Sunday 18 May 2008

The Battle of the River Plate (1956)

I've watched a lot of films where the key actors aren't necessarily actors; they're trains or buildings or spaceships. This is possibly the first film I've seen where these other key actors are credited just like they were human beings. Because this is a war film set at sea, these actors are military vessels, including the US Heavy Cruiser 'Salem' as the German pocket battleship 'Admiral Graf Spee'. The others are British or Commonwealth vessels: HMS Sheffield as HMS Ajax, HMS Jamaica as HMS Exeter and HMS Cumberland and the renamed and reassigned HMNZS Achilles as themselves. They take billing above all but five of the cast.

The film is The Battle of the River Plate, released in the US as The Pursuit of the Graf Spee. It's a true story, set two months into World War II and made with as much realistic detail as was possible given the circumstances. In fact the list of naval advisors, technical advisors and naval authorities who consulted on the film or provided assistance in one way or another is so large that it runs behind the credits for what seems like forever. It remnds of the long lists of those who never came home, and provides the same impact of something huge an epic.

The Admiral Graf Spee was a German battleship, a surface raider, who sneaked over to the South Atlantic without anyone noticing before war was declared. It then spent its time sinking whatever she could, mostly vessels bringing much needed supplies back to England. If the supplies don't get through, England starves, and Germany gains the edge. We open with the sinking of the MS Africa Shell, a merchant vessel, and the taking prisoner of its officers. The German in command of the Graf Spee, Capt Langsdorff, seems to be a decent enough fellow and one very good at his job, mking him a dangerous adversary indeed. He's played by Peter Finch, one of the most notable of a consistently notable cast, and he very helpfully explains to Capt Dove of the MS Africa Shell just what he's doing and how he's doing it.

As the Graf Spee has finished a three month tour of duty, MS Africa Shell was its last victim of the tour and it picks up other captured officers from their supply ship (one of whom is the real Capt Dove playing someone else) and head off for home. However three Allied cruisers (the Ajax, the Exeter and the Achilles) are in the vicinity and Cdre Harwood of the Ajax has a hunch as to where it will go next. Before too long, the four tussle in the first major naval battle of the war, the Battle of the River Plate.

The cast is large and consistent, with many recognisable names, especially to English eyes. The other leads are John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, Ian Hunter, Jack Gwillim and Bernard Lee. Gregson is probably best known for very different means of transport in Genevieve and The Titfield Thunderbolt, as well as for other comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob and Whisky Galore! On the other hand, Quayle, an army Major during the war, played a lot of military roles, after this one, including Ice-Cold in Alex, The Guns of Navarone, HMS Defiant and Lawrence of Arabia. Hunter's roles date back as early as the silent era, where he appeared in a number of early Hitchcocks like The Ring, Downhill and Easy Virtue. He may be best known for playing King Richard the Lionheart in the Errol Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Gwillim was a Navy man, serving as a Commander in the Royal Navy for twenty years before becoming an actor. This was his first film but unsurprisingly he would go on to play a lot more military roles, including Sink the Bismarck!, North West Frontier and Lawrence of Arabia. Bernard Lee is certainly best known for his portrayal of M in the Bond films, which he played no less than 12 times. Backing them up are recognisable names like Christopher Lee (looking more like Nicolas Cage as a Uruguayan cafe owner) and John Schlesinger, as well as John Le Mesurier (of Dad's Army), Patrick Macnee (of The Avengers) and Roger Delgado (the first Master in Doctor Who).

Because the script follows the real story as much as is humanly possible, there's not much opportunity for these actors to showboat and shine in themselves. What they do is provide solid characterisations that help the film to remain as consistent and believable as possible, and they do that very well indeed. There's none of the usual melodramatics: no blind heroism, no rampant cowardice. These men are simply there to do a job, they know what that job is and they get that job done, regardless of what happens while they're doing it. That may equate to heroism nowadays when signing up confers automatic hero status, but to these men it was just a job that they knew they needed to do right.

That admirable lack of scenestealing impresses but what impresses even more is the lack of traditional cinematics in death scenes. There's no Wilhelm screams, no leaping backwards after being hit, no floundering around in pain. People are injured or killed generally without even knowing that it's happened. While orchestrating his half of the battle from the deck, a medic attends Cdre Harwood's wounded leg. When the medic asks for the other leg, he finds that it was wounded also without him even noticing. Crews lose members without any obvious sign. They're dead because they suddenly stop answering or collapse when touched.

I'm no naval historian, but I'm sure they would be rivetted to this film. What I found most fascinating was the politics going on while the Graf Spee was in dock in Montevideo harbour. There are rules governing everything in war and Uruguay was neutral territory. Obviously it's prohibited for warships to fight each other in a neutral harbour, but it goes well beyond that. Warships are allowed to repair themselves in order to make themselves seaworthy but are not allowed to restore fighting capability. There's a 24 hour rule that prohibits enemy warships following merchant vessels out of harbour. All of these and others, become the rulebook that shapes how the game is played. Also, everything in Montevideo was relayed live on radio from cafes on the beach, one of the first such events to receive that treatment. A fascinating film, even for someone who is not a military historian.

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