Cast & Crew
Set in WWII, British forces chase a German battleship all the way to South America before sinking it.
John Le Mesurier
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's The Battle of the River Plate on DVD
One of the first major events of the war took place in the South Atlantic in December 1939. The German pocket battleship Graf Spee raided the sea lane to India, sinking England-bound freighters and seizing their crews. A trio of smaller Royal Navy fighting ships anticipated the Graf Spee's position and attacked, sustaining heavy damage but forcing the battleship to flee to the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo. Then began a diplomatic game of cat and mouse, as British intelligence agents bluffed the Germans into thinking that a full squadron was waiting in ambush outside the neutral port, at the mouth of the broad (140 mile) estuary of the Rio de la Plata. The Graf Spee and the Nazis were in a tough spot, with Germany's national prestige at stake. Should the Graf Spee allow itself to overstay in Montevideo, and by the rules of neutrality be seized by Uruguay? Or should it make a run for the open sea? The deathwatch for the giant battleship was covered live on radio.
Powell & Pressberger wanted to make something other than the typical oceangoing movie in which large model boats fought one another in a special effects tank. As this was the middle 1950s they opted for VistaVision, Paramount's new large format process that yielded remarkably bright, sharp images, especially when printed in Technicolor. The filmmakers secured the cooperation of several navies to use real ships to "play" the Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter, HMS Achilles and HMS Ajax. Only the Achilles plays itself, as it had been re-commissioned as a ship of the Indian Navy. The American heavy cruiser Salem impersonates the Graf Spee. As the USN would not permit the Salem's large bow numbers to be painted over, Powell & Pressberger excuse them as part of the German camouflage effort.
Miniature effects were employed to depict parts of the sea battle, but Michael Powell puts more stress on the experience of the sailors and civilians involved in the conflict. We stay locked up with the captured merchant seamen below decks on the Graf Spee, and share the concerns of the captains and the crews of the three cruisers tasked with engaging the far larger battleship. Merchant captain Dove (Bernard Lee, "M" in the James Bond films) forms a friendship with the German Captain Langsdorff, played with reserve and respect by Peter Finch. The British Commodore and Captains (Anthony Quayle, Ian Hunter, John Gregson, Jack Gwillim) enter into the fight with high spirits and pursue their foe even when the Exeter is almost sunk and the other ships heavily damaged. We see what a surface battle is really like -- groups of men on opposing ships shooting each other to bits. One hit on the Exeter's bridge wipes out most of its ranking officers.
An expressive montage of nighttime Montevideo lights heralds the second half of the film and introduces a group of cagey diplomats (Anthony Bushell, Douglas Wilmer) and British Naval Intelligence agents (Michael Goodliffe, William Squire). American broadcaster Mike Fowler (Lionel Murton, the chaplain in Patton) sets up a live reporting post from a portside bar owned by the easily annoyed Manolo (Christopher Lee). The midnight oil burns at the embassies as the British and French ministers flaunt their superior relations with the Uruguayan foreign minister. Quoting Article 12 of the Hague Convention, the Brits initially press to force the Graf Spee out of the neutral port in 48 hours. They then reverse their strategy and scheme to keep her in port, to allow more time for British ships to assemble at the mouth of the river.
The realistic subject matter of The Battle of the River Plate calls for a different style than that pioneered by Powell and Pressberger for their history-making visual feasts Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. They employ some of the same creative talent, including production designer Arthur Lawson, composer Brian Easdale and artistic adviser Hein Heckroth. The film favors wide masters in dialogue scenes and avoids opticals where possible by using clean cuts instead of dissolves. For one shot Powell puts the VistaVision camera in a small craft that rolls with the sea waves. The wildly pitching image plays as a visual joke, a literal representation of seasickness.
The film has a truly epic feel, whether observing the fast ships in action or taking in the spectacle of thousands of Uruguayos crowding the Montevideo wharf to witness the fate of the Graf Spee. The Archers team reserves its expressive film tricks for a few battle details -- like an 'impossible' view of a shell slicing its way through iron decks -- and the concluding chapter, which plays out under a fiery South American sunset. Most likely filmed in normal 35mm, the model work isn't as sharp as the VistaVision footage around it. But the clever stage tricks that show the British Minister observing the Graf Spee from the balcony of his embassy add greatly to the dramatic finale.
