“A most interesting chess game.”
By March 1941, Britain’s resources were being heavily strained by the work of the German navy, and in that month alone, shipping losses in the Atlantic were 350,000 tons — a high for the war to date. To add to this, Germany was now ready to send its newest and most powerful battleship, the Bismarck, into the Atlantic as well. Sporting eight 15-inch guns and able to do 30 knots despite the over-12-inch-thick steel plating protecting its sides and turrets, the ship was expected to spearhead a task force that could attack any Atlantic convoy no matter how well protected by escort ships it might be.
As the Bismarck, accompanied by the new cruiser Prinz Eugen, attempted to break out into the Atlantic by way of the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland, she was discovered by the British and engaged by the Hood, Britain’s most famous but aging warship. In the exchange, the Hood was sunk by the Bismarck. The Bismarck too suffered damage, mainly to its fuel tanks, and it headed to a port in France to effect repairs. Despite British ships in pursuit, it looked like the Bismarck might be able to escape, but an aerial attack launched from the British carrier Ark Royal crippled the Bismarck enough for a combined British assault by two battleships and two cruisers to destroy and sink it.
In 1960, a British production entitled Sink the Bismarck dramatized these events and Fox has now made the film available on DVD as part of its third wave of Fox War Classics.
Captain Jonathan Shepard is newly assigned as the Director of Naval Operations, in charge of the Admiralty War Room located deep in the ground under the Admiralty Headquarters building in London. His appointment coincides with the attempted breakout into the Atlantic of the German battleship Bismarck. A tense war of nerves develops as the British Navy attempts to first find and then destroy the ship. The action alternates between the strategy of the War Room (where the emotionless Shepard comes to depend on the assistance of WREN 2nd Officer Anne Davis), the bridge of the Bismarck where Admiral Luytens and Captain Lindemann decide on the German moves, and the actions of the commanders of the various British ships giving chase.
Even though one knows the eventual outcome, this is a fascinating tale of naval tactics. The decision to focus the story on the War Room and blend action footage (some actual and some miniature special effects) with that works very well, resulting in the creation of real tension. The miniature work tends to pale beside the actual combat footage, but is not a bad effort overall, reflecting the influence of special effects expert Howard Lydecker. The Shepard and Davis characters are fictional, although there were presumably real-life counterparts at least in the case of Shepard’s character, but the rest of the individuals are historical personages. The events portrayed — ships, locations, timing, actions — generally reflect history as it occurred.
The Shepard character is a bit of a war stereotype — emotionless and by the book, but of course there’s a reason, which seasoned war-film watchers will soon guess. The part is well-played by Kenneth More, a familiar British star most active during the 1950s and 1960s. More nearly always conveyed a rather bland, straight-laced persona, no matter the part, but this worked fairly effectively in authoritarian roles especially military ones. Other More war film successes were Reach for the Sky (1956, in which he portrayed legless RAF pilot Douglas Bader), The Longest Day (1962), and Battle of Britain (1969). He is also remembered for his work in A Night to Remember (1958), and in a change of pace, 1953’s Genevieve.
Co-starring with More in the role of Anne Davis (the obligatory softening female influence on More’s character) is Dana Wynter, a fine actress who seldom seemed to be used to her full potential. Most active in the 1950s, her appearances became increasingly infrequent in succeeding decades. Look for her in a good entry in Fox’s previous wave of war films — D-Day the Sixth of June (1956). Edward R. Murrow adds a touch of gravity playing himself reporting to American audiences from London.
The film is a black and white Cinemascope production that is given pretty good respect on Fox’s DVD. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks quite crisp throughout although some of the combat footage belies its age. There are some speckles and a minor bit of debris, but overall the image is pleasing with deep blacks and good shadow detail. There is occasional evidence of edge effects, but it’s not distracting.
We get four different sound tracks — English, French, and Spanish mono, and English stereo. The English mono is a workmanlike effort that conveys the essence of the story quite satisfactorily although there is some minor hiss at times. The stereo mix does add a little presence to the battle scenes, but beyond that is not greatly distinguishable from the mono. English and Spanish subtitles are also available.
The extras include a very interesting Fox Movietone newsreel that provides actual footage of the British Navy/Bismarck exchange, and theatrical trailers in both English and Spanish. The latter appears identical to the English version, just with Spanish subtitles added. The English trailer includes a few bars of the popular Johnny Horton song of the time, also entitled “Sink the Bismarck.” Also included on the disc are trailers for the other four films in this wave of Fox War Classics — 13 Rue Madeleine, The Blue Max, The Desert Fox, and Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, — as well as The Enemy Below, a film that Fox had to drop from its DVD plans when it realized it didn’t have the rights to it.
Sink the Bismarck is a nicely crafted World War II film that provides an authentic look at how the German battleship Bismarck was sunk. Despite knowing the outcome, the film still manages to generate considerable suspense by focusing on the Admiralty War Room in London, making the audience wait for information just as tacticians there had to. Fox’s DVD presentation is quite nice, reflecting the use of source material that is in good shape. An easy purchase recommendation for war film fans.