Two of the slightly more than 100 survivors of the 1941 sinking of the German battleship Bismarck accompanied James Cameron on a mission to determine the exact circumstances of the mighty warship's demise.
In the early stages of World War II Britain's Royal Navy feared not only U-Boats (which, in fact, were in short supply) but surface commerce raiders, both disguised and conventional. In the First World War Germany's surface sea raiders posed a serious challenge to ocean-borne commerce and their rampages required significant diversion of British naval assets.
Before television, Americans and Britons followed the war through newsreels at a time when very many attended movies at least weekly. Newspapers and magazines provided military and naval commentary, often accompanied by photos and maps.
At the beginning of the war the German pocket battleship Graf Spee captured world attention as it raided the Atlantic before being hunted down and grievously damaged by British ships. The subsequent spectacular scuttling of the Graf Spee on the River Plate was filmed and later watched by millions.
The Bismarck and its accompanying vessels posed an enormous potential threat to Britain's sea lines. One of the most powerful warships ever built, its mere existence was a daily factor in British naval plans. When it sallied forth in the spring of 1941 the Royal Navy successfully intercepted the vessel but in the first exchange of broadsides, HMS Hood was hit and it went down with all but three of its crew.
James Cameron's documentary, supplemented with reenactments, barely conveys the shock felt in England when news that HMS Hood had been lost was received. HMS Prince of Wales, with the Hood, was damaged (HMS Prince of Wales would be lost in December of the same year to Japanese forces while under the command of an admiral who doubted that aircraft could sink battleships).
A task force of Royal Navy vessels cornered the Bismarck which steamed in endless circles because a fortuitous torpedo hit from a British plane jammed the ship's rudder.
Pummeled by the massed firepower of many ships, Bismarck went down. A continuing mystery, and controversy still alive, was whether the fatally stricken battle wagon went to its grave proximately through battle damage or whether the crew hastened the end by setting off scuttle charges and opening sea cocks. National pride - British and German - is still sufficiently alive for this issue to command attention.
Whatever the answer the destruction of Bismarck was a relief for a stressed and weary England. A popular movie of the encounter was made years ago.
Cameron basically adopts the approach, and most critically, the advanced technology that Robert Ballard has used so successfully in exploring the Titanic, the Lusitania and other famous maritime wrecks. It's interesting to watch him at work, both on the surface and in the deep diving craft housed on the Russian marine archeological vessel that has made many discoveries possible.
Cameron briefly explores the history of Nazism and the two elderly German survivors explain that as little boys they grew up under the mantle of Nazi control and couldn't help but hate the British. They become emotional when talking about their lost shipmates and in one moving scene they throw a wreath into the ocean while expressing respect for their dead comrades and hope that there will be no more wars.
The Discovery Channel premiered this film tonight and, of course, it was chopped up with commercials. It will make a greater impact when seen as an uninterrupted feature length documentary.
The sea holds many mysteries and in the past decade research submersibles have uncovered some and answered a tantalizing few long- time questions. Cameron's passion for this project comes through here (as does more than a hint that he isn't as patient and at least as superficially easygoing as Ballard appears to be).
This is a fascinating film that all interested in World War II and the sea will enjoy.
9/10 (for this genre).
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