Drama · War

To Sink a Battleship

Taking a break from World War II. Image: Costume & Fashion
Taking a break from World War II. Image: Costume & Fashion

They say it was the longest military campaign of World War II.

The Battle of the Atlantic was a struggle to control shipping routes from Great Britain and North America to continental Europe. As you can imagine, protecting the transport of equipment and soldiers across the ocean was critical to the Allied war effort.

The Germans were ready to duke it out. In addition to U-Boats (submarines) and battleships, the German Navy also built two super battleships, one of which was the KMS Bismarck.

The Bismarck was a heavily-armored beast. It had 17 decks and a crew of 2,000, along with dazzling firepower. It weighed 50,000 tons, which was a violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

It was a fearsome, intimidating ship, intended to muscle its way into – and out of – any situation. Therefore, it was in the British Navy’s best interest to incapacitate it.

The story of the British Navy vs. the Bismarck is told in the fascinating 1960 film, Sink the Bismarck, based on the 1958 book by British novelist C.S. Forester.

This taut CinemaScope film incorporates actual footage from the era, including Adolf Hitler’s appearance during the christening of the ship at a Hamburg shipyard. American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow is here, too, reprising some of his newscasts from May, 1941.

This is a terrific film that specializes in Tension with a capital “T”, both on the sea and inside the British Admiralty, located in a windowless bunker beneath the streets of London.

Dana Wynter and Kenneth More try to second-guess the Germans. Image: flammentanz.tumblr.com
Dana Wynter (L) and Kenneth More try to second-guess the Germans. Image: flammentanz.tumblr.com

Sink the Bismarck stars Kenneth More as a seasoned naval captain who has been appointed Director of Operations at the Admiralty. More’s character is a tough, shrewd man who won’t tolerate sloppy dress or slack behaviour. He doesn’t even allow staff members to call each other by their first name.

Dana Wynter stars as his assistant, a young WREN officer whose fiancé was killed at Dunkirk.

Admiralty staff, Wynter included, see More as a cold fish. But, as one of the Top Brass says, “We need a man like that to get through this battle.”

We’re shown what to expect from More during a brief conversation with Wynter about the death of her fiancé:

Wynter: “I think it helps to talk about these things, don’t you, sir?”
More: (curtly) “No, I don’t. As a matter of fact, I don’t think it helps at all. Getting emotional about things is a peacetime luxury. In wartime, it’s much too painful.”

More makes it clear he’s there to do a Job. He’s a brilliant strategist, one who is familiar with all the ships in the British fleet, as well as the number of corresponding personnel. Yet, as we gain additional information about More’s character, we see a different man emerge.

More is up against German Admiral (Karel Stepanek), a man as arrogant as he is clever. Stepanek is aboard the Bismarck, and he’s determined to teach the British a Thing Or Two.

Images: Getty Images (left) and ianhendry.com (right)
Images: Getty Images (L) and ianhendry.com (R)

Look at More and Stepanek in the above photos, and how they mirror each other. Director Lewis Gilbert gives us two evenly-matched foes. To emphasize this, he frequently places More in the left of the frame and places Stepanek to the right.

“We can sink anything they send out,” crows Stepanek when his crew sinks the HMS Hood, the largest battleship in the British Navy. Added to his joy is a thick fog that has blanketed the Bismarck, providing cover from the Allies.

However, when the German battleship suffers some damage, we realize the lives of the crew depend on Stepanek’s overstuffed ego.

Sink the Bismark is a top-notch film that feels authentic. If it’s been some time since you’ve seen a British war film, we recommend giving this a go.

Notes:

  • See the Bismarck’s technical specifications HERE.

Sink the Bismarck: Kenneth More, Dana Wynter, Carl Möhner. Directed by Lewis Gilbert. Written by Edmund H. North. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1960, B&W, 97 mins.

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10 thoughts on “To Sink a Battleship

    1. Agreed. I really like the pairing of More and Wynter in this film. I first saw this years ago and I was surprised, when I watched it again recently, how much of their performances I remembered. That says a lot about their talent, no?

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  1. If you want an exciting war story, read Barbara Tuchman’s GUNS OF AUGUST. Her history moves like gangbusters and for excitement outdoes any war movie I have ever seen. An interesting war movie is THE IRON CROSS.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Outstanding film and I greatly appreciated your review.

    Long before I saw this movie, or read about the Bismarck in history books, I learned all about it from the Johnny Horton hit record. As a kid I don’t think I fully comprehended just what I was singing about, and the same with his song about the Titanic. I guess this is how Johnny Horton and Kenneth More taught me history!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, I haven’t seen SINK THE BISMARK in ages and need to revisit it! You make a great point about director Gilbert’s use of the frame. I wish Dana Wynter had made more theatrical films. I have no doubt that she’s good in this film. I really liked her in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER.

    Liked by 1 person

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