Sink the Bismarck!: “A British Stiff-Upper Lip Vision of Heroism”

Sink the Bismarck!: “A British Stiff-Upper Lip Vision of Heroism”

Directed by Lewis Gilbert, the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck! tells the true-life story of the Royal Navy’s mission to track down and destroy the eponymous pride of the German fleet and scourge of Atlantic shipping. Making it’s UK Blu-ray debut on the Eureka Classics label, it’s a distinctive film in many ways; not only does it focus on the battleships and their respective crews, it also devotes a great deal of attention to the Admiralty’s operations staff who orchestrate the arena of conflict. So many war films are about the men behind the gun, but this is about the men behind the men behind the gun. This makes the film both psychologically very interesting and also quite documentarian in its approach to the events. Adapted by screenwriter Edmund H. North from a 1959 novel by Hornblower writer C.S. Forester, the film stars Kenneth More, Dana Wynter as Admiralty staff and Carl Möhner and Karel Štěpánek representing the fearsome Bismarck.

The British film industry of the 1950s repeatedly mined the war years for suitable material to turn into thrilling and entertaining movies – a sort of ‘Now the truth can be told’ account of the hours that were both Britain’s darkest and finest. It was the perfect marriage of a healthy British film industry and quintessential British stories of pluck and heroism and  Sink the Bismarck! is a great example. It was highly praised at the time for its accurate account of the dangers and complexities of battle and the procedural portrayal of More’s Captain Shepard and his unsung backroom boys, it is not the ‘Now the truth can be told’ account that audiences initially believed it to be. There was the small matter of the Official Secrets Act standing in the way of Gilbert’s film. It would be another fifteen years before the work of Bletchley Park’s code-breakers would be declassified, so the interception and decoding of the Bismarck movements from from Luftwaffe Enigma transmissions are shown instead to be little more than hunches on the part of Shepard as he plays a kind of psychological game of chess with his nemesis, Admiral Lütjens (Štěpánek), the German officer responsible for the sinking of his last ship.

It’s worth noting that Shepard didn’t actually exist. The real Chief of Operations responsible for the hunt for the Bismarck was Captain R.A.B Edwards; the inclusion of a fictitious character like Shepard is a necessary invention to add a touch of human interest to the proceedings. More delivers a restrained and quietly affecting performance of an officer described by Laurence Naismith’s First Sea Lord as “cold as a witch’s heart…cold with no heart or soul, just an enormous brain” and thereby possessing the right stuff for commanding the war room’s operations, where life and death decisions are to be made. Shepard’s cold nature is slowly revealed to audiences across the film to be the result not only of his damaging previous experience of Lütjens, but also because he returned home to find that his wife had been killed in a German air raid. From then on, Shepard made a conscious decision to never be emotionally involved with anyone else ever again but, by his own admission, he overlooked one thing – his own son. Played by an uncredited John Stride, Shepard’s son just happens to be an air gunner in the Ark Royal‘s Swordfish Squadron and, when he’s reported missing after a skirmish with the Bismarck‘s, the aloof Shepard thaws before the eyes of Wynter’s sympathetic Wren, Anne Davis. More excels in his depiction of a traditional stiff upper lip hero, scarcely able to hide his emotions.

Poetic licence also rears its head in the depiction of Lütjens. In reality this highly decorated German Admiral was no supporter of Nazism or Hitler; he publicly protested against the anti-Semitic attacks that became known as Kristallnacht and refused to give Hitler the Nazi salute when he visited the Bismarck, opting for the traditional naval salute instead. Played by Štěpánek here, he is the stereotypical fervent Nazi, swivel-eyed and unshakable in his faith for both the Führer and what he perceives to be the significantly superior might of the German battleship, a belief that the real Admiral certainly did not share as he was pessimistic about the Bismarck and his mission, and even refused to engage in battle with HMS Hood and the Prince of Wales. In the film, much of the real Lütjens character and attitudes are transferred across to the younger, junior officer Captain Lindemann (played by Carl Möhner), who is often shown to doubt and question Lütjens unshakable stance, but in reality it was he who disobeyed his commanding officer and attacked the Hood, bringing about its destruction and the deaths of 1415 men. It’s ironic then that the characterisation of Lindemann and Möhner’s portrayal actually marks Sink the Bismarck! out from many other flag-waving war films of that era, as it is without demonisation or caricature and is respectful to an enemy figure.

Sink the Bismarck! is also refreshingly devoid of the things that would later come to impact upon how British cinema told such tales. As the 1960s progressed and the British film industry was increasingly financed by American studios, market forces insisted that Hollywood A-listers were crowbarred into the action to essentially show American audiences how Uncle Sam (often masquerading as a Canadian for the sake of historical accuracy, as America was neutral during many engagements cinema would depict) helped win the war for John Bull. The only concession to the US that Gilbert makes here is the inclusion of American journalist Ed Murrow as himself (Murrow, who went on to be the thorn in the side of the House of Un-American Activities Committee as depicted in George Clooney’s 2005 biopic Good Night, and Good Luck, had been stationed in London during the war as the CBS London radio correspondent) which adds to the film’s overall documentary style, and the casting of Dana Wynter, a German-born, English actress who, after a series of small roles in small British films like Lady Godiva Rides Again (alongside other future stars Kay Kendall, Diana Dors, and Joan Collins) had moved to Hollywood and signed with MGM. By the time of Sink the Bismarck!‘s release, Wynter was perhaps best known for her role as Becky Driscoll in 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Ironically, their was actually a role for an American actor – the Catalina aircraft that located the Bismarck after she escaped detection by the British fleet was actually piloted by an Ensign Leonard Smith, an American Naval Reserve officer, but his contribution was also a matter of Official Secrets until long after the war ended, as America was neutral at the time of this engagement.

However, whilst Sink the Bismarck! can be applauded for remaining inherently true to British heroism and not pandering to American audiences, it is just as guilty as those later American films at ignoring the contributions of Allied forces. The film does not depict for example, the Polish destroyer Piorun (attached to HMS Cossack in the Atlantic) which sailed straight for the Bismarck, signalling ‘I Am a Pole’ as it attacked. Whilst ultimately none of the Piorun’s shots found their target, it was nevertheless an extremely heroic action overlooked by this quintessentially British film.

A tense and gripping tale well told, Sink the Bismarck! boasts some incredible model work and is also stuffed to the gills with great talent and familiar faces, many of whom (More, Michael Hordern and Jack Gwillim) actually served in the Royal Navy in WWII and further add to the film’s remarkable authenticity and understanding of the events and service. But the most interesting one is Esmond Knight who plays Captain Leach of the HMS Prince of Wales; Knight was actually a gunnery officer holding the rank of lieutenant on board that very ship during engagement with the Bismarck which led to the sinking of the Hood. He was blinded by shrapnel during the battle, though he subsequently regained some sight in his right eye two years later and wore a glass eye in his left for the rest of his life.



Mark Cunliffe

Mark's first experience at the cinema was watching the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue. Despite this ignoble start, he has nurtured a love of film and television ever since. He is a critical essayist for Arrow Films and his work appears in the DVD/Blu-ray releases of Stormy Monday, Day of the Jackal, Jake Speed, Children of Men and the Alec Guinness movie The Prisoner. He has also appeared on the Talking Pictures podcast and is currently contributing to a book about 1980s TV, film and pop culture.

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