Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
Pursuit of the Graf Spee (Rank Organization, 1956) – Written and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Stars: John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, Ian Hunter, Jack Gwillim, Bernard Lee, Peter Finch, Lionel Murton, Anthony Bushell, Peter Illing, Michael Goodliffe, Patrick Macnee, John Chandos, Douglas Wilmer, William Squire, Roger Delgado, Andrew Cruickshank, Christopher Lee, Edward Atienza, April Olrich, & Peter Finch. Color, 199 minutes.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, otherwise known as The Archers, have given us many wonderful films over the years. This would be their next to last collaboration and their most commercially successful. Made in England as The Battle of the River Plate, it was edited and renamed in the United States as Pursuit of the Graf Spee.
The movie dramatizes one of the great British triumphs of World War II, and as such is in keeping with some of the most popular British films of the 50s, which were based on real life accounts of wartime missions. Films like Gift Horse (the raid on the submarine pens of St. Nazaire), They Who Dare (a commando raid in occupied Greece), The Dam Busters (a raid on the dams of the Ruhr), and The Colditz Story (an account of the escape from one of the most formidable prisons in Germany) paid tribute to British soldiers on special missions or engaged in near impossible tasks where they were taking on superior forces.
The Battle of The River Plate took place early in the war. The German pocket battleship Graf Spee was causing havoc, raiding the sea lane to India, where it sunk England-bound freighters and seized their crews. A trio of smaller British cruisers trailed the Graf Spee to the South Atlantic and attacked, damaging the ship and forcing it to retreat to the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo. The diplomats now took over the battle, with British intelligence agents bluffing the Germans into thinking that a full squadron was waiting in ambush outside the neutral port at the mouth of the estuary of the Rio de la Plata. Would the Germans allow the Graf Spee to remain in Montevideo and be seized by Uruguay by the rules of neutrality, or make a break for the open sea? Adding to the drama was the fact that the deathwatch for the battleship was covered live on radio.
It would seem that the subject matter could simply be taken and made into a standard war film. But keep in mind that neither Powell nor Pressburger were satisfied with merely making an ordinary film. They always went further and deeper into their subject matter, with the result that their films frequently stood above the rest. They made Pursuit of the Graf Spee 11 years after the end of the war, which allowed them to present a more relaxed attitude toward both the war and the enemy. They give us a sympathetic, non-stereotypical treatment of the German officers (a feature that can be seen in all of Powell’s war films, even those made early in the war and containing an obvious propaganda slant), and seem at times to be more concerned with the honor and integrity of the Graf Spee’s captain than the heroism of the British Navy, though on the surface the film is a valentine to the heroism and courage displayed by the British at a difficult point early in the war.
The film opens in November 1939. The British freighter, The Africa Shell, is sunk by the German battleship and its crew is taken prisoner. Despite the humiliating circumstances, the freighter’s commander, Captain Dove (Bernard Lee) is impressed by the courtesy and professionalism extended him by Captain Langsdorff (Finch) and the fact that the other prisoners are equally well-treated.
In the meantime, three British cruisers, the Exeter, the Ajax, and the Achilles, under the command of Commodore Harwood (Quayle), have assembled in the South Atlantic and are waiting for the Graf Spee as it heads home to Germany. They spot it near the mouth of the River Plate between Uruguay and Argentina, and although not as heavy armed, open fire. The battle rages for an hour with heavy casualties on both sides. But Captain Langsdorff mistakenly believes that the Ajax and Achilles are destroyers, instead of the smaller cruisers they actually are, and retreats into the neutral port of Montevideo. The British ships, though heavily damaged, follow in pursuit and lie in wait for the Graf Spee to come out.
Now begins the subtle game of diplomacy. Captain Langsdorff doesn't know that the only two Allied ships that were waiting for it were badly damaged and largely incapable of any further action. The third was knocked out of action in the battle. He remains in port, convinced by reports that a large British fleet is waiting for him. The British diplomats, quoting the Hague Convention, initially press to force the Graf Spee out of the neutral port in 48 hours. Shortly after, they reverse their strategy and scheme to keep her in port so as to allow more time for British reinforcements to assemble at the mouth of the river.
The scene quickly becomes a circus, with a crowd gathering on the beach on the first day that the Graf Spee could have sailed, joined by live radio coverage of the events as they were happening. Expecting a grisly fight to the death, everyone was surprised when the Graf Spee left port and was scuttled by Langsdorff before engaging the British ships.
Pursuit of the Graf Spee depicts the historical facts with reasonable accuracy, dividing the film into the meeting of Captains Dove and Langsdorff, the naval battle, and the later game of diplomatic poker that begins when the Graf Spee flees to Montevideo. There is rarely a dull moment as the early scenes between Dove and Langsdorff are used to provide the characterization necessary to transcend the typical war drama.
The film is rightly praised for its dramatic, stunning action sequences, which reflected the desire of Powell and Pressburger to make something better than the typical oceangoing movie where large model boats battle one another in a special effects tank. This was especially important as they opted for VistaVision, a new large format process from Paramount that put forth bright, sharp images, especially when employed with Technicolor. The use of models would have seriously cheapened the impact of the film, so the directors negotiated with the Royal Navy and the US Navy for ships to use as the participants, although some miniature effects were employed to depict parts of the finale.
