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Pursuit of the Graf Spee

Pursuit of the Graf Spee(1957)


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Cult director Michael Powell returned to the military milieu of suchearlier triumphs of his as 49th Parallel (1941) and One of OurAircraft Is Missing (1942) for Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1956), an epic war drama about the naval battle that marked the "twilight of the gods" for the German fleet. Like all ofhis films, it combined a startling use of color with Powell's trademarkability to tell a story through visual details. And after a string offailures with his producing, writing and directing partner, EmericPressburger, his deft combination of thrilling battle scenes and the humanside of war marked a return to box-office glory.

The British Powell and the Hungarian-born Pressburger had first workedtogether in 1939 as co-directors of The Spy in Black. They wouldcontinue their partnership through 15 films on which they shared producing,writing and directing credits (Powell did most of the directing;Pressburger most of the writing), forming their own production company, TheArchers, in 1942. But after such international hits as BlackNarcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), they fell on hardtimes. When they were invited to attend an Argentinean film festival in1954, they decided they couldn't take time from trying to resuscitate theircareers unless they made it a working vacation. Pressburger did someresearch and suggested that they use the trip to gather background on thedefeat of the German light battleship Admiral Graf Spee in 1942 offthe shores of Uruguay. The legendary naval battle, in which three smallerBritish cruisers -- the Exeter, the Ajax and theAchilles -- outmaneuvered, outclassed and ultimately out-negotiatedthe impressive German ship, was considered by many historians to be a majorturning point in the war.

Early in the planning stages, the team was hard-pressed to find a humanangle to the story. They didn't want to do just a pseudo-documentary aboutships at sea. Then, while interviewing one of the surviving British navalofficers, Pressburger was given a copy of I Was a Prisoner on the GrafSpee, a memoir by Captain Patrick Dove, a merchant seaman whose shipwas sunk by the Germans. During his time on the Graf Spee, he hadbecome close to the German Capt. Lansgdorff and developed a grudgingrespect for him. Their relationship became the story's humanfocus.

To shoot the naval battles, Powell worked out an arrangement with theBritish Navy to film maneuvers in the Mediterranean. He even got shots ofthe Ajax and the Achilles, which had been part of theoriginal battle. Since the British had nothing close to the size of theGraf Spee, they had to use a U.S. ship, the USS Salem, thoughthat led to complications when the U.S. Navy refused to let them put anyNazi insignia on the ship. So they shot around any possible Germanmarkings while filming the American ship, then used a British ship forclose-ups.

For the climactic scene, in which the German captain scuttles his shiprather than hand it over to the British, technicians constructed asix-foot-deep tank at Pinewood Studios with wave machines, wind machinesand a 23-foot-long model complete in every detail, but only on the sidethey needed to shoot. After blowing up the model several times, editorReginald Mills intercut different shots so that the explosion would buildto a stunning climax over the course of several minutes, much longer thanit had taken the real Graf Spee to go up. All of this was combinedwith studio scenes of such British luminaries as Anthony Quayle and PeterFinch playing officers on opposite sides of the battle and location footage ofthe port of Montevideo, where thousands of locals served as extras for theGraf Spee's arrival and departure.

When Powell and Pressburger finally screened the film for their backers atthe J. Arthur Rank Studios, the results were so impressive they decided tohold back release for a year. The Royal Command Performance for 1955 hadalready been chosen, and they knew Pursuit of the Graf Spee (or asit was called in England, The Battle of the River Plate) was anatural for that honor. Indeed, not only was the film chosen for the 1956Command Performance, but it became a big winner at the British box office,marking the last great success for The Archers before Powell andPressburger decided to dissolve their history-making partnership.

Producers, Directors & Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Art Direction: Arthur Lawson, Hein Heckroth
Music: Brian Easdale
Principal Cast: John Gregson (Capt. F.S. Bell, Exeter), AnthonyQuayle (Cmdr. Henry Harwood, Ajax), Peter Finch (Capt. HansLangsdorff, Admiral Graf Spee), Ian Hunter (Capt. Woodhouse,Ajax), Jack Gwillim (Capt. Parry, Achilles), Bernard Lee(Capt. Patrick Dove, Africa Shell), Patrick Macnee (Lt. Cmdr.Medley, Cmdr. Harwood's Aide), Christopher Lee (Manolo, Cantina Manager),Anthony Newley (Ralph, Merchant Seaman), David Farrar (Narrator).

by Frank Miller.

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