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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 Admiral Graf Spee was portrayed in the film by the USS Salem, despite the latter having the wrong number of main turrets. Of course, they weren't able to scuttle the real Salem so that was the only real occasion that models were used extensively. See more »
When Captain Dove is first brought aboard the Graf Spee, the anti-aircraft gunners are wearing US-pattern steel helmets, not the German "coal-scuttle" design. This is noticeable in various other scenes as well, and is due to the fact that the Graf Spee is being played by the USS Salem. See more »
A masterful depiction of the first major naval battle of the Second World War.
I often wonder why this film was re-named The Battle of the River Plate when the actual action took place 150 miles to the east in the South Atlantic. Nevertheless it is a great production brought all the closer to reality by the use of two of the original Allied cruisers which were still in commission at the time of filming. The big problem was the choice of a warship to fill the role of the pocket battleship Graf Spee which had already been scuttled and that of her two sister ships which were also destroyed before the end of the war. The choice of the heavy cruiser USS Salem while not perfect was probably the best the producers could come up with despite it's extra tier of forward and rear main guns and the familiar U.S. Navy number 139 on it's bough. The storyline of the film is held together through the eyes of Captain Dove played by Bernard Lee who is taken aboard the Graf Spee after his merchant ship Africa Shell becomes one of her victims. Loosely held as a prisoner Dove is given an insight into the Graf Spee's tactics as a surface raider and that she is in fact masquerading as an American warship with false gun turrets and a bough number, solving the producers dilemma of explaining the different physical characteristics of each warship. The actual battle while well done does show a few inconsistencies in that the near miss salvos are more like large splashes and at times the Graf Spee looks motionless while being bombarded by allied shells. This is more than made up by the fine acting of the combatants, with Anthony Quale giving a best of British tradition role as task force leader Commodore Henry Harwood along with John Gregson as Captain Bell of HMS Exeter and Jack Gwillim as Captain Parry of the New Zealand cruiser Achilles. Peter Finch is perfect in the role of the chivalrous and compassionate German commander of the Graf Spee Hans Langsdorff who in real life displayed these rare qualities and was immensely respected by those on both sides of the conflict. When the Graf Spee puts into Montevideo harbour in neutral Uruguay to effect repairs a great diplomatic battle ensues over her sanctuary and the story switches to a tense minute by minute dockside radio coverage by American reporter Mike Fowler played in true journalistic style by Lionel Murton. Meanwhile two of the three British Cruisers supported by a newly arrived warship Cumberland maintain a vigil out to sea while their embassy engages in it's own brand of propaganda to deceive the Germans into believing they are up against a vastly superior British naval force. Langsdorff falls for the ruse and after seeing his men to safety scuttles his mighty warship precisely at sunset a few miles out of Montevideo in the mouth of the River Plate. With the expectations that another and greater naval action was forthcoming this fateful decision gives the end of the film somewhat of an anti-climax but it was the factual truth and a necessary conclusion to maintain it's credibility. To add a final footnote, there is presently underway a large salvage operation to raise as much of the Graf Spee as possible and eventually put it on display in a museum in Montevideo.
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