Sink the Bismarck!
|Sink the Bismarck!|
Original film poster by Tom Chantrell, showing Kenneth More and Dana Wynter. Tagline: "The Greatest Naval Epic of Them All."
|Directed by||Lewis Gilbert|
|Produced by||John Brabourne|
|Written by||Edmund H. North|
|Music by||Clifton Parker|
|Editing by||Peter R. Hunt|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Release date(s)||11 February 1960|
|Running time||97 min.|
|Box office||$3,000,000 (US/ Canada)Please note figures are rentals as opposed to total gross.|
Sink the Bismarck! is a 1960 black-and-white British war film based on the book Last Nine Days of the Bismarck by C. S. Forester. It stars Kenneth More and Dana Wynter and was directed by Lewis Gilbert. To date, it is the only movie made that deals directly with the operations, chase, and sinking of the battleship Bismarck by the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Although war films were common in the 1960s, Sink the Bismarck! was seen as something of an anomaly, with much of its time devoted to the "unsung back-room planners as much as on the combatants themselves." Its historical accuracy, in particular, met with much praise despite a number of inconsistencies. The film was the inspiration for Johnny Horton's popular 1960 song, "Sink the Bismarck."[N 1]
In 1939, the Nazi Germany's largest and most powerful battleship, Bismarck, is launched in a ceremony at Hamburg with Adolf Hitler attending. The launching of the hull is seen as the beginning of an era of German sea power.
Two years later, in 1941, British convoys are being ravaged by U-boats and surface raider attacks which cut off supplies which Britain needs to continue the war. In May, British intelligence discovers the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen are about to break into the North Atlantic to attack convoys.
The man assigned to coordinate the hunt is the Admiralty's chief of operations, Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More), who has been distraught over the death of his wife in an air raid and the sinking of his ship by German ships commanded by Admiral Günther Lütjens (Karel Štěpánek). Upon receiving his new post, Shepard discovers Lütjens is the fleet commander on the Bismarck. Shepard's experience of conflict with the German Navy and his understanding of Lütjens allow him to predict the Bismarck's movements. Shepard is aggressive to his staff but comes increasingly to rely on the coolness and skill of his assistant, WREN Second Officer Anne Davis (Dana Wynter).
Lütjens is also bitter. After World War I, he considered he had no recognition for his efforts in the war. Lütjens promises the captain of the Bismarck, Ernst Lindemann (Carl Möhner), that this time, he and Germany will be remembered in greatness.
The breakout of the Bismarck and its escort Prinz Eugen, includes the sinking of HMS Hood in the waters south of Iceland. The battleship's escape is shadowed by smaller British ships. Shepard, obsessed with Bismarck, must endure the likely death of his son as an air-gunner on a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber from HMS Ark Royal, one of the British ships deployed to the hunt. He gambles that Lütjens is returning to friendly waters where U-boats and air cover will make it impossible to attack.
Shepard commits large forces stripped from convoy escort and uses Catalina flying boats to search for the battleship. His hunch proves correct, and Bismarck is located, apparently steaming towards the German-occupied French coast. British forces have a narrow window to destroy or slow their prey before German support and their own diminishing fuel supplies prevent further attack. Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal have two chances. The first fails: they misidentify HMS Sheffield as Bismarck; the new magnetic torpedo detonators are faulty and most explode as they hit the water. Switching to conventional contact detonators, the second attack is successful, with damage jamming Bismarck's rudder.
Unable to repair the rudder, the German battleship steams in circles. A night attack by British destroyers torpedoes Bismarck but the battleship returns fire, destroying one of the pursuing destroyers [N 2]. The main force of British ships (including battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V) find Bismarck the next day, raining gunfire on her. Lütjens in his final moments insists to Lindemann that German forces will arrive to save them, but he dies when a shell destroys Bismarck's bridge.
After the sinking of the Bismarck, and having been told that his son has been rescued, Shepard asks Davis out to dinner, believing it to be nine o'clock at night, only to realise it is nine in the morning. Davis suggests breakfast, and they walk off together.
