Battle Of The River Plate, made only 17 years after the event, depicts one of the defining moments of the early, comparatively quiet stages of World War II. A German pocket battleship, the Graf Spee, was causing havoc amongst the British merchant navy shipping until hunted down by three inferior quality British ships. Seriously damaged in the action, the Graf Spee limped into the neutral Uruguayan harbour Montevideo, to the great excitement of the world’s press. The ship’s captain was faced with the choice of having the ship impounded under the rules of the Geneva convention or setting out to sea again to face what he thought (thanks to some wily propaganda) was now an ever increasing fleet of ships from the Royal Navy. He chose neither, deciding instead to sink his own battleship as soon as he left port.
The tension of the hunt and eventual waiting game is masterfully drawn out by Powell and Pressburger. The dawn watch for the Graf Spee is a whirl of binoculars, telescopes and pipe smoking officers peering over gun turrets, as the ships plough through a beautifully photographed dawn. Ripples of cheery banter and camaraderie occasionally break the calm, all adding to the unbearable tension of the storm to come. The battle sequence is expertly portrayed, relying on the reactions of the men on the ships and their great physical exertions and agony as much as a few judiciously paced explosions. When The Exeter, one of the British ships, takes a pounding, sympathy is elicited as much by a smattering of brave wisecracks ("one more shot like that and we’ll go up like Joan Of Arc") as cries of pain. And although a few of the special effects now look a bit ropey, attention is never distracted because the action is so gripping.
But there’s more to this film than just the skilfully crafted action. A more complicated dimension is added with the portrayal of the German ship and a group of British merchant seamen they hold captive. Langsdorff, the captain of the Spee (the dignified Peter Finch) is shown to be a consummate gentleman, liked and even respected by the men he holds prisoner. The close, meticulously formal relationship he strikes up with Captain Dove (Lee) – which is itself based on the real friendship the two formed in the war – is particularly touching. The audience is compelled to root for the Germans almost as much as the British, and to feel some of the pity of war because the ship must inevitably go down.
John Gregson as Captain Bell, H.M.S. Exeter
Anthony Quayle as Commodore Harwood, H.M.S. Ajax
Peter Finch as Captain Langsdorff, Admiral Graf Spee
Ian Hunter as Captain Woodhouse, H.M.S. Ajax
Jack Gwillim as Captain Parry, H.M.S. Achilles
Bernard Lee as Captain Dove, M.S. Africa Shell
Lionel Murton as Mike Fowler
Anthony Bushell as Sir Millington Drake, British Minister, Montevideo
Peter Illing as Dr. Guani, Foreign Minister, Uruguay
Michael Goodliffe as Captain McCall R.N., British Naval Attache for Buenos Aires
Patrick Macnee as Lieutenant Commander Medley R.N.
John Chandos as Dr. Langmann, German Minister, Montevideo
Douglas Wilmer as M. Desmoulins, French Minister, Montevideo
William Squire as Ray Martin
Roger Delgado as Captain Varela, Uruguayan Navy
Andrew Cruickshank as Captain Stubbs – Doric Star
Christopher Lee as Manolo
David Farrar as Narrator
Jeremy Kemp as Gunner, H.M.S. Achilles
John Le Mesurier as Reverend George Groves – Padre, HMS Exeter
Cyril Luckham as Lieutenant Jasper Abbot, H.M.S. Achilles
Donald Moffat as Swanston, Lookout, H.M.S. Ajax
George Murcell as Chief Officer, Newton Beach
Anthony Newley as Radio Operator, Tairoa, Prisoner on Admiral Graf Spee
Nigel Stock as Chief Officer, Tairoa, Prisoner on Admiral Graf Spee
Production Design: Arthur Lawson
Writers, Producers And Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Editor: Reginald Mills
Original Music Composer: Brian Easdale
UK | 119 minutes | 1956