Sink the Bismarck! (1960)

When I was about 13, an older cousin taught me how to play Battleships. For someone whose favourite genre of film was war, this was a high point in one’s existence. I spent the next few years teaching the game to anybody I could collar (usually my sister) and delighting in doing exciting things like guessing where my opponent’s submarines, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and aircraft carriers were positioned, then firing salvo after judicious salvo and rejoicing when I’d sunk ‘em all.
I don’t play Battleships any more, but I was reminded of the game when I saw this excellent World War II film, based on the real-life story of the famous German battleship, the Bismarck.

Sink the Bismarck!

It’s actually, now that I think of it, rather difficult to recount the story of Sink the Bismarck! The fact is, the film centres round a critical naval operation, and giving a blow-by-blow account of how the Royal Navy managed to track down, trail and get rid of the Bismarck is virtually impossible. And it would be tedious in the extreme. So, just a brief outline of what the film’s all about, and then I’ll go into waxing eloquent about all that I liked (and, occasionally, didn’t like) about the film.

World War II battleships

Adolf Hitler formally launched the battleship Bismarck on February 14, 1939. Two years later, in 1941, intelligence reports drifting into London from Norway indicate that two German ships are setting out to sea. Captain Shepard (Kenneth More), newly assigned to the post of Director Operations at Naval Headquarters in London, senses something fishy, and tries to get more information.

Captain Shepard takes charge

Shepard, by the way, is not one of those officers who make the men feel like he’s one of the boys. On his first day in office, he ticks off a rating for not wearing a jumper; he politely requests an officer not to address a WREN by her first name; and he hauls up a man for eating at his desk. It’s not as if Shepard is rude or belligerent; he’s very polite, emotionless, completely dedicated to his job. As the First Sea Lord (Laurence Naismith) says, “I’ve been told he’s as cold as a witch’s heart!”

The First Sea Lord expresses an opinion of Shepard

But Shepard’s team soon have other things to worry about. A Norwegian agent manages to send through a message positively identifying one of the two German ships in the vicinity as the Prinz Eugen. Before he can transmit the name of the second ship, the Nazis have got to him and shot him dead. In London, Shepard and the First Sea Lord have begun to suspect that the second ship—as yet unidentified—is the legendary Bismarck, the most heavily armed battleship ever.

A Norwegian spy gets shot by the Nazis

If it is the Bismarck, then there can be no doubt about the objective: the two battleships are headed out into the Atlantic, to target shipping between the US and Europe. Once they’re out in the Atlantic, there’ll be no stopping them. The Royal Navy have to take action now—but they’ve got no ships to spare. Shepard, aided by a WREN called Ann Davis (Dana Wynters), sets about seeing how he can reinforce the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow by pulling out ships from other areas: the Victorious and the Repulse, for example.

Shepard plans the reinforcement of the Home Fleet...

Shepard’s plan could help bolster the Home Fleet, but it means removing precious protection from troop convoys and other vulnerable ships all across the oceans. Ann is horrified and realises that Shepard is as cold-hearted as he’s reputed to be.

...shocking Ann in the bargain

And from then on, it’s a series of swiftly unfolding events: the identification of the Bismarck by a pilot on a reconnaissance mission; the swift diverting of the British battleships Hood and Prince of Wales so that they rendezvous with the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen at dawn, in a decisive sea battle; and Shepard’s growing realisation that the Bismarck is a bigger, more formidable enemy than any he’s ever encountered before.

Shepard gears up for battle

The rest is history, really: “the Hood found the Bismarck (as Johnny Horton sang in this memorable song)”… but “when the smoke had cleared away, the mighty Hood went down”. After that, in a desperate bid to stop the Bismarck—the Prinz Eugen now having gone her own way—the Royal Navy put the Suffolk, Norfolk, King George V and the Rodney on the job of tracking down the Bismarck and destroying her before she can refuel and wreak further damage.

Battle begins at sea

Sink the Bismarck! narrates this well-known story from many different points of view. There is, for instance, the German Fleet Commander Admiral Lutjens (Karel Stepanek), who’s a rabid Nazi, willing to risk life and limb for the glory of the Fuehrer and the Fatherland.

Admiral Lutjens belches fire and brimstone

There’s the captain of the Bismarck, Lindemann (Carl Möhner), a man who, though he never says it, seems to disapprove of Lutjens’s jingoistic outlook.

Captain Lindemann watches on

There are the officers and men on board the Royal Navy’s ships, and in the office of the Home Fleet, fighting an enemy that looks unbeatable.

The men on His Majesty's ships

There is even a bunch of civilians, still working on the Prince of Wales when she’s ordered to put to sea, who end up finding themselves willy-nilly going to battle.

The civilians on Prince of Wales, off to war

And there is, underground in London, so many days in his office that he’s lost track of time, Shepard. Ann Davis, as she gets to know him better, realises that he does have a heart—and it’s completely tied up with his son Tom (John Stride, uncredited but looking uncannily like Kenneth More). Ann discovers that Shepard’s wife died when their home was bombed, and since then Shepard’s blocked out all emotion so that he won’t feel the pain of losing a loved one.

Ann gets to know her boss better

Ann does know pain, though—her fiancé was killed shortly before they were to be married. She urges Shepard to reach out to other people and let them share some of his sorrows.
By this time, though, Shepard has given orders to the Ark Royal at Gibraltar to send out aircraft to find and attack the Bismarck. Ann knows by now that Shepard’s beloved son Tom is a gunner on the Ark Royal…

Tom, on the Ark Royal

And she’s there in Shepard’s office when an ominous phone call comes from the Casualties Section.

