Naval Gazing


When I was a kid, the big military entertainments didn’t really mean that much to me — I don’t even remember for sure if I’ve seen WHERE EAGLES DARE. But the naval films were probably the worst, though not as noisy as air ones. So although Britain produced endless naval films both during and after the war — re-fighting the old battles all through the white heat of the technological revolution, I have seen David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE and Michael Powell’s THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE and little else. And those are two of my less-favourite Lean and Powell films.

GIFT HORSE (1952) dates from a time when at least some of the US war pictures were starting to take a more considered, less triumphalist view of the conflict, now that the need for propaganda was over. Britain, feeling less secure, kept on flag-waving — but director Compton Bennett had a gift for melancholy and the five writers include the talented William Rose, whose THE LADYKILLERS conceals an iconoclastic sensibility. The film’s best moments have to do with the malfunctionings of the leaky tub gifted to embattled Britain by the US before America entered the war, and the malfunctionings of Trevor Howard’s rustbucket of a face. He’s a broken-down captain hauled out of mothballs for the war and given one last chance to salvage his holed reputation. Joining him for the voyage are numerous trusty supporting players, the kind of people these films always throng with —


There’s no Jack Hawkins, whose involvement in RIVER PLATE was considered essential by the Admiralty — they simply couldn’t imagine taking seriously a sea picture without him, Here we benefit from less stalwart faces — a great slab of Bernard Lee, jug-eared and limpid-eyed, and the equally soulful Richard Attenborough, the babyish features that turned up with eye-glazing reliability. Here he’s amusingly cast as a former trade unionist turned “sea lawyer” — a sailor who knows his rights, knows the regulations, knows when he’s due overtime, and ends by lecturing his German captors on the Geneva Convention. His appearance is ever-predictable in these things but he always gives value for money.

The surprise bit by Hugh Williams had me rubbing my hands with glee — his oiliness always gives satisfaction, and results in an amiable surprise when he turns out to be a decent chap here. The weirdest casting is James Donald as a free-and-easy Canadian. It’s not just that he can’t do the accent, can barely suggest it in an embarrassed way, it’s that nobody was ever less free and easy than James Donald. If you want someone to stare wide-eyed at carnage and mutter “Madness. Madness!” James Donald is your man. But if you want someone with the gleam of gaiety in his eye and a devil-may-care sparkle in his smile, then please hire him and make him stand in front of James Donald. What James Donald projects is the cares of the world, boring out of his eyeholes with a soft whimper.


Asides from the movie’s bracing melancholy — the ship fails to perform at every turn, and so do the crew, and their final victory is achieved by ramming a port, using the ship as a cudgel, then blowing her up — it also has a startling fight scene, a bar brawl in Sid James’ pub. Like the man himself, the character is an ex-pugilist, the walls of the house decorated with photographs of his past fights — the pub as metaphor for British cinema? But look what Bennett does with it ~

The Sid James Centre from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Something between COLONEL BLIMP’s jump-cut trophies and Richard Lester.

Then I turned to SINK THE BISMARCK, a 1960 Fox production in ‘Scope, but still British to the core. Doughty, doughy Kenneth More takes the Jack Hawkins part this time, playing an entirely fictitious commander parachuted into the true story because, presumably, the real sea lord didn’t want to be made into a Boy’s Own hero, or to be played by Kenneth More.

Sea battles aren’t close-quarters, which is probably why the young me didn’t care for them. They have the quality of board games, but with added death by immolation and drowning. Here, More never even gets his feet wet, directing operations from deep underneath Trafalgar Square with the beauteous Dana Wynter at his side, while the heroic death-blow at sea is struck by, of all people, Michael Hordern. In a long and varied career I doubt he had that privilege very often.


Journeyman director Lewis Gilbert keeps the thing trundling along relatively briskly, and the only painful bits are the hackneyed scenes with Admiral Lutyens, played by Karel Stepanek, who can do nothing with the boilerplate Nazi they’ve written for him. In a misguided attempt at expressionism or something, Gilbert introduces the character (left of frame, above) with his back to us, head apparently ablaze. We sense that he’s smoking some evil brand of National Socialist tobacco, but the illusion that his scalp is on fire is inescapable and inappropriately amusing.

The other interesting bit of weak direction comes when More gets the news that his son is lost at sea (and the production, to their credit, did manage to find an actor with the same cuboid head as More). Hearing the tragic news on the phone, More closes his eyes in silent grief.


Later, hearing on the phone that his son has been rescued, More closes his eyes in silent relief.


Calling Comrade Kuleshov! Ken More makes the same face for grief and relief! Since the rest of More’s face is just a frowning thumb, I wondered what other choices were open to the filmmakers, and remembered Billy Wilder’s advice that you should always try to film actors getting bad news from the back. And then I remembered Werner Herzog listening to that guy getting eaten by bears in GRIZZLY MAN, and how he instead filmed someone else simply watching him listening to it, without being able to hear it, setting the snuff recording back by about three removes from the eventual audience. So I figured Gilbert should have cut to Dana Wynter, who has a far lovelier and more expressive face than More, and watched her watching her, capturing her reaction as she realizes what’s happened.