As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):
- Kenneth More as Captain Jonathan Shepard
- Carl Möhner as Captain Lindemann
- Dana Wynter as 2nd Officer Anne Davis
- Laurence Naismith as First Sea Lord (Sir Dudley Pound)
- Karel Štěpánek as Admiral Günther Lütjens
- Maurice Denham as Commander Richards
- Mark Dignam as Captain, HMS Ark Royal
- Michael Goodliffe as Captain Banister
- Jack Gwillim as Captain, HMS King George V
- Esmond Knight as Captain, HMS Prince of Wales. Knight actually served as a gunnery officer on board her, and was badly injured during the battle with the Bismarck.
- Edward R. Murrow as himself; recreating some of his historic wartime broadcasts for CBS for the film.
- Michael Hordern as Admiral Tovey, Commander-in-Chief, HMS King George V
- Geoffrey Keen as Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff
- Jack Watling as Signals Officer
- Ernest Clark as Captain, HMS Suffolk
- John Horsley as Captain, HMS Sheffield
- Peter Burton as Captain - First Destroyer
- Sydney Tafler as First Workman Henry
- John Stuart as Captain, HMS Hood
- Walter Hudd as Admiral, HMS Hood[N 3]
Writer Edmund H. North worked closely with Forester's work, compressing events and time lines in order to make the plot taut. Along with the director, the decision was made to use a documentary-style technique, switching back-and-forth from a fairly insular war room to action taking place on remote battleships. The action is made more realistic when human elements of men in a game of wits and nerves is involved. The use of Edward R. Murrow reprising his wartime broadcasts from London, also lends an air of authenticity and near-documentary feel. The film credits identify the actual Director of Operations as Capt R.A.B. Edwards and "Capt Shepard" as fictional. The Shepard-Davis interplay added human interest to the storyline.
In a similar manner, the battle between British and German forces is also recreated as a human drama, with Admiral Lütjens pitted against Capt Shepard in a "psychological chess match."
The film was made in 1960, as the last major wartime fleet units were being retired. Producer John Brabourne was able to use his influence as son-in-law of Lord Mountbatten, then Chief of the Defence Staff, to obtain the full co-operation of the Admiralty. The soon-to-be scrapped battleship HMS Vanguard provided some remarkable footage of a capital ship's 15" gun turrets in action for scenes aboard HMS Hood, HMS King George V and the Bismarck herself. The cruiser HMS Belfast was used to depict the bridge and triple 6" gun turrets of HMS Sheffield, and for scenes aboard the other cruisers involved in Bismarck's pursuit. A Dido class cruiser in reserve was used as the set for Bismarck's destruction.
The aircraft carrier HMS Victorious briefly plays herself, despite the postwar addition of a large angled deck and a massive Type 984 "searchlight" radar; the same ship is also used to depict HMS Ark Royal sailing from Gibraltar. All flying from both carriers was filmed aboard HMS Centaur - clearly marked with her postwar pennant number R06 - and three surviving Fairey Swordfish aircraft were restored and flown from her flight deck. Two of these aircraft are still flying 50 years later as the core of the Royal Navy Historic Flight.
The destroyers used to depict the torpedo night attacks were C class HMS Cavalier (D73), representing the flagship of "Captain (D), of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla", and Battle Class HMS Hogue (D74), representing the fictional HMS Solent which Bismarck destroys in the film. Their pennant numbers can be made out quite clearly, although they are reversed because of the film's convention that all British ships should move from left to right of the screen, and German ships vice-versa. These were the last classes of destroyer built during the war, and the last to have the classic War Emergency Programme destroyers' outline. HMS Cavalier remained in service until 1972, the last RN destroyer to have served in the Second World War, and is now preserved at Chatham Dockyard to commemorate all these vessels, but the newer and larger HMS Hogue was broken up shortly after the film was completed, following a collision off Ceylon with the Indian cruiser INS Mysore (formerly HMS Nigeria).
The large models of the major warships: Bismarck, HMS Hood, HMS Prince of Wales, HMS King George V, HMS Rodney and the County class cruisers, are generally accurate, although HMS Hood is depicted in a slightly earlier configuration than that which actually blew up. The use of models in a studio tank was intercut with wartime footage and staged sequences using available full-size warships. Bismarck's anti-aircraft guns, however, are represented by stock footage of British QF 2 pounder naval gun.
