When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 March (10.45 am)
The account of the German cruiser ship, Admiral Graf Spee, is a genuinely riveting yarn from the early months of World War Two. As a popular story, it hasn’t survived the years, probably because it didn’t lead to enormous levels of human sacrifice and the Germans involved weren’t senseless monsters, but it is good stuff and worth recounting here. For those who haven’t seen The Battle of the River Plate, bear in mind that the film follows the factual events very closely.
Following Germany’s defeat in World War One, the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict limitations on the size of warships it could build, the aim being to deny it the opportunity to compete with Britain in terms of constructing titanic Dreadnought style boats. The Deutschland-class Cruiser, of which Admiral Graf Spee was one, had various innovations designed to keep it within weight restrictions and as a consequence developed a superior vessel. The British dubbing of these ships as ‘pocket battleships’ might suggest some little tub with firepower, but Graf Spree was formidable, armed with powerful guns, fast and highly maneuverable. In short, the perfect ship for attacking merchants carrying supplies to Britain. Shortly before war broke out but with the declaration imminent, Graf Spee slunk out of its German port and into the South Atlantic, from where it could prey on shipping. This it did, racking up an impressive record of sinkings and remaining elusively at large.
Its captain, Hans Langsdorff, was a fascinating figure, a tactical genius who pulled every trick in the book to escape capture and to make the threat of his single ship look as though an entire convoy of warships was out there. In addition he was a humanist, insisting that merchant ships were ordered to send their crews across to the Graf Spee before they were sunk. Langsdorff’s attitude was that the war was on Allied shipping, not the sailors, who would be held as prisoners and treated well.
Graf Spee’s success alerted British ships of war, which made searching and destroying it their highest priority. The ‘hunting group’ that came across and battled it was led by Commodore Henry Harwood, a seaman as tactically astute as Langsdorff and with acute knowledge of the South Atlantic. Harwood guessed the pocket battleship’s movements correctly, a dazzling insight that seems to have emerged wholly from calculated guesswork, and his three ships engaged Graf Spee on the River Plate, the massive estuary leading from South America into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the German boat’s better guns, it was eventually out-maneuvered and crippled, leaving it with no choice but to head for the nearest port and make repairs.
This happened to be at Montevideo, the picturesque capital of Uruguay. The two remaining British ships waited outside for Graf Spee’s re-emergence, aware that Langsdorff was perfectly capable of escaping somewhere along the estuary because of the size of the area they had to patrol. Engaging the services of British diplomat Eugen Millington-Drake, attempts were made to shorten the time Graf Spee needed to be fixed – Langsdorff wanted two to three weeks; he was given four days. In the meantime, the British Foreign Office, knowing fully that their phones were being tapped by German agents, put it about that further ships were massing in order to deal with it, whereas in reality only one was close enough to help. The overall effect of all this pressure was to compel Langsdorff into scuttling Graf Spee, turning the episode into a major British success story. It was also a big deal in Montevideo itself, locals clamouring to follow the news of what would happen next and reporters covering the story gaining minor celebrity status.
Little wonder that this suggested great cinematic material, and even better that it was made for the screen by the dynamic creative force that was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The pair hit upon the idea whilst attending a film festival in Argentina and getting the details, seeing it as the ticket to reviving the ailing fortunes of their production company, The Archers. British and American ships were hired and deployed in the Mediterranean in order to give the film some authentic boats to photograph, whilst some of the best models available were built for the scenes where ships are suffering heavy damage.
In order to convey the character of Langsdorff (Peter Finch), many of the film’s early scenes are between him and a captured merchant captain, played by Bernard Lee. As Lee’s Captain Dove is treated with every courtesy by the German, he comes to respect and even admire him, though it doesn’t stop him and his fellow captives from cheering on the British when they open fire. Harwood is a never more charismatic Anthony Quayle. John Gregson plays Captain Bell (and wore a specially made wax nose for the role, in honour of the real life captain, who was affectionately known as ‘Hookie’ by his men), in charge of the Exeter, the British light cruiser that took the heaviest damage and suffered the most casualties. In many ways, Gregson’s is the choice role as he gets to rally his troops, make quick decisions and score a decisive blow on Graf Spee.
However, the moments when Bell is racing around his ship, sometimes literally fighting fires, are by some distance the most exciting scenes in the film. For the most part, it’s a well crafted but ultimately highly ‘talkie’ picture, filled with characters discussing their strategies with a brief reprieve for bits where big ships fire upon each other. The actual battle takes place in the film’s middle; following is the lengthy aftermath in Montevideo, the British efforts to bluff Langsdorff into giving up and ending the fighting. It’s fine, but it isn’t thrilling, though there’s a nice sense of the excitement it causes in the city, including a very young Christopher Lee playing a Uruguayan bar owner who gets increasingly exasperated with all the attention.
Christopher Challis was the Director of Photography responsible for bringing to life those highly impressive battle scenes, the smooth maneuvering of massive ships preparing for conflict. It’s a beautifully shot film, unfortunately it’s one of those rare instances of the actual events being a lot more exciting than those committed to celluloid (there’s a great episode of Timewatch covering the story available on YouTube). The post-battle scenes remain somewhat anti-climactic, even with the closing money shot of Graf Spee on fire and sinking.
All the same, it was Powell and Pressburger’s biggest hit at the box office and a late success for the partnership. A happier ending than that met by Langsdorff himself. In the film, he meets Dove for a final chat that makes clear the respect he’s earned. In reality, having ensured that no further lives were lost (despite the misgivings of Hitler, who wanted him to continue the fight) and overseeing his crew’s transfer to Buenos Aires, he took his own life.
The Battle of the River Plate: ***