SINK THE BISMARCK! is edited by Peter Hunt, a very talented cutter who helped set the pacey style for the Bond series, and directed one of the very best, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. But I think his talent was more for the action stuff than for scenes or emotion.


Both movies cope mostly with real ship manoeuvres filmed specially, closer views of crew taken in the studio against variable cycloramas, and stock shots from the war, but both have occasionally to resort to special effects, and these sometimes get a bit psychedelic (above), though not as surreal as those watery explosions in DAMBUSTERS. Bennett and Gilbert both favour a stationary camera, which does the action no favours — I’m not calling for Paul Greengrass but a bit of sway would help things — but at least Gilbert has good model shots to work with — even the sea, usually a dead giveaway in model shots, looks convincing.

19 Responses to “Naval Gazing”

  1. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    You were a tad harsh on old Ken Moore. And what the hell was Sonny Tufts doing in that clip?

  2. He’s in the film, presumably because they needed an American “star” — why they couldn’t have cast him as the Canadian I don’t know. That would have at least made a sort of sense and would have spared James Donald from an uncomfortable stretch. His character is supposed to be British born but American raised. Perfectly possible, but feels like a contrivance for box office reasons.

  3. There’s a list-making opportunity — movies where Americans played Canadians.

  4. You know you’ve yet to see the most important naval picture, The Cruel Sea, right?
    I like Sink the Bismarck quite a bit because it very effectively sets the stakes and makes step by step clear what’s happening contrary e.g. to The Battle of the River Plate which in an article about British naval films I interpreted as a subversive film out of sheer desperation considering the absurd visual and narrative approach. Gilbert’s film is no Citizen Kane but it exactly achieves what it sets out to achieve. It’s indeed about a cool chess game and therefore the visual style seems very fitting to me. The demonization of Lütjens is completely wrong because the real Lütjens was neither much of a Nazi nor particularily eager to fight against capital ships. And the fact that a single torpedo by an old plane sealed Bismarck’s fate is extremely ironic and very fitting for the end of the era of battleships, but it contradicts the whole suspense stuff about the Bismarck being the sea monster.

  5. I did a bit of reading and learned that the Germans scuttled their own ship rather than let it be captured after it was disabled. Of course this wouldn’t fit the movie’s narrative of British triumph.

    Powell researched the sinking of the Graf Spee so thoroughly he was able to get a book out of it as well as a film, so it’s odd that the film isn’t more a piece of lucid history.

    Yeah, The Cruel Sea is certainly on my list. I might have another double bill soon — any recommendations for the second feature?

  6. Basically battleship fights are extremely uncinematographic because of the enormous distances and because ships in trouble tend to hide under smokescreens. Also even the commanders tend to lose the overview over the events, the film e.g. avoids mentioning that the Hood fired on the cruiser Prinz Eugen mixing her up with the much larger Bismarck.
    So you could make a truly great film about the absurdity of war by faithfully recounting every major sea battle and all the wrong decisions undertaken and unpredictable accidents happening. But that obviously wasn’t Gilbert’s intention which is a bit of a pity.

    For a double feature take San Demetrio London also by Charles Frend, both films together establish him as the most important naval film director … the competition is admittedly very limited in number, but both films are impressive and Cruel Sea is one of the best war films I’ve seen, naval or otherwise.

  7. Have you seen The Big Blockade? Frend made a trilogy, it seems!

    Gift Horse gets closer to the absurdity since Howard was grounded after a collison, and his career with the refitted and renamed American ship (I thought it was bad luck to rename a ship?) is mostly a catalogue of blunders. The ending provides some (slightly ironic) uplift but it’s agreeably mordant most of the time.

  8. I had limited space and the main thrust was how to represent capital ships on screens especially in battle (San Demetrio London does this well in a few shots). Since Cruel Sea simply had to be in it and the Lean/Coward film was somehow an unavoidable starting point, the focus got a bit diluted and there was absolutely no room for anything more.
    When time permits in a few months I’ll check up on Gift Horse.

  9. You always make interesting points, David. I’m probably misreading, but is the connection between RIVER PLATE and Jack Hawkins thematic or something? Because no Brit war picture can do without him? Effects people in general consider the ships in BISMARCK to be brilliant, the Lydecker stuff. The German admiral is not the film’s dramatic highlight, but the last criticism I’d make is that he has smoke coming off his head. And if Kennetn More has a limited acting range – I know nobody likes him any more – he’s still very effective in the picture. RIVER PLATE isn’t THE RED SHOES, but it’s really sophisticated for a Brit ‘how I won the war’ epic, almost making fun of Navy Intelligence’s clever dominance of the spy game. I agree with Armin, THE CRUEL SEA is on a higher level.