The film was made before 1975, when the British code breaking at Bletchley Park was made public, so it did not reveal that Shepard's hunches about the movements of Bismarck were based on solid intelligence. First, direction finding and traffic analysis showed that on 25 May, Bismarck stopped talking to Wilhelmshaven and started up with Paris, an indication that it would be headed for the French coast. Shepard's judgement was soon proved correct when, by good luck, a Luftwaffe Enigma transmission was sent and intercepted, saying that Bismarck was headed for Brest to repair an oil leak. The Luftwaffe Enigma code was broken early in the war, unlike the German naval Enigma, which was only broken later and played no significant role in the Bismarck affair. The encounter between Hood and Bismarck, disastrous as it was, must objectively be counted as a success, as, despite being a propaganda coup for the Germans, the damage to Bismarck was serious and ultimately resulted in its sinking and its elimination as a threat to the convoys. Damage during its battle with HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales caused flooding that put Bismarck's bow barely above the sea level and oil slicks caused by hits from HMS Prince of Wales were apparent; in the film, Bismarck's bow remains at its normal height above sea level.
Some minor continuity errors involve the visual appearance of the Bismarck. When a spy in Kristiansand, Norway sees Bismarck arrive in Norwegian waters, the ship has no apparent camouflage. Bismarck had striped camouflage along its sides which was removed shortly before it headed out to sea.
The film oversimplifies the movements of HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales early in the battle. The film shows an order to turn, allowing HMS Hood and presumably HMS Prince of Wales to fire full broadsides. In reality, the British sought to close the distance first, only firing forward turrets and reducing their firepower advantage while the Bismarck was firing full broadsides. Only in its final moments did HMS Hood begin a turn to train all her main guns on the Bismarck. However, the Bismarck hit HMS Hood and she exploded. This deployment has been questioned and cited as a possible cause for the British defeat, an issue the movie sidesteps. The film fails to note that HMS Hood at first engaged the wrong ship, firing at heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen in the belief it was the Bismarck. A minor continuity error involves HMS Hood shown firing to port while the Bismarck is firing to starboard; it was the other way around.
In one scene, Lütjens speculates that after Bismarck underwent repair in Brest, France, the two German battleships based there, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, could join the Bismarck in raiding Allied shipping. There is no record of such a discussion at that time, although it would have been possible for Bismarck to sortie with the two battleships if Bismarck had reached the port.[N 4] Before the operation, Lütjens had requested that either Scharnhorst, Gneisenau or Tirpitz join Bismarck and Prinz Eugen; his request was denied.
Another historical error was made during the night engagement between British destroyers and the Bismarck. The film portrayal shows three British hits by torpedoes, while the British destroyer HMS Solent is hit and destroyed by the Bismarck. There was no destroyer named "Solent" and no successful torpedo attack, although S class submarine HMS Solent did exist during the war as a submarine operating on the Eastern Fleet in 1944. On 26 May, a Royal Navy destroyer squadron, led by Captain (D), (later to be Admiral), Philip Vian in HMS Cossack, did exchange gunfire during unsuccessful torpedo attacks with Bismarck inflicting minor damage to the destroyers. [N 5] The heroic action of the attached Polish destroyer ORP Piorun (ex N-class HMS Nerissa) was not depicted, although she sailed straight for Bismarck, signalling "I am a Pole" as she went, but none of her shots found their mark.
The aircraft that finally relocated the Bismarck after she escaped detection by HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk was correctly shown as a Catalina, but the fact that it was piloted by an American Naval Reserve officer, Ensign Leonard Smith, could not be revealed until long after the war, since the USA was neutral at the time of the engagement.[N 6] The attacks by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish show some aircraft being shot: no Swordfish was shot down by Bismarck's guns and all were recovered. However, from HMS Victorious's air raid, two Fairey Fulmar escort fighters ran out of fuel and ditched. Three fliers were picked up from a rubber boat.
Admiral Lütjens is fictitiously portrayed in the film as a stereotypical Nazi, committed to Nazism and crazed in his undaunted belief that the Bismarck is unsinkable. In reality, Lütjens was not a supporter of the Nazi cause, and along with two other navy commanders, had publicly protested against the brutality of anti-Semitic crimes during Kristallnacht. In reality, Lütjens was also a pragmatist who realised that Bismarck's breakout mission would be a daunting task. The film shows Lütjens ordering Captain Ernst Lindemann to open fire on HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales. Lütjens ordered Lindemann to avoid engaging HMS Hood; Lindemann refused and ordered the ship's guns to open fire.
