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