If truth be told, my interest in this film, or rather the Bismarck itself stems from the music and songs of the late Johnny Horton. A country music singer who was killed in a car crash all the way back in 1960. Horton recorded the song, Sink the Bismarck as a tie in with the film though it isn’t used on the soundtrack (just the U.S. trailer) as well as another popular song that same year, North to Alaska. The latter song was used over the opening credits of the John Wayne adventure. There was a time when I knew all the words to the Bismarck song and played it on the guitar so as a refresher for me and perhaps as an introduction to you, here is Horton’s rendition of the song that ties into tonight’s movie from the past.
The film itself is from eventual James Bond director, Lewis Gilbert. Based on a book by C.S. Forester, the film casts Kenneth More as a Captain who plots the destruction of the famed battleship from naval headquarters. He along with a select group of familiar faces gather around the giant map sized table moving their chess pieces about as updates continue to pour in from the planes that fly reconnaissance. Using archival footage, Adolf Hitler is seen at the ceremonial launch of the Bismarck before radio broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow gives his report over the airwaves painting a bleak picture at this point in the war for Britain.
More is the newly assigned officer in charge of the hunt and answers to Laurence Naismith who in turn answers to the Prime Minister who doesn’t make an appearance other than someone attempting to imitate his voice over a phone. More demands military precision from those under his command causing Naismith to remark, “He’s cold as a witch’s heart.” We’ll soon learn that More’s own ship was shot out from under him by the Admiral on board the Bismarck, Karel Stepanek. Admittedly, Stepanek brings an arrogance to the role the makes it somewhat clichéd and easy to root against even if we do know the outcome. This gives More’s officer a vendetta to act upon and when the Bismarck destroys the British ship, The Hood, he along with all of the country want the German ship sent to a watery grave.
The fact that only three seamen from The Hood survived of the over 1400 on board is so hard to fathom looking back at the history of WW2. In the end, the same can be said of the Bismarck’s crew. Apparently only 114 men survived from a crew of over 2000.
Gilbert does a good job at balancing the on sea action through the use of miniatures and newsreel footage with the dramatics around the planning table. It turns out that More has a son of his own in the Navy and is in harm’s way. At the same time he finds out that one of the ladies in his charge is herself in mourning for a lost fiancé and the pair might be a good match once the final reel plays itself out. The lady is played by the very attractive Dana Wynter who scores second billing next to More.
I’m no expert on the destruction of the Bismarck but for a change I have done a bit of research into the subject versus other movies based on historical fact. Because of the aforementioned song, I’m always up for a History channel documentary and have previously done some reading on the story surrounding the ship’s destruction before seeing the film. While I can’t comment on the actions and characters portrayed in the film, I do know that the main reason the Bismarck is eventually destroyed is covered in the film. I’ll let you do some looking for yourself to discover the reason for it’s eventual demise.
The F/X are well handled during the seafaring battles and you’ll spot actors like Maurice Denahm, Michael Hordern, Geoffrey Keene, Bernard Lee, Hammer films regular Michael Ripper and Walter Gotell among others. Gotell would go on to appear in a number of Bond films including those directed by Gilbert as Russian General Anatal Gogol. A bonus snippet of trivia is the fact that both More and Naismith appeared in another tale of the open seas together, A Night to Remember. The memorable movie on the story surrounding the Titanic made in 1958.
This proved to be a good film handled in a straight forward manor but I have to be honest. As much as I enjoyed it and could see myself possibly watching it again at some point in time, it screams out for a Jack Hawkins, a John Mills or a Richard Attenborough to lend a hand bringing their commanding military like presence to the film.