  10. More is OK, I guess — I’ve come to realize he’s preferable to John Gregson — my criticism is more of the way the filmmaking exposes his limitations rather than concealing them. Although I guess I did call him a frowning thumb.

    There is no connection between Hawkins and River Plate save one forged in Powell’s memoirs, where he claims the Admiralty thought Hawkins ought to be in every sea picture, and were more concerned with that than authenticity.

    Armin, thanks for the suggestions, I am following them up!

  11. henryholland666 Says:

    As someone who was born on a US Air Force base and lived on ’em until I was 15, I saw war movies constantly. I love submarine movies, they’re a perfect vehicle for drama since they’re enclosed spaces that allow the characters time to reveal their personalities. Oh, and lots of hot, sweaty guys without shirts on, once you get to the engine and torpedo sections.

    Really, dinging Kenneth More for having a limited range? You could say the same about 90% of the actors who have ever appeared on screen. He’s very good in the rather poor “Sheriff of Fractured Jaw”, very good in “Doctor in the House” and he’s fantastic in “A Night to Remember” among others. From the Wikipedia entry about “The Collector”:

    “The original cut of The Collector ran for three hours.[4] Because of pressure from his producers, Wyler was forced to cut the film heavily. This resulted in the complete removal of 35 minutes of prologue material starring Kenneth More. Wyler said: “Some of the finest footage I ever shot wound up on the cutting room floor, including Kenneth’s part.”

    A Kenneth More fan

  12. It’s not so much his limited range — lots of actors are superb within a limited range. It’s the limits of what he could do within those limits. No sexuality apart from a kind of bluff heartiness. Two modes of being: earnest and jocular. And a fairly inexpressive, masklike frontage.

    Very useful in some things, when used sparingly. I don’t like him so much in A Night to Remember, which I otherwise admire enormously. I would be very interested to see what Wyler would have got out of him, since WW never stinted at drawing forth performances his actors didn’t think they had in them. Something awkward about that last sentence but you get the idea.

    If I must have an earnest chap, I prefer John Mills, who could Admit Doubt.

  13. “Yeah, The Cruel Sea is certainly on my list. I might have another double bill soon — any recommendations for the second feature?”

    One film which would provide an interesting contrast with The Cruel Sea is The Ship that Died of Shame, also based on a story by Nicholas Monserrat. It looks at post-war disillusion and corruption with a subtle supernatural aspect.
    Coronel and the Falklands, the recently rereleased silent film, rises to an Eisensteinian level in places. Set in the same part of the world as the Battle of the River Plate.

  14. DBenson Says:

    Michael Caine in an interview said that as a young man he preferred American war movies to British ones. In the British films, the officers were the heroes. In the American ones, it was the guys like himself.

  15. Nearly all Caine’s early bit parts are in British war films! So he must have looked enviously upon a cinema where the kind of roles he was getting could be the lead parts. (But perhaps not the Gestapo agent he played for Andre DeToth.)

    In naval films the captains and first officers are nearly always the leads, though, as the other ranks don’t have enough self-determination. Rene Clement’s submarine picture Les Maudits is a rare example with ship’s doctor
    as main character.

  16. I like Sink the Bismarck! because it unfurls like a monster movie, with the killer-ship’s progress marked only by glimpses and rumours until it finally shows its teeth by blasting HMS Hood out of the water, at which the Brits say something wonderfully understated like, “Blimey! The Hood’s… gone.”

    And I like British war movies because even the propaganda ones tend to be surprisingly downbeat and non-triumphalist. I mean, the ship in In Which We Serves sinks! The whole operation in Above Us the Waves isn’t exactly an unqualified success.

    Currently reading Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat, the true story that was adapted as The Man Who Never Was (which always makes me cry a lot). Highly recommended, especially for the glimpse into espionage and counter-espionage during the war. Did you know MI5 had a secret “execution subcommittee” whose task was to kill off double agents who had never existed in the first place? And that one of Hitler’s most trusted men was almost certainly trying to sabotage the German war effort? Wonderful stuff.

  17. Ooh, that sounds great! I have a WW2 project on the go at present so all this stuff is grist to the mill.

    I like Classic British Understatement and dislike the gung-ho approach. The Brit films are very class-conscious, though — that’s my first obersvation from halfway through The Cruel Sea, where Stanley Baker’s character, a used-car salesman in civilian life, is presented as worse than Hitler.

    I remember really liking The Ship That Died of Shame as a kid, Roger. I don’t remember much except an unusual atmosphere. I should revsisit it — I like Basil Dearden when he’s on form.

  18. Have you seen The Night My Number Came Up (1955)? – not war, but a rather good Ealing paranormal aeroplane disaster movie directed by Barry Norman’s father. (I always associate it with The Man Who Never Was, for some reason.)

  19. Leslie Norman seems a little bit boring — I’m certain the best bits in X The Unknown are by Joe Losey. But that sounds enticing!

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