Although the battle sequences are impressive, they run a clear second to the human drama, which is the real strength of the film. Powell and Pressburger depict Captain Langsdorff as a superb professional naval officer, able to efficiently execute his duty without sacrificing his humanity, instead of the usual portrayal of an idealistic fanatic and sadist. When Captain Dove is captured as his ship is sunk, he is allowed to see his crew rowing to safety on a nearby island and is assured by Langsdorff that no party will pursue them. He is impressed by Langsdorff's respect for the British officers and finds that they have much in common, as the two develop something in line with friendship. Thus, by the time of the battle sequence, Langsdorff is shown to be something of a likable figure; a feature that serves to heighten the human tension that occurs later when the ship is docked in port.
The highlight of the film occurs in the second half, when the Graf Spee is moored in Montevideo. Captain Langsdorff's aide throws a Christmas party for his prisoners, punctuating the celebration by announcing that, because Montevideo is a neutral port, they will be set free. We are also introduced to a group of calculating diplomats (Bushell and Wilmer) and British Naval Intelligence (Goodliffe and Squire). Powell and Pressburger do an excellent job displaying their machinations, first in trying to get the ship expelled as quickly as possible, then seeking to delay its departure so as to allow reinforcements to arrive and finish off the German ship, all the while flaunting their closer relations with the Uruguayan foreign minister.
Added to this is the arrival of American broadcaster Mike Fowler (Murton), who sets up a live reporting post on the patio of a seaside bar owned by the reluctant and easily riled Manolo (Christopher Lee) by purchasing hundreds of drinks he can’t possibly ingest. This sets up the finale of the public circus on the seashore, all to the accompaniment of an impressive montage of nighttime Montevideo sights.
As the deadline is reached the next day, a huge audience lines the shore, hoping to witness the final battle. It’s accompanied by the radio play-by-play of Fowler, which gives the scene a definite comic tinge as he lays it on with a trowel: “The whole world is watching and waiting with suspense for the battle of the ages.” We quickly cut to a couple of British listeners, one of whom notes, “Lays it on a bit thick, doesn’t he?” Fowler, who has been bloviating nonstop, is beginning to become hoarse and begins to down glass after glass of scotch.
As the Graf Spee pulls out of the harbor, the ending, far from being a fight to the death, becomes anticlimactic as Langsdorff sees his crew safely off, then scuttles his ship before what he believes to be a waiting superior British force comes to finish him off.
For such a tightly contained film about a relatively minor, though important, battle given the morale implications in England, Powell and Pressburger give it a truly epic feel. This is even more remarkable considering that the battle itself, though the centerpiece for the film, is not the focus, but rather the human drama, with the stress being laid on the experience of the sailors and civilians involved, from the captured merchant seamen being held aboard the Graf Spee to the concerns of the officers and crew of the three British cruisers to the spectator circus that breaks out when the Graf Spee retreats to Montevideo.
Not that the battle scenes are underrepresented. We get to see what a naval battle is really like, as opposing crews are shooting each other to bits; a direct hit on the bridge of the Exeter calming met by its ranking officers. The scenes are efficiently and dramatically filmed, with as little use of models as possible (except at the conclusion), thanks to the loan of real warships by both the English and American navies. One truly impressive scene shows the British Minister observing the Graf Spee from the balcony of his embassy, a wonderful build-up to the dramatic finale.
The directors are abetted by an outstanding cast of actors. There is not one sour note in the entire film. As Commodore Harwood of the H.M.S.Ajax, Anthony Quayle embodies the finest of the British “stiff upper lip” tradition, while allowing for human feelings, as when the officers of the Exeter meet their doom. Bernard Lee, as Captain Dove of the M.S. Africa Shell, gives the right amount of trepidation and afterward puzzlement as he discovers that his captor is not about to employ sadistic methods. In fact, Lee’s friendship with Langsdorff provides another highlight, as the two come to terms though their relationship is unequal.
However, in the final analysis, the performance of Peter Finch as Langsdorff is the highlight of the cast. His portrayal affords the the German captain a great deal of sympathy, showing a man caught in a true no-win situation who chooses not to engage in a pointlessly deadly battle, the whose sole purpose of which would be the maintenance of Nazi glory. Instead, he places the lives of his crew over that of pleasing his fuehrer.
For all practical purposes, however, the captain did go down with his ship. The directors neglect the real final ending to the story. Langsdorff made his way to Buenos Aires, where, two days later, knowing the consequences if he were to return to Germany, he committed suicide in his room at the Naval Hotel. After writing letters to his family and superiors, in which he acknowledged his responsibility for scuttling the battleship, he laid down on the Graf Spee’s battle ensign while in full naval dress and shot himself, preventing any allegations that he had avoided a final battle because of cowardice.
As noted above, Pursuit of the Graf Spee was the next-to-last film directed the team of Powell and Pressburger and was their most commercially successful. Though today it is regarded as below their best work (I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), it still rates as a superior film, especially in its genre.
Michael Powell was so fascinated by the story of the Graf Spee that in 1956 he published a novel, The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee, recounting its historic last few weeks of service.
After this, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would share the directing credit on just one more film, 1957’s Ill Met by Moonlight, although Pressburger would script two of Powell's later films, They're a Weird Mob (1966) and The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972).