Although a "stiff upper lip" approach to some of the derring-do is unavoidable, Powell & Pressberger's script emphasizes memorable human reactions. While his ship makes hasty repairs, Commodore Harwood (Anthony Quayle) shares a laugh with his peers, explaining how a German hit on his quarters has destroyed both his golf clubs and the ship's only bathtub. Captain Langsdorff's aide throws a Christmas party for his prisoners, and then jubilantly announces that, because Montevideo is a neutral port, they will all be set free. The British spies feel like fools, purposely leaking bogus ship movements on phone lines known to be monitored by German counter-agents. And radio personality Mike Fowler can only secure his perfect perch on the bar's oceanfront patio by buying hundreds of drinks he can't possibly enjoy. Re-creating the famous live broadcast of the final naval showdown just outside Montevideo, Fowler plays up the drama for a worldwide radio audience.
The movie is clearly a valentine to the intrepid British Naval forces that challenged a foe that, at least on paper, far outmatched them. But Michael Powell typically refuses to cast the enemy as standard villains. Peter Finch's Captain Langsdorff is afforded a great deal of sympathy. Further revelations about the incident show Langsdorff to have been backed into a true no-win situation. His choice not to precipitate a pointlessly bloody battle for the sole purpose of maintaining Nazi prestige has been debated ever since. But for all practical purposes Langsdorff went down with his ship. He committed suicide in Buenos Aires only two days later.
The Battle of the River Plate could serve as a quiz game for spotting familiar faces in tiny roles. Among the civilian prisoners and British crewmembers are John Merivale, Peter Dyneley, John Forbes-Robertson, Barry Foster, Donald Moffat, Anthony Newley, Nigel Stock and the future film director John Schlesinger.
Hen's Tooth's DVD of The Battle of the River Plate is a fine Region 1 encoding of a beautiful Carlton transfer, enhanced for widescreen and given excellent color values. Most Americans have only seen a flat, lifeless TV transfer but this release restores the film's big-screen epic quality. Brian Easdale's music score enhances the excitement of "fast ships going in harm's way".
The disc includes a 24-minute Carlton featurette, Profile of the Battle of the River Plate. Production manager John Brabourne and cinematographer Christopher Challis discuss specifics of the shoot and what it was like to work for the enthusiastic, demanding Michael Powell. Actor Christopher Lee remembers getting the job because of his Spanish speaking capability, and recalls his own run-ins with the director. Critic Ian Christie discusses the waning years of the Archers partnership. Although this film and Powell's previous A Matter of Life and Death were given prestigious Command Performances, the filmmaker's celebrated career would come to a scandalous, crashing end only four years later with the outraged response to his disturbing horror film Peeping Tom. The documentary appears to be a "textless" version for foreign language use: audio gaps have been left in the soundtrack to receive additional voiceover, and instead of end credits we see a blank screen for several seconds.
For more information about The Battle of the River Plate, visit Henstooth Video. To order The Battle of the River Plate, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's The Battle of the River Plate on DVD
Pursuit of the Graf Spree - Pursuit of the Graf Spee
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.
Pursuit of the Graf Spree - Pursuit of the Graf Spee
Captain, sir.- Gunnery Officer
Yes guns?- Capt. Parry
We've fired nearly 1200 rounds sir. About one third of the arsenal only remaining.- Gunnery Officer
Thank you. Are you alright?- Capt. Parry
A few new ventilation gaps here sir. A bit draughty, but otherwise alright.- Gunnery Officer
Ships used in the film: HMS Sheffield as HMS Ajax, INS Delhi (formerly HMNZS Achilles) as HMNZS Achilles, HMS Cumberland as HMS Cumberland, Heavy Cruiser USS Salem as the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. HMS Jamaica played the played the part of HMS Exeter.
HMS Battleaxe was also used as a camera ship (off Malta).
The U.S. Navy would not allow any Nazi insignia to be displayed on the U.S.S. Salem. Footage of the wartime German flag and other insignia was filmed on British ships.
HMS Birmingham was used as a camera ship.
The Midshipmen's quarters were empty because Captain Langsdorff had promoted all of his Midshipmen to Ensigns in order to make room for his prisoners.