The Battle of the River Plate (1956)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

Alternate Title: Pursuit of the Graf Spee

, 1956. . Screenplay by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. Cinematography by . Produced by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Barely weeks into the Second World War, the German army has impressive battleships taking out Allied vessels in open waters and threatening the good guys’ victory. Among the most notable of these ships is the Graf Spee, commanded by Captain Langsdorff ( doing a Peter Sellers-worthy German accent), who has just sunk the British vessel Africa Shell in the Indian Ocean and has taken its crew as prisoners.

British Commodore rightfully guesses that the Graf Spee‘s next move will be to head to South America, and so sails his vessel with two other ships behind him that all get into an intense battle in open waters, the outcome resulting in one of the British ships heading off to the Falklands for repairs while the rest set down off the coast of Montevideo.

There, an American reporter takes hold of the story as a daily commentator on a political lockdown between warring nations, while behind the scenes British diplomats do their best to convince Uruguayan leaders to help them keep the Graf Spee anchored in their waters until they can figure out how to outmaneuvre the Germans and win this battle.

Told with a sacred sense of realism and, not atypical for a British war movie, a minimal amount of blustering patriotic fanfare, this penultimate collaboration between the legendary director-producer-screenwriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is among their least cherished works today, but at the time was their most financially successful film. Barely ten years after the war was over, British audiences were thrilled to see their achievements celebrated, and didn’t mind that this film’s near-sacred attention to detail, which includes a great deal of involvement of military personnel and equipment, doesn’t exactly contribute much excitement to the proceedings.

The film is not dull but it is clinically precise, which means that the lack of manipulation, while intellectually appreciated, does make one long for at least a little bit of mushy claptrap (Powell was reportedly inspired by Noel Coward and David Lean’s In Which We Serve, but he includes none of that film’s beautifully reserved, soulful sentimentality).

For filmmakers whose projects covered a wide range of subjects and settings that were rarely matched by their peers, Powell and Pressburger returned, understandably, to the setting of World War II a number of times in their careers, but the films made before the war was actually over (such as One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing and The Life and Death Of Colonel Blimp) include a genuine consideration for the facts as well as the moral considerations of fighting Nazis, particularly the danger of not finding a balance between maintaining British decorum in battle and understanding the lack of scruples coming at them from their very dangerous enemy. Once the war is over, there is a tension that is gone from their films set during that time, and their final project, Ill Met By Moonlight, would suffer the same tidy (and never smug) understanding of victory as a foregone conclusion that this one does, in both cases robbing the experience of a great deal of mystery and intrigue.

What the filmmakers do have here, though, is something intelligent and exact, highlighted by expert cinematography by Christopher Challis that finds its height in the middle section set in Montevideo (which includes with greasy hair as a man named Manolo).


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