a few days of this boreal oratory the reporter's voice is going and he begins to swill liquor, surrounded by a dozen glasses of scotch. "Excuse me while I get a drink," he hoarsely tells his listeners.
Withall, though, there is a tragic figure here, and that is the wounded Captain Langsdorff who has fought the good fight and is now forced to sail his ship into what he believes is certain disaster. Finch does a good job with the role, as does the script. There isn't a moment when he loses his dignity. And his courtliness seems inbred. The Brits say of him, "He's a gentleman," and, "He's a good seaman." A cheaper movie would have given Finch an unnecessary speech: "A captain belongs to his ship, just as the ship belongs to the captain. This is breaking my heart. I feel as if someone had just taken my Marzipan away." It's a genuinely sad moment when we see the coffins of the German sailors killed in battle. And although the movie ends with the victorious and quite beautiful white British cruisers sailing off into the sunset, the fact is that Langsdorff shot and killed himself shortly after these events.
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