Shepard gets a call from Casualties

This film doesn’t dwell as much on the human element as (for example) Twelve O’Clock High, but it’s got some very fine (and believable) action on the high seas. The acting is good, the change in pace and point of view is an effective way to keep the story from getting bogged down and emulating a documentary—and there are occasional sparks of a dry, thoroughly British sense of humour. A great history lesson, too! A very good watch if you like war films.

What I liked about this film:
Though it recounts an actual event, the film manages to not get boring. As I mentioned earlier, this is largely because the points of view change. One moment, we’re in Shepard’s office as he and the First Sea Lord move models of ships—German and British—around on a vast map as they discuss strategy. The next moment, we switch to the rolling deck of the Suffolk as her captain peers through his binoculars, trying to see through the suffocating fog. And a few miles off, on board the Bismarck, Lindemann listens quietly as Lutjens dreams of a victorious homecoming, with the Fuehrer personally thanking him for making Germany the master of the world… Then we’re in the hold of the Prince of Wales, where civilians working on the gun turrets find themselves pitched into battle. Then we’re on the Ark Royal, where Tom Shepard has just received a letter from his devoted father… and then we’re back in Shepard’s office, where Ann Davis is learning that her boss isn’t as cold and unfeeling as he appears to be. This shifting, constant moving from one scene to the other, is what saves Sink the Bismarck! from losing its way amid all that action.

Kenneth More. I first saw More in the hilarious Doctor in the House, and the cry went up: “More! More!” Sink the Bismarck! is a far cry from the farcical Doctor in the House, but it’s a superb showcase of More’s acting ability. He’s very good, both as the stiff naval commander who has hard decisions to take, and as the father who finally reaches breaking point when it’s a question of a decision that’s affected his only son.

What I didn’t like:
It’s just a little too action- and strategy-oriented. The sequences of guns pounding, torpedoes streaking through water, and commands being bellowed, stretch out a mite too long. So do the many sequences where, either in the Home Fleet office, or at Shepard’s Office, the officers strategise and deliberate on how they can foil the Bismarck. These scenes are necessary, even interesting at times, but I’d think someone who didn’t adore war films with my type of undying devotion would probably find them a bit of a drag! I, personally, would have liked to see more of the human element in this drama—perhaps a little more insight into Lindemann, who seemed like an interesting man.
Still: a great war film, and definitely one of my favourites when it comes to sea warfare (my all-time favourite is the superb The Enemy Below, but more on that later sometime).

Little bit of trivia:
Kenneth More actually did serve during World War II—even, in fact, on the HMS Victorious, which (as Captain Shepard in Sink the Bismarck!) he sends off to reinforce the Home Fleet.

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13 thoughts on “Sink the Bismarck! (1960)

  1. Is the song “We are gonna sink the Bismarck to the bottom of the sea” from this film?? – that is the refrain of the song I have in mind.

  2. This sounds very interesting. So far I’ve skipped it when it played in TCM because it sounded rather dry and I invariably find movies on “real-life” incidents rather boring!

    And I want to play ‘Battleship’, too! My childhood was clearly very lacking in essentials, because I never even heard of it.

  3. bawa: No, the song’s not from the film, but the story’s the same. You mean this song, right?

    bollyviewer: I have my cousin to thank for learning how to play Battleships – and I suppose it’s hardly a surprise that he’s now in the army! Delightful game, though: I used to love it. And this one’s a good film, though (as I mentioned) probably a bit tedious when it comes to all that action. But there’s enough switching of setting and perspective to make it interesting – and Kenneth More is very good!

  4. Yes, thats the one. thanks for the link…it used to be in song collection cassette we had.

    I think it is a frightening song: ok battles had to be fought and Nazis defeated but to make a march out of going and killing….

    And comments such as “best battñe song” only serve to underline this sentiment.

  5. Somehow I’ve never thought of it as frightening: it’s just a song, in my opinion… come to think of it, there are a lot more songs out there about people killing, doing drugs, wrecking their own lives and others.
    But I suppose I agree with you on some level. I know the popular sentiment seems to be that shock value sells (something I saw recently in an exhibition by UK artist Tracey Emin), but somehow I just can’t swallow that. Anything that encourages or dwells so lovingly on violence and/or self-destruction isn’t my cup of tea.
    As far as Sink the Bismarck being a good song goes, I’d endorse that from the point of view of the music only – the rhythm’s great.

  6. Actor Esmond Knight, who plays the captain of Prince of Wales, was actually serving as an officer on Prince of Wales during the Bismarck chase & was wounded by the shell that hit the bridge.

  7. The portrayal of the German Fleet Commander in the film, Admiral Gunther Lutjens was totally inaccurate. The real Admiral Lutjens was a very conservative career officer of the old school. He was not a Nazi, and never joined the party. In fact, when the bloody Dictator Hitler visited Bismarck to inspect the new Battleship, Lutjens greeted him with the traditional Naval salute, not the (Nazi) party salute.

  8. Dustedoff: where did you get the still shots from the movie? Been looking for those to add to my collection but cannot find.

  9. Hi There,

    I read your interesting blog on The ‘Bismarck’. My husbands great uncle Mark Long was on ‘The Hood’ when it was blown up by the Bismarck during WW2.

    Lisa Rust

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