Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More) arrives in London and makes his way across the capital towards the operations of the British Navy, for the year is 1941 and the Second World War is into its second year of conflict with no end in sight. Maybe if the isolated Britain could score a military victory after the humiliation of Dunkirk things might look brighter, yet as far as the Navy are concerned there's only one goal that would achieve that, which would be to successfully put the German battleship The Bismarck out of action. A formidable feat of engineering and military aggression, it has been causing enormous problems for the Brits - can Shepard help?
This was a war movie based on fact, rather than an invented men on a mission yarn that would increasingly litter the genre as the nineteen-fifties moved into the sixties. But in the decade previous to this release in 1960, it was notable how popular the form had been with British audiences who did not care that the critics and tastemakers were pointing out these efforts were appealing to a patriotism that all these years after the fact was outdated and even patronising. Those audiences were happy to bask in the glory of their country's finest hour, and many of those moviegoers had had first hand experience of the war and wanted reassurance it wasn't in vain.
As the fifties had worn on, and rationing was lasting far too long, and the Empire was crumbling, and nothing seemed to be changing for the better, it was cheering to look back and see Britain actually getting something useful and constructive (er, and constructively destructive) done in the world, but while there were some examples that took the flagwaving at face value, there were plenty keen to search the hearts of the participants, from the lowly Tommy at the bottom of the ranks, to the Generals and Admirals who held so many lives in the balance. The psychological element was rarely too far away, as befitting an era that examined its soul like never before, and this contributed.
Sink the Bismarck! was on the cusp of the war movies that were effectively casting forward to the action flick genre, where the point was the violence for its own entertainment, bullets flying, explosions detonating, you know the sort of thing. So there was a fair amount of warships having at one another, depicted by some superb miniatures, and coming off the worse in the exchange, most notoriously HMS Hood whose destruction at the guns of the title warship was depicted here, but not something to be enthused about, rather something to be saddened by. And curiously, that was the aim of the ending of the story too: although telegraphed well in advance that the Bismarck would indeed be sunk, there was no joy in its defeat as the script was keen to highlight these were human beings brought so low by the British guns.
Not that historical accuracy was paramount, anticipating the war pieces that would favour that action over the humanity, so the Captain of the Bismarck was misrepresented as if the German Navy back then was merely a branch of the SS, and as beholden to der Fuhrer as that lot, whereas notoriously in real life many of their members went about their duty to the Third Reich with reluctance, in particular... the Captain of the Bismarck. However, More (playing an invented character) was able to evince both the necessary dispassionate demeanour it took to order so many to their potential death or glory, depending on how the day went, and the emotions he had to suppress that nevertheless took over in private moments. In a number of marvellously played scenes, More delivered his character's heartache at losing his wife, and perhaps his son, to the war while retaining his stoic face for the troops. Dana Wynter offered emotions of her own as his assistant, and they made an excellent double act for a war film often unfairly overlooked. Music by Clifton Parker.
[Eureka Classics have released this on Blu-ray. The picture has a few speckles, but otherwise is laudable - there's nothing quite like black and white Cinemascope! - and both sound mixes are more than fine. Those features in full:
1080p presentation on Blu-ray
LPCM audio (Stereo and original Mono options)
Optional English SDH subtitles
Brand New and Exclusive interview with film historian Sheldon Hall
Original Theatrical Trailer.]
A favourite film of mine and, I think, one of Kenneth More's best performances. Something to look out for: read the lips of the captain of HMS Sheffield after the 'friendly-fire' incident and you'll see he's *very* uncomplimentary about the pilots and their parents!