Friday, September 19, 2014

Sink the Bismarck!

Sink the Bismark! (Lewis Gilbert, 1960) Like the titular ship, this is another film that was well-known to me but managed to get away anyway. Based on C.S. Forester's 1959 book "The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck," it tells of the British Navy's concerted effort to stop the Nazi fabled super-ship, the battleship Bismarck, feared for its ability to attack ruthlessly in the channels of the North Atlantic, the largest of any battleship built in Europe and festooned with guns that could blow ships out of the sea and planes out of the air. Its potential for destruction was what made its name and reputation as a Naval "Boogey-man." The ship's entire sailing career lasted but eight months.

Kenneth More plays Captain Jonathan Shepard, who's a bit of a cold-fish, but also appointed by the Admiralty to head the operations to take down the Bismarck, which is the backbone of the Nazi U-boat attacks against shipping and supply vessels on the seas. Shepard is cold, but he has a History that he won't reveal and considers irrelevant. To show he's a bit of a new broom, he's shown noting the surface sloppiness of the command center (junior officers out of uniform, lunches at one's desk) and promptly makes it clear that things will be ship-shape or the offenders shipped out. The script was fashioned from Forester's best-seller by Edmund H. North—a Fox hand who specialized in military themes, even with The Day the Earth Stood Still—who wrote a similar scene in his script (with Francis Ford Coppola) of Patton.  
More, Geoffrey Keen and Naismith: 
"We have to sink the Bismarck, 'cause the world depends on us."
What is occupying Shepard's mind, besides the operation, will become readily apparent in the film's second act once the HMS Hood is blown out of the water by the Bismarck, and other ships are detoured to take part in the battle. At this point in the war, many of the characters have suffered losses that stiffen their upper lips and weigh heavily on their decisions, made hundreds of miles away in theory on charts and display-fields and played out in the waters off the Northern European shores. The film pinwheels between base-command and the conference rooms of various ships in the maneuvers. One can easily get lost, if one doesn't keep an eye on key players like Laurence Naismith, Michael Hordren, and Esmond Knight. But, it's easy to spot the Nazi commanders, like Karel Stepanek's blowhard Admiral, constantly extolling the future of Der Fatherland and vaingloriously associating the Bismarck's fortunes with his own in contrast to his more practical Captain (played by Carl Möhner), who obeys orders, but keeps his counsel.
Director Gilbert has a nice painterly way with widescreen, filling the frame with movement and detail, and the final battle is full of the trademarks of his action films with catapulting bodies, shaking explosions and large battles portrayed with details. They're also fought with models, filmed at a distance to keep the lack of detail hidden and the simulated expanse of ocean dominant. Composition is his strong suit here, as the work directing the actors is as restrained as the performances, not giving up much information about themselves, but constantly discussing "ramifications." Even a rather unnecessary sorta-semi-romantic sub-plot is given a tentative quality as the two are more concerned with their jobs and their effectiveness in them than any shilly shallying.
"Raise the Cinema-scope!"
The most amusing aspect about the film for me was the realization that it would make a very good "drinking game." There is one shot of a German artillery officer in close-up, looking at the camera, yelling in a thick Teutonic accent "Fire!" This shot is used (and often the same "take") repeatedly throughout the film, the reason for which I am not sure. Perhaps it's to goose the drama of the moment of engagement. Maybe it's to bridge the gap between the genuine shots of torpedoes being loaded to those barely-working model shots in a studio tank. Maybe he was Lewis Gilbert's brother (although there appears no resemblance) and he was paying him for a major speaking part consisting of one word used over and over. You'd think that (unless it was a last minute editorial decision by editor Peter Hunt, who was the cutting wizard behind the early Bond films), they might have spared another angle to keep it from being so monotonous. It's inexplicable. But, it's pretty damn funny. Any time a torpedo is sent from the Bismarck, there's "Otto von Feur-Lautsprecher" with his single syllable of dialogue, never to be seen or heard from again...until, of course, the next torpedo (and there are many). As I said, "Spotting Otto" would be a good drinking game.
Die gefälschten Bismarck
The Last Run of the Bismarck (The Real Thing pictured above)

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