Sunday, September 27, 2020

Sink the Bismarck! (1960)

 (This post is part of the 7th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

If there was a Golden Age of World War II movies, it would have to be the period from the Fifties to about the mid-Seventies. It was during this period that some of the all-time classic World War II films were released. It should come as no surprise that many of these films were British productions or, at least, co-productions made by the United Kingdom with other countries. Among the classic World War II movies produced or co-produced by Britain were The Dam Busters (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). Sink the Bismarck! (1960) numbers among the best of the British World War II movies made during this period, although today it is largely forgotten by many.

Sink the Bismarck! was based on the 1959 novel The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck  by C. S. Forester. The novel in turn was based on the real-life events behind the British Royal Navy's pursuit of the German battleship Bismarck. The novel had actually begun as a screen treatment that C. S. Forester had written for 20th Century Fox. Sink the Bismarck! then began life as a screen treatment before being turned into a novel before the novel was adapted for the screen.

The screenplay for Sink the Bismarck! was written by Edmund H. North, who had previously written such movies as Young Man with a Horn (1950) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Edmund H. Noth worked closely with C. S. Forester in adapting Mr. Forester's novel as a film. Sink the Bismarck! was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would go onto direct several more World War II movies as well as three James Bond movies. Edmund H. North and Lewis Gilbert decided that the movie should be made in the style of a documentary, with the action movie back and forth from an Admiralty war room to the battles at sea. To add even more realism, Edward R. Murrow recreated his broadcasts from World War II.

To add even more realism to the film, Sink the Bismarck! used actual World War II era ships. That they were able to do so was largely due to producer John Brabourne, who was Lord Mountbatten's son-in-law. Lord Mountbatten was then Chief of the Defence Staff, so Sink the Bismarck! had access to the Admiralty in a way that few movies would. The H.M.S. Belfast was used to portray the cruisers that were hunting the Bismarck, including the Dorsetshire, Norfolk, Sheffield, and Suffolk. The destroyers involved in the battle were portrayed using the HMS Cavalier. The H.M.S. Victorious briefly appeared as herself in one scene. Every scene involving aeroplanes launching from carriers were filmed using the HMS Centaur.  For any scenes showing the various ships' 15-inch guns, the HMS Belfast was used.

Of course, not every scene in the movie could be filmed using actual ships, necessitating the use of miniatures. The miniatures would have to be particularly realistic to be convincing, and so Howard Lydecker of the renowned special effects team the Lydecker Brothers was hired. With his brother Theodore Lydecker, Howard Lydecker has worked on various Republic productions for decades. He had been twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects, first for Women in War (1940) and then for Flying Tigers (1942). Special effects cinematographer L. B. Abbott shot the miniatures using a spherical lens so as to make the miniatures look larger and spread more apart.

Special attention was paid to historical accuracy in the making of Sink the Bismarck! and it is regarded as among the most historically accurate World War II movies ever made. That having been said, it did depart from history in some respects. The character of Captain Shephard (played by Kenneth More) was entirely fictional and was in no way meant to represent the real-life Director of Operations at the time, Captain R.A.B. Edwards. This was acknowledged in the film's epilogue. Similarly, the timeline of the hunt for the Bismarck was compressed so as to make for a tighter film. Other instances in which the film departs slightly from history is due to the fact that much of the information regarding the hunt for the Bismarck was still classified in the Fifties. It would not be until 1975, when much information was declassified, that much of the truth behind the hunt for the Bismarck was known. For instance, many of the hunches that Captain Shephard has in the movie were actually backed up by British intelligence.

Perhaps the biggest and most unfortunate historical inaccuracy in Sink the Bismarck! is its portrayal of German Admiral Günther Lütjens as a stereotypical, dyed-in-the-wool, fanatical Nazi. In truth Admiral Lütjens disagreed with Nazi policies. He condemned the crimes committed against Jews during Kristallnacht. When Adolph Hitler visited the Bismarck, he refused to give Hitler the Nazi salute, and instead gave him the traditional navel salute. While Sink the Bismarck! portrays Admiral Lütjens as believing the Bismarck was unsinkable, in reality Admiral Lütjens had serious doubts about the Bismarck's mission. Sink the Bismarck departs from history with regards to Admiral Lütjens's role in the battle between the Bismarck and the British ships the HMS Hood and the HMS Price of Wales. The movie depicts Admiral Lütjens as ordering the Bismark's captain, Ernst Lindemann, to open fire on the two ships. In reality, Admiral Lütjens not to engage the HMS Hood. Captain Lindemann disregarded Admiral Lütjens's orders and opened fire on the Hood anyway.

Ultimately, Sink the Bismarck! is very different from other World War II movies made in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, and not simply because it focuses on naval battles rather than battles on land. In focusing primarily on the events in an Admiralty war room, Sink the Bismarck! largely plays out as a military procedural in much the same way that The Naked City (1948) and He Walked By Night (1948) are police procedurals. It takes us within the war room so we can see step by step how the Bismarck was tracked and ultimately defeated. The suspense in the movie comes not from its action scenes, but instead from the battle of wits between the British Admiralty and the German Navy.

Sink the Bismarck! is one of the best World War I I movies ever made and really deserves to be better known than it is. While many films portray the military in the field, it is one of the very few that actually portrays what goes on behind the scenes in a war room. It is a suspenseful film, made all the more so by the film's realism. And while it departs from history a bit, it is still more historically accurate than most World War II movies.


Caftan Woman said...

I don't know if I can count Sink the Bismarck! as one of the movies I watched with my dad when I was young. All of the British pictures seem to run together in my mind. However, I think I can still sing the Johnny Horton song to this day.

I am quite interested in seeing this movie after reading your article. I like those "thinking" war movies. And now I will be able to keep the facts in my head while watching the dramatisation.

Patrick Wahl said...

Caftan - Sink the Bismarck is out there on youtube if you want to try it. I've seen it a few times, wasn't aware of the misrepresenting of the German Admiral, although it did strike me even before reading this that he was made into a one dimensional Nazi fanatic.

Virginie Pronovost said...

The way this film was filmed (with the documentary style) makes it sound very interesting and it's attention to detail is certainly another appealing aspect. I have not seen it although the name rings a bell and, of course, I'm always looking for great British films to discover. Thanks for this fabulous and informative review Terence!

Jay said...

A good review, Terence. I appreciated all the background info.