Archive for Battle of the River Plate

Naval Gazing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2015 by dcairns


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.

Oh… Ludmilla!!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2008 by dcairns

Fun and frolics from Powell & Pressburger’s OH… ROSALINDA!!

A ballet/operetta movie based on Die Fledermaus but updated to four powers Vienna, with the Bat, played by Anton Walbrook, functioning as a black marketeer and general fixer — a singing Harry Lime, if you will — this movie could actually qualify as the weirdest thing the Archers ever attempted. And it’s generally regarded as a complete failure. I think it’s the only P&P film not yet available on DVD anywhere in the world.

Of course, dismissing something as a failure is too easy, and doesn’t really allow one to get to grips with the peculiar qualities that make a film interesting. For my money, ROS is a lot more engaging and enjoyable than either of the Archers’ late-period war films, BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE (a widescreen snooze that Powell pronounced himself pleased with) or ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT (a b&w trudge through one of the war’s least interesting skirmishes that Powell was deeply dissatisfied with, leading to the break-up of the Powell-Pressburger partnership). OH… ROSALINDA!! forms a trilogy with THE RED SHOES and TALES OF HOFFMAN, and if it isn’t quite as extreme in its eccentricity as the latter, it isn’t for want of trying.

I’ve had two memorable big-screen encounters with this movie. One was a private screening in the company of Comrade K, where it formed one half of an all-time great Fever Dream Double Feature so misbegotten I can hardly bring myself to mention the second film, which was… LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Now, you just can’t put Ophuls’ masterpiece on a double-bill with anything. The other film is always going to suffer. Here, the agreeably superficial similarity, that both films take place in lovingly rendered studio representations of Vienna, was wholly swamped by the massive tonal disparity, not to mention the stylistic clash between Ophuls elaborately artificial realism and Powell’s scattershot surrealism. “Some of those colo(u)rs just don’t belong together,” was just about the only sentence K. could formulate after exposure to the P&P movie, which had even caused the projectionist to avert his gaze. and he wasn’t wrong — driven by some inner demon, production designing genius Hein Heckroth blasts the audience with what might be politely called myriad hues, like a psychotic paintballer looming from the screen and giving vent to his full chromatic range as a final revenge upon the world.

The previous, more successful showing, was at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where Powell’s widow (and Scorsese’s editor) Thelma Schoonmaker, and the film’s cinematographer Christopher Challis, introduced it. “Now that you’ve all bought your tickets,” smiled the cherubic Challis, “I don’t suppose there’s any harm in telling you that when we made this film back in 1955, none of us liked it very much.”

Big laugh from the audience (the first of many).

(Incidentally, working for Powell as a cinematographer, though one might expect it to be exhausting work, seems to have had a beneficial effect on both Challis and Jack Cardiff, both of whom are enjoying Methusalah-like longevity as I type this.)

“They tell me this film’s been restored. I don’t quite know what that means, but when I look at myself in the mirror every morning, I do find myself wishing there was a restoration programme for aging cameramen,” Challis went on.

Thelma took the stage and told us that when Scorsese and Powell first started spending time together, Scorsese would look through Powell’s collection of memorabilia, and every now and then would find a lobby card or image from OH… ROSALINDA!! Anton Walbrook dressed as a bat… “‘What’s this?’ he’d ask, and Michael would look abashed and hide the image and say, ‘Oh, nothing, nothing…'”

Having set the film up as the great disaster of Powell & Pressburger’s career, Challis and Schoonmaker (they should form a comedy double act) had actually created the perfect mood to enjoy the film. Expectations had been lowered and spirits had been raised, and the movie could then shine as the rare piece of hallucinogenic confectionery it is, the embodiment of Gavin Lambert’s judgement on Powell: “He would do these extraordinary things, which didn’t always come off, but it mattered that he did them.”

Has anyone noticed that Mel Ferrer plays his part as an exact, note-for-note imitation of William Holden? It’s technically quite effective but falls short of actual charm, either because it’s too studied, or because Ferrer simply lacks the physique for it.

In the Youtubed scene we get two jokes at once, and I’ve chosen it for that reason. When Redgrave (at his campest, especially when paired with Walbrook — TOO MUCH!) attempts to throttle Ludmilla Tcherina (from THE RED SHOES and Sirk’s SIGN OF THE PAGAN), the towel on her head rearranges itself to form a pair of bunny ears. While Fiona was laughing at this, I was laughing at the fact that Tcherina, not generally considered the most capable actress alive, starts to make her throttling sound BEFORE Redgrave actually has his hands around her throat.

Now, ANTICIPATION is one of the most basic errors an actor can make, revealing to the audience that the performer knows what is going to happen next — has read the script, in fact. All illusion of reality is destroyed. But in the rather special case of a contemporary operetta on stage sets with singing and dancing and gay men playing straight men in a manner even camper than they would consider adopting if they were playing gay, if you follow me, all questions of reality should be pushed firmly into the cupboard of irrelevant things and locked up there for 101 minutes. Once this is done we can see that Tcherina’s choice is the most intelligent and thoughtful one possible, and entirely in the spirit of the exercise.