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Pursuit of the Graf Spree
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Pursuit of the Graf Spee,Pursuit of the Graf Spee

Pursuit of the Graf Spee

Cult director Michael Powell returned to the military milieu of such earlier triumphs of his as 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft 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 of his films, it combined a startling use of color with Powell's trademark ability to tell a story through visual details. And after a string of failures with his producing, writing and directing partner, Emeric Pressburger, his deft combination of thrilling battle scenes and the human side of war marked a return to box-office glory.

The British Powell and the Hungarian-born Pressburger had first worked together in 1939 as co-directors of The Spy in Black. They would continue 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, The Archers, in 1942. But after such international hits as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), they fell on hard times. When they were invited to attend an Argentinean film festival in 1954, they decided they couldn't take time from trying to resuscitate their careers unless they made it a working vacation. Pressburger did some research and suggested that they use the trip to gather background on the defeat of the German light battleship Admiral Graf Spee in 1942 off the shores of Uruguay. The legendary naval battle, in which three smaller British cruisers -- the Exeter, the Ajax and the Achilles -- outmaneuvered, outclassed and ultimately out-negotiated the impressive German ship, was considered by many historians to be a major turning point in the war.

Early in the planning stages, the team was hard-pressed to find a human angle to the story. They didn't want to do just a pseudo-documentary about ships at sea. Then, while interviewing one of the surviving British naval officers, Pressburger was given a copy of I Was a Prisoner on the Graf Spee, a memoir by Captain Patrick Dove, a merchant seaman whose ship was sunk by the Germans. During his time on the Graf Spee, he had become close to the German Capt. Lansgdorff and developed a grudging respect for him. Their relationship became the story's human focus.

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

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

When Powell and Pressburger finally screened the film for their backers at the J. Arthur Rank Studios, the results were so impressive they decided to hold back release for a year. The Royal Command Performance for 1955 had already been chosen, and they knew Pursuit of the Graf Spee (or as it was called in England, The Battle of the River Plate) was a natural for that honor. Indeed, not only was the film chosen for the 1956 Command Performance, but it became a big winner at the British box office, marking the last great success for The Archers before Powell and Pressburger 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), Anthony Quayle (Cmdr. Henry Harwood, Ajax), Peter Finch (Capt. Hans Langsdorff, 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.