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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
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.
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.
Not withstanding the negative comments of some critics, this is another great Powell/Pressburger film. Perhaps what prevents it from getting its due is that it looks like another entry in the "big WW II battle recreation" genre, but the structure, the performances, and the film's intent in general aren't really in the service of that genre. The climactic battle is fought in the middle of the film, and the last third unexpectedly takes place on the docks and in the cafes and embassies of Montevideo, with a festival air and comedy relief. Powell rightly feels that the core of the film is Bernard Lee's admiration of his captor; indeed, the final scene is the expression of that admiration. Yet the viewer isn't "pointed" to that relationship. All the expository dialogue serves the battle scenes--where the Spee might be, how to attack it, the relationship between the British Commodore and his Captains--and later, the strategies of the Spee's leaving port. Particularly in the latter part, there's a lot of discussion which doesn't relate to the film's denouement. And the collection of British prisoners on the Spee don't coalesce into an ensemble. In an odd way, their fate never seems integrated into the battle, nor does it particularly highlight the relationship between Lee and Finch. This unusual structure is in part due to the film apparently following actual events fairly closely, and actual events don't follow conventional dramatic structure. But, really, that absence of conventional structure, and the refusal to emphasize the Lee-Finch relationship or to make it a dominant theme, are the film's greatest strengths. Finally, note should be taken of the superb photography in VistaVision.
Fine, entertaining movie of the famous sea battle between 3 smaller British warships versus the great German Pocket Battleship "Graf Spee". Tremendous sea scenes , aided by the fact that most of the original ships which fought the actual battle are used in the movie. Well acted all-round with Peter Finch doing a fine job as Captain Langsdorf.
I love this movie. Peter Finch stars as Capt. Langsdorf of the German "pocket" battleship Admiral Graf Spee. He is perfect; from the almost swashbuckly entrance and dialogue with Capt. Dove, a merchant captain whose ship they've just sunk, to the trance-like confusion at the end of the film. There are so many great actors in this film its almost like "the Longest Day," except these guys act. Christopher Lee as Manolo, the jealous bar owner; Anthony Quayle as Commodore Harwood; Anthony Newly as a sailor with about three lines that he still manages to over-act; and John Gregson, who plays Capt. Bell of the British cruiser Exeter. Well known, and often quirky co-directors and writers, Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell bring together spectacular shots of many of the actual ships involved in the battle with an almost ensemble-like feeling in the cast. From the British Ambassador with the no-nonsense, sharped-tongued secretary to the goofy-gaucho interpreter for the reporter, Mike Fowler, these powerfully presented characters intensify the real drama of this battle. It wasn't just a sea battle, it was political, involving sailors, spies, and bad cafe singing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film is about the final days of the German pocket battleship (like
a heavy cruiser), GRAF SPEE. This ship did a lot of damage to British
shipping during the early days of the war until she was ultimately
hunted down by a small armada of smaller and very vulnerable naval
I enjoyed this film very much because I am a history teacher and love realistic war films. Unfortunately, while this film was big on realism, it also will probably seem a tad dull to the average person because it did stress realism and not huge name actors and unnecessary action. While there were many fine British actors in important roles (Anthony Quayle, Bernard Lee and Peter Finch, among others), to the average American audience they probably will seem more like sea men versus actors. This and the script really worked together to produce a film that seemed almost like a documentary in how it tried very hard to get the details right--and as a WWII buff, this impressed me very much.
There are a few omissions or mistakes in the film, but they aren't all that important. First, of course the Spee had been sunk, so an American ship filled in--and this is certainly forgivable. Second, oddly, in the original version, the movie is called "The Battle of the River Plate" but there was no River Plate. The word was "Plata"--meaning Silver River when correctly translated into English. Finally, and I can understand why they didn't mention this, shortly after the German Captain scuttled his ship he committed suicide. However, I did appreciate how the film portrayed him as an ultimately decent and competent man--a nice requiem for a fallen enemy who was just doing his duty.
Overall, not a film for the casual viewer but certainly one for history and naval buffs out there. Great stuff.
