A WWII film dramatising the sinking of the powerful German battleship The Bismarck. Kenneth More plays the no-nonsense, rigid Captain Jonathan Shepard, newly assigned as Director of Naval Operations. On the opposing side of things is Nazi Admiral Lutjens (Karel Stepanek), proud and ruthless. Dana Wynter plays a WREN 2nd Officer, whilst smaller roles are filled out by Geoffrey Keen (A.C.N.S.), Sir Michael Hordern (as the Commander of the King George V), Maurice Denham (as Commander Richards), and Esmond Knight (as the Captain of the HMS Prince of Wales), who actually served on the HMS Prince of Wales during this real-life incident, though much of the film is devoted to War Room strategy. Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow appears as himself to lend authenticity and gravity to the events.
Based on a book by C.S. Forester (“The African Queen”), this 1960 fact-based film from director Lewis Gilbert (“You Only Live Twice”, “Damn the Defiant!” and “Alfie”) and screenwriter Edmund H. North (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “Damn the Defiant!”, “Patton”) is one of the best films of its type. Neither docudrama nor melodramatic, fans of this kind of thing (and all you military/history buffs out there) will enjoy it even more than I did.
At the centre is a masterclass in subtlety and understatement from Kenneth More, who navigates the tricky balance of being emotionless whilst letting the audience know that when this is all over, this guy’s probably gonna have a ‘moment’. More’s a most underrated British actor, though there isn’t a bad performance in the entire film actually. I particularly liked the work of Karel Stepanek, who really does command attention as the Bismark’s commanding officer, Admiral Lutjens. He’s absolutely spot-on as the fiercely patriotic Nazi, with a portrait of Hitler in the background of his scenes, a nice touch too. Dana Wynter, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated actresses of the 50s and 60s, and also one of the most beautiful women to have ever graced the screen. Here the camera seems to want to take her out to dinner, bring her back home and make sweet love to her. Or maybe that’s just me…but, damn that’s a helluva woman right there. As the only woman in the film, I felt compelled to not only prove yet again that I need to get out more often, but her presence in the film definitely adds something, she’s terrific in her scenes opposite More. Her character and involvement in the plot is really interesting, actually, she’s not just the ‘token female’, she’s playing a credible officer and valuable assistant to More.
Perhaps the most interesting additions to the cast are Edward R. Murrow and Esmond Knight. Yes, that’s the real Murrow, the infamous American journalist and broadcaster lending authenticity and authority playing himself during these real-life events. As this was my first exposure to Mr. Murrow, I must say that while David Strathhairn in “Good Night and Good Luck” wasn’t much of a physical resemblance, he did a good job with the voice and persona of the man. You’d think that since Esmond Knight was actually involved in the real sinking of the Bismarck, that he’d get a good role here. As fine as he is, his role in the film is surprisingly small. I just thought you’d surely take advantage of someone who was not only really there, but can act, too. However, Geoffrey Keen offers up yet another fine, if thankless effort, and Sir Michael Hordern- an even better actor than Keen- is in typically excellent form, a most valued British character actor. In fact the only casting misstep is a minor vocal one, as the person doing Winston Churchill’s voice does a pretty poor imitation I must say. Fans of great British character actors will have a field day here, as the film is full of them in supporting roles (Maurice Denham, Jack Gwillim, etc.) and brief bits (Bernard Lee, Robert Brown, David Hemmings, Michael Ripper, Ian Hendry, etc.)
One of the film’s best assets is that although it’s not quite docudrama, it does have an authentic look and feel to it, not just through Murrow’s casting, but the use of newsreel footage and stock footage is the best I’ve ever seen in a film. Stock footage is almost always obvious, but here it’s pretty seamless and really impressive. Also deserving of a mention is the B&W cinematography by DOP Christopher Challis (“The Red Shoes”, “Damn the Defiant!”), which is very good indeed.
This is very well-done, and if you’re a fan of this sort of film, it’s a must-see because it’s one of the best of its type. Kenneth More is terrific, and well backed-up by both Karel Stepanek and the stunningly beautiful Dana Wynter.