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A decent war film, but it's The Archers at their dullest
on 11 April 2017
THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE (aka, Pursuit of the Graf Spee) ***
(1956, UK, 114 min, colour, English subtitles, Aspect ratio: 4:3 Letterbox, Audio: Mono)
Extra: Theatrical trailer
As a war film Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Battle of the River Plate (1956) is a decent watch. It captures for posterity with reasonable accuracy the first meaningful World War Two naval battle that took place December 1939 in the South Atlantic between the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee and three gallant British cruisers. Like the battle, the film unfolds in two halves, the opening hour charting the engagement itself off the South American coast which leads to the disablement of the Graf Spee and her escape into the neutral harbour of Montevideo. The final 45 minutes charts the stand-off between the German captain Hans Langsdorff (Peter Finch) begging the Uruguay authorities for more time to repair his ship and the British pressing initially for a quick release so that their ships can kill the Graff Spee off as soon as she leaves harbour. Tension is admirably built up over both halves. After an introduction showing Langsdorff (an honorable German seaman rather than a despicable Nazi) picking up the survivors of his latest kill (the MS Africa Shell captained by Patrick Dove [Bernard Lee] who in reality wrote the book ‘I Was a Prisoner on the Graf Spee’ which The Archers used, and who is an extra here appearing among the prisoners), the battle itself is shown completely from the point of view of the captured POWs below deck and the three bridges of the British cruisers, the Ajax captained by Henry Harwood (Anthony Quayle), the Exeter captained by Fred Bell (John Gregson) and the Achilles captained by Edward Parry (Jack Gwillim). It isn’t easy to convey on film tension in naval battles with the ships dwarfing the men operating them, but Powell/Pressburger manage it very well by slightly telescoping actual events and focusing on rigidly observed naval procedures followed through under duress by the various crews. The Graf Spee is more heavily armed than her attackers and once Langsdorff realizes he is under attack from mere cruisers rather than battleships and that they are trying to divide his fire, he focuses mercilessly on the Exeter whose plight lends the film its greatest drama.
The latter half follows the tit-for-tat diplomacy flowing between the German, the British, the French and the Uruguay authorities and likewise skilfully escalates the tension, this time through the American radio reporter Mike Fowler (Lionel Murton) who acts as narrator feeding us all the information we need. The finale is spectacular and well worth the wait. Again fact is closely observed, though the film does slightly glaze over the reality of what really happened to Langsdorff in the end. War film lovers will not be disappointed though some navy boffins might protest at slight inaccuracies. Excellent colour photography (Christopher Challis) and superior performances (especially Quayle and Finch) engage the senses and British audiences will doubtless enjoy picking out David Farrar’s uncredited narration and some familiar faces – John Le Mesurier’s debut as the Exeter’s chaplain, Barry Foster in the crew of same, and a slightly camp Christopher Lee as Manolo, a Uruguayan bar owner much maligned by Fowler. Look closely and you might even spot future director John Schlesinger among the POWs. Like I say, as a war film this is superior entertainment which more than holds its own beside other examples of its type such as The Key (1958) and The Cruel Sea (1953).
As a Powell/Pressburger film however, The Battle of the River Plate is much more problematic and may well rate as their dullest hour (or two). As Tony Rayns has said elsewhere, it was a great shame that Britain’s foremost imaginative filmmakers had to waste their talent in the late 50s on commissioned propaganda designed to celebrate the exploits of British naval heroes in the war (many of whom including Gwillim and Gregson appear in the film), massage the ego of a Royal Navy only too willing to lend their ships to the cause (the real HMS Achilles even plays herself), and further a rapprochement between Britain and Germany following the end of hostilities. Don't get me wrong, the Royal Navy and the heroes who fought in the war deserve celebrating, but not in the hands of filmmakers famous for their unique blending of the fantastical with the realistic. There is a certain irony here as propaganda had often been an element of their very best films (A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death) along with sympathetic Germans (49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but where those films gloriously transcend their brief with astonishing wit and astounding visual imagination, both Ill Met By Moonlight and The Battle of the River Plate feel like the great duo are simply stunting their imaginations and going through the motions. Superior war films they may be, but by The Archers’ own high standards both assignments were strictly routine.
In River Plate especially the mechanics of the battle and the following diplomacy leave precious room for visual or verbal imagination so that when The Archers do attempt to throw in their usual literary/baroque touches, it feels awkward and even out of place. Early on a seaman addresses Harwood by misquoting Shakespeare: “The ides of December are come,” to which Harwood replies, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.” (Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1). This is a typically subtle and humorous Powell/Pressburger putdown on authority with Commodore Harwood reduced to the role of Soothsayer and in another context or even film (A Matter of Life and Death say) it would work brilliantly, but appearing alone amidst a sea of mundane military language it seems merely incongruous. Similarly, when the film gets to Montevideo The Archers focus on the neon-lit nightlife and they attempt comedy with some business about a nightclub singer (April Olrich) singing while wrestling with Fowler trying to get her mike and set up his reporting base in a café. In a film where no other women appear and human contact is at a premium, the scene again seems to have strayed in from another film. Then there's the location work. We are told the film was shot on location in Montevideo (and Valetta, Malta), but we get little sense of atmosphere and it all looks thoroughly studio-bound even if it wasn’t. Powell really goes to town on the film’s finale, shot at sunset with the finale of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung blaring away uncredited on the soundtrack as one character invokes ‘The Twilight of the Gods’, but again this feels like misplaced poetry. Even the admittedly glorious colour photography works against this film in the end. When it’s matched with the stunning visual fantasy of Black Narcissus say or Blimp, one’s mouth falls open with astonishment at what colour photography when it’s used properly can really do. Matched with, let’s face it, a straightforward war picture it does seem like stylistic overkill. This is a film which could have been shot in b/w without losing a thing.
So there you have it, The Battle of the River Plate satisfies as a superior war film (it performed well at the box office, being 4th highest grossing 1957 film and receives here on Amazon a number of rave reviews), but if you come to it expecting the astonishing visual imagination of Powell/Pressburger at their best, or even at their second best (49th Parallel) you will be sorely disappointed.