The Events around the Battle of the River Plate have always been somewhat special next to the sinking of the Bismarck for me, as Germany does not have such a rich history of sea battles as England does. Two things stand out : First the very positive display of the Captain of the Graf Spee, Langsdorff, treating his prisoners positively and trying to kill ships but not humans and even saving his crew from heroic death in Battle by sinking the ship by himself and refusing to go into battle. And his tragic end by suicide. Second, the laconic display of the British Officers and Men in Battle. This is where my title quote is coming from, as a message issued by the Captain of the shut-down and burning Exeter trying to escape to safety after the Battle and heavy hits. Otherwise it seems to be a rather careful display of events, although the scenes in Montevideo are sometimes play out like a prelude to a Carry On Farce. Greatest weakness is, that we totally loose sight of the German views and events on board Graf Spee once the battle has started. Totally 6 of 10
This is a splendid British film concerning historic deeds during WWII ,
the naval battle in the South Atlantic between British cruiser squadron
of three ships and the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee , Dic
1939 . The main and secondary cast are stunningly incarnated by a
magnificent plethora of English actors . The film contains a colorful
and glimmer cinematography by Christopher Challis and an atmospheric
musical score . The movie is well produced by Archers production and
professionally directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell . The
motion picture will appeal to warlike genre buffs and British classic
movie fans . Rating : Better than average .
The film is based on true events , these are the following : Though the British cruisers were no match for the battleship , Admiral Sir Henry Harwood (Anthony Quayle) launched an attack to Graf Spee (with 6 cannons,280 mm) . German fire seriously damaged HMS Exeter (commanded by John Cregson as captain Bell) with cannons 203mm , put half of HMS Ajax (captain Woodhouse played by Ian Hunter)'s guns out of action , and then damaged Achilles (cannons 152 mm) , but the cruisers did sufficient damage to the German ship to make its captain break off and run for shelter in Montevideo , Uruguay . The British followed and waited in international waters outside the neutral port . The Uruguay government ordered the Germans to leave after 72 hours . The British cruisers called Royal and Renown were near from Montevideo and Langsdorff (Peter Finch) didn't wait possibilities to vanquish . Hitler , reluctant to risk the Graf Spee being sunk by heavier British warship which were sailing for the River Plate , ordered the captain to scuttle the vessel . He did so 17 Dec 1939 and three days later shot himself .
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
At the beginning of World War 2 the German navy positioned the pocket battleship Graf Spee, ready and waiting to prey on allied shipping, which it did with deadly efficiency. Following a major sea battle with a British task force the Graf Spee was forced to seek refuge in a south American port to make repairs. The cameras of the world's press focused on Montevideo as the German ship struggled to regain its fighting ability while the Royal Navy converged to attack when it was, inevitably, forced to leave. A brilliant espionage operation convinced Captain Hans Langsdorff that 1/2 the British navy was waiting for him, so he scuttled the ship in the harbor and subsequently shot himself. Those are the facts and they're wonderfully re-created in this riveting film. Powell and Pressburger paid meticulous attention to detail and it shows throughout. I really admired their honesty in showing the battle and what happened later as objectively as it could be, whilst still (always) remaining good entertainment. Peter Finch gave a fantastic, intense performance as the doomed Captain. The real Langsdorff was a man of the highest intelligence and integrity, a tragic example of a fine man who found himself forced to serve an evil regime, and Finch truly conveyed the battle Langsdorff must have been fighting within himself; conscience versus duty. In the end his conscience won. Captain Langsdorff took his own life in a hotel room, lying on an old "imperial" German navy flag, a calculated insult to Hitler. I'm glad the Graf Spee was destroyed but sad that Langsdorff was one of SO many victims of this terrible war. The Battle Of The River Plate is an excellent portrayal of this true-life drama. Well worth seeing.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are probably best known for their
mystical, romantic films like: 'A Matter of Life and Death'; 'Black
Narcissus', and 'The Red Shoes'.
'Battle of the River Plate' is a decent film, but it does have some awkward lapses. There is some excellent footage shot at sea using veteran Royal Navy ships. Unfortunately this sits uneasily with the studio sets. During the battle scenes I had the uneasy feeling someone out of shot was throwing buckets of water in the air to simulate shell-fire.
Instead of indulging in Technicolor, I feel the producers should have gone for the harsher monochrome which 'The Cruel Sea' and 'Sink the Bismarck!' use so well. Black and white photography also makes the shift between location and studio work much less obvious.
There are some good performances in the film, notably Peter Finch as Langsdorff. I remember seeing newsreel footage of the real Langsdorff attending the funeral of his men in Montevideo, he gave a German Naval salute instead of the Nazi version. His portrayal as a 'decent' German has a basis in fact.
The battle of the River Plate was the last Naval action to take place without the benefit of technical advances such as radar. It was a fine piece of seamanship and the story deserved to be told. At the end of this film, unfortunately, you can't help feeling it could have been told better.
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