The film also does not show controversial events after the Bismarck sank, including HMS Dorsetshire's quick departure after rescuing only 110 survivors, because the ship suspected a German U-Boat was in the area and withdrew.[N 7]
For the most part, the film's historical accuracy was praised by critics, with the likes of Variety calling it a "first-rate film re-creation [sic] of a thrilling historical event." A contemporary The New York Times review by A.H. Weiler, likewise championed its realism in saying "a viewer could not ask for greater authenticity." However, it went on to criticise both the acting and the constant scene changes "from Admiralty plotting rooms to the bridges of the ships at sea," claiming that this lessened the "over-all effectiveness" of both scenes. Film4 praised its cinematography, noting that it "very realistically re-enacted scenes in the War Room of the Admiralty" as well as "excellently filmed episodes using miniature models."
During the postwar period, war films were the staple of the British film industry, with Sink the Bismarck! an exemplar, sharing the "common themes, actors ... visual style and ideological messages ..." of the genre. British magazine Radio Times viewed Sink the Bismarck! positively, stating that "this fine film fully captures the tensions, dangers and complexities of battle by concentrating on the unsung back-room planners as much as on the combatants themselves" while also praising More's performance. Attention was drawn to the ways in which it deviated from other war films of the period, specifically commenting on how "there is a respect for the enemy that is missing in many previous flag-wavers". The film was given a four-star rating.
Gilbert's continual forays into events that shaped the British war experience, mirrored his own background as a wartime filmmaker. His films merged historical episodes and the role of the individual, with Sink the Bismarck! characterised as having an "emotional punch, not least because Gilbert's direction relentlessly focuses on the human dimension amidst the history." 
Sink the Bismarck! was well received by the public, and according to box office receipts, it was the seventh most popular film released in Great Britain in 1960. The film replicated the success of other British war-themed productions in the decade that also received healthy box office, including The Cruel Sea (1953), The Dam Busters (1955) and Reach for the Sky (1956). Unlike most British war movies, however, Sink the Bismark was surprise hit in North America, as well.
A revival of interest in the Bismarck was reflected in numerous publications that followed the film, as well as a variety of scale models that were produced.[N 8] When the 1989 expedition by Dr. Robert Ballard to locate and photograph the remains of the battleship proved to be successful, further attention was directed to the story of the Bismarck. A number of documentaries have also been produced including the Channel 4 mini series "Battle of Hood and Bismarck" (2002) and Hunt for the Bismarck aired in 2007 on the History Channel network worldwide.
- Battle of the Denmark Strait
- Operation Rheinübung - history of the sortie of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen
- Last battle of the battleship Bismarck
- The Johnny Horton song which reached No. 3 on the both the U.S. pop and country charts, was not a "true" movie tie-in, but was instrumental in introducing the film to an American audience.
- The (fictitious) HMS Solent is destroyed.
- Later iconic British actors, David Hemmings and Ian Hendry appeared in minor, uncredited roles.
- This concept was not an original idea of Lütjens; it had been proposed by German naval staff before the battle but was scrapped because of the repairs the two German battleships needed from damage during an air raid.
- The other destroyers involved in the attack were HMS Maori, HMS Sikh, HMS Zulu and HMS Piorun. Aboard HMS Zulu, a sub-lieutenant in the gunnery control tower lost a hand to shell splinters when a shell landed on the forecastle but did not explode. HMS Cossack had her radio antenna sheared off by a shell. The Royal Navy did lose a destroyer later in the operations — the HMS Mashona was sunk by the Luftwaffe on 28 May.
- The role of Ensign Smith could not be revealed until long after the war, since the USA was neutral at the time of the engagement.
- HMS Dorsetshire's crew suspected a German U-Boat in the area and withdrew. Hundreds of German sailors were left behind in the sea to die.
- As a closer tie-in to the film, the original Forester book was re-released as Sink the Bismarck.
- Solomon 1989, p. 252.
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- Sink the Bismarck! at the Internet Movie Database
- Sink the Bismarck! at AllRovi
- Sink the Bismarck! at the TCM Movie Database
- Sink the Bismarck! at Rotten Tomatoes