When looking back at quite where the war movie has come in cinematic history, Sink the Bismarck! appears positively quaint these days.
Made in 1960, filmed in black and white, before the counter cultural revolution of its decade that would particularly alter cinematic tastes and trends, Lewis Gilbert’s film is from the old school – posh men and women in military rooms talking strategy. Nevertheