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 ~
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.