ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Sink the Bismarck! (1960) dir: Lewis Gilbert Blu Ray (Eureka!)
A high-stakes sea battle
As the title suggests, this WWII drama chronicles Britain’s attempts to sink an all-powerful German warship known as the Bismarck, commanded by the ambitious Admiral Günther Lutjens (Karel Stepanek). Back in London, the stoic Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More) coordinates a fleet of vessels in a desperate attempt to gain any advantage that he can over this incredibly dangerous adversary. When the British Navy’s best ship - the HMS Hood - is blown out of the water, things don’t look good. However, the stakes couldn’t be higher and the country’s reserve isn’t broken just yet.
Watch a trailer:
A worthy tale of wartime tactics
Sink the Bismarck! is an earnest, stiff-upper-lip British war drama helmed by Lewis Gilbert, a man whose directorial career spanned nearly six decades (from 1944 to 2002) and included three James Bond films (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker).
It’s a solidly serviceable effort which stays afloat due, in no small part, to its fine central performances. This is particularly the case of Kenneth More, playing a naval boss whose coldly rigid surface is a cover for the pain of the loss of a loved one, and of Dana Wynter, playing his doggedly loyal but warmly sympathetic assistant.
Moreover, while it’s not explicitly an anti-war film, it does at least take time to count the human cost of such an endeavour - be it the hapless young man being forced to work late despite the fact that his nurse girlfriend is about to leave for the front line the following morning, or More’s character finally taking the opportunity to open up and grieve. Even the German antagonists are lent some vestiges of humanity; while Karel Stepanek makes for a somewhat ruthlessly fanatical lead villain, his right-hand man Kapitän Ernst Lindemann (played by Carl Möhner) questions his superior’s actions and frets about the welfare of his men. Towards the end, the sight of the Bismarck’s torn metal hulk covered with (black and white) blood splatters and the crumpled corpses of uniform-clad men makes for sombre viewing.
The film focuses at least as heavily on naval tactics as it does on things blowing up, with a lot of it taking place within command rooms rather than on the front line. However, enough tension is generated to hold the interest throughout. Indeed, if anything, the intermittent depictions of maritime skirmishes are the weakest elements of the film. The budget was clearly fairly low since most of the long shots of ships and aircraft use miniatures, with a few inserts of WWII stock footage thrown in for good measure. The miniature work is pretty impressive for 1960 but is still quite noticeable. It is also obvious that a number of these shots are reused multiple times, thus rendering the action repetitive and somewhat confusing
Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, Sink the Bismarck! is a decent old-fashioned war film, while still crafted with enough intelligence to hold up fairly well today.
Runtime: 97 mins
Dir: Lewis Gilbert
Script: Edmund H. North, C.S. Forester
Starring: Kenneth More, Dana Wynter, Carl Möhner, Laurence Naismith, Geoffrey Keen, Karel Stepanek, Michael Holdern, Esmond Knight, Edward R. Murrow
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
There’s a thin, bright line visible down the picture at times. With that notable exception, the restoration looks and sounds reasonably clean.
Interview with Sheldon Hall
Hall, a film historian from Sheffield Hallam University, provides us with this enjoyable and fascinating dissection of Sink the Bismarck!. It was one of at least 85 WWII films to have been Britain between the end of the war and 1960. They were the most popular genre at the box office but, with odd exception such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, were rarely well regarded by critics. This was also the case with this film, which did well financially in both the UK and the US but was slammed critically for its stock characterisations.
The first draft of the script was written by C.S. Forester, who interviewed many people connected with the battle. However, producer John Brabourne was dissatisfied with it and hired Edmund H. North to rewrite it. Forester decided to turn his rejected script into a novel and thus got a misleading “based on a book by” credit on the film. The film was funded by 20th Century Fox to the tune of $1.3 million. However, Brabourne used his connections with Lord Mountbatten to gain access to The Royal Navy Admiralty and the decks of some period ships.
Both actor Kenneth More and director Lewis Gilbert served in the British Royal Navy during WWII. More notably, actor Esmond Knight who portrayed the onscreen captain of the HMS Prince of Wales actually served on this same vessel during the real-life battle. Indeed, he was lost his sight during the fracas and had to feel his way around the set by hand. Real-life war correspondent Edward R. Murrow also played himself in the film.
While the film is largely historically accurate, the onscreen characterisations of Admiral Günther Lutjens and Kapitän Ernst Lindemann are an exception. In the film, Lutjens is depicted as the more fanatical Nazi, whereas Lindemann is shown to have his reservations. In real life, however, Lindemann was the more fervent figure who drove the ship further into battle, whereas Lutjens was the more reluctant character. In fact, the latter was known to be critical of the regime’s treatment of the Jews.
The only other extra here is a trailer.
Sink the Bismarck! remains a fairly solid account of a significant WWII battle. Although there’s only one real extra here to speak of, it’s a pretty good one.