A lot of people criticise this film for the wooden acting, but this ignores a vital point. In the period the film is set people were a lot more formal, especially in the Royal Navy. Such negative comments are on a par with claims that Shakespearean language is too floral or that George Washington wore a powdered wig. Honestly I cannot accept any such comments. Anyone who's seen the God Awful TV movie, "The Junction Boys" will see much more woodeness.
Charting the maiden voyage of the Nazi battleship's Bizmark & her brief career in the Atlantic, this film lacks modern details now known about this episode due to the efforts of divers, namely information gained from the wreck of the Bizmark itself & investigations of HMS Hood's remains, famously blown into pieces by a hit from Bizmark.
Also not dealt with is some of the rather more subtle facts of this period. Bizmark is touted as "the deadliest warship afloat" but this isn't borne out by the facts. The Bizmark chose it's battles very well, avoiding conflict with Royal Navy warships that could do it actual damage. She was a commerce raider, praying on defenceless merchant ships, less powerful warships & fleeing from anything that could do her harm. The fact that she came up against warships that could actually do damage to her was down to the doggedness of the Royal Navy.
At first she did prevail, but once more due to the opposition she was given. HMS Hood was definitely NOT a good choice for this conflict, she was NOT a Battleship, she was an old, thinly armoured Battle Cruiser & well below the standard of Bizmark, her guns were innacurate & her armour wasn't up to the threat she was faced with. The accompanying battleship Prince of Wales was a brand new warship, with terrific specifications, but was so new she also had teething poblems (her firing control wasn't fully calibrated & some of her guns had problems that prevented them from firing) & even went into battle against the Bizmark with civilian ship builders on board who were still working on her! Hardly surprising then that Bizmark sank Hood & damaged Prince Of Wales badly. None the less between the two of them they hit Bizmark three times, knocking out one of her boilers, puncturing her armour, so she took on water & leaked fuel, a critical turning point in the eventual outcome.
When Bizmark was later damaged by aircraft, robbing her of her rudders, she was unable to run away & finally forced to come up against "KG5" (HMS King George The Fifth) & her support fleet, then the truth was revealed. Bizmark was good, but against the older, less well specified KG5 she lost heavily, with enormous loss of life. Bizmark was good, but in a fight with comparable forces she was nothing special (yes, she was outnumbered, but by very much older ships).
The confususion of this time is clearly shown, as Bizmark circled uncontrolably following the air strike, so meaning that sightings sent to RN HQ mean that at one point she was thought to be heading away from the battle fleet, then towards it.
We do see some emotional manipuilation going on, an effort to either sustain the narative, or arouse hatred in the audience for the enemy so that we are not horrified by the carnage that will soon be unleashed upon them. Royal Navy ships are shown getting sunk that actually didn't even get hit. Also Ark Royal Swordfish aircraft are shown getting shot down, when actually all returned intact (a fascinating fact, the ancient, obsolete Swordfish from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal were all the Fleet Air Arm had. The Germans at the time laughed at the cumbersome, bi-plane torpedo bombers, but they couldn't hit them! Their anti aircraft guns had predicters on them to track incoming aircraft & hit them, but the Swordfish flew so slowly the predicters couldn't compensate & all the shells missed!).
Technical details apart, the naval action is where the movie excels. For the last time British movie makers were allowed access to a Royal Navy Battleship, probably HMS Vanguard, the last RN Big Gun warship. Notice how the scenes in the Bizmark & KG5 gun turrets are identical! Well they weren't going to get this footage from the German Kriegsmarine! However notice that the sailors are shown wearing their white, anti flash covers correctly for once. They should go over the mouth, but rarely do you see this in films.
The acting is superb, considering the period & the generation they came from. Kenneth Moore plays the part of Cpt Joh Sheppard (co ordianting the show down with Bizmark in the London RN HQ) sympathetically, portraying the genuine feelings the RN sailors had for the Nazi sailors who'd lost their lives. (A comment from a sailor of the time "She was the most beautiful ship I'd ever seen & we'd come here to sink her"). Later it was known that the German sailors went throught similar moments after sinking the Hood. The final seconds of the film show Moore reluctantly throwing Bizmark's Atlantic battlefield model into the rubbish. Not covered is the abandoning of the surviving Germans by the Royal Navy. It is claimed that this was revenge for the loss of life on the Hood, where all but 4 were killed. But Lufftwaffe air attacks against the Royal Naval Forces were a genuine threat, as was an attack by German U-Boats who did not hesitate to sink any enemy ship no matter what was going on. Basically not stopping to pick up survivors was Standard Operating Procedure whether they were friend or foe, something that seems to be forgotten by the German survivors. They blame the Royal Navy, but the RN never knew if a U-Boat torpedo was on the way, headed for their valuable ships. It was ultimately the effects of their Nazi Admiral Doenitz's orders, comander of the U-Boat packs, that lead them to be abandoned.
Carl Mohner portrays the Captain of the Bizmark "Lindeman" with an air of professionalism, he isn't seen as a Nazi. He is shown as a good warrior, but not a Fascist. Karl Stepanek as Admiral Lutchens is shown as a slightly arrogant, puffed up Nazi. There is some truth here, but later intelligence releases would explain why Lutchens sent such a long message to Berlin that allowed the British to fix his position so accurately & seal his fate. It wasn't arrogance or a death wish, basically he already believed that he had been located by the RN & so had nothing to lose by breaking radio silence (he was wrong, at that point the RN had no idea where he was). Later historical evidence shows he was rather more complex that a simple Hitler toady.
The final battle scenes avoid the brutal carnage, later comments from surviving German sailors tesitfy to the impact of 16 inch shells from the Royal Navy as they tore the Bizmark to pieces. Basically they describe how the decks were littered with flesh, "like a butchers shop" as one put it, from the crew as they were blown to bits by the Royal Navy shells. Given the hatred the British still had for the Germans in 1960 when this film was made (ask my mother who at the time wept for the loss of the Hood & swore at German air armadas that dropped bombs on her) this ommision isn't a surprise, as is the limits of acceptability at the time.
Also not covered is the end game, where KG5 pounded Bizmark with broadside after broadside. This is one of the reasons that the Bizmark aquired the legend of strength & invicibility. However any naval tactician of the time would have quickly pointed out a fatal flaw in this part of the action. Getting in close & sending 16 inch shells into Bizmark was NOT the way to sink her, the shells would be travelling at a shallow angle & would explode in the upper decks. The proper way to do it is to get further back & send in shots that come in at a plunging angle, exploding deep in the ship. She wasn't invincible, she was simply tortured.
All in all you have to look a very long way to find a similarly finessed work charting Naval Warfare. "Battle of the River Plate", "Midway", "The Cruel Sea" & "Tora! Tora! Tora!" are about the only examples I can think of. Intrigiungly they are also open to the criticisms levelled at acting standard of "Bizmark" but seemingly they don't attract the same. Why this is I don't know.
Avoid the knee jerk reaction concerning the portrayal of the characters involved & you have a deep, fascinating portrayal of one of the most interesting chapters in WW2 Naval History. For similar adventures try the films mentioned above but NOT the fat-head 2001 "Pearl Harbour" remake, which makes me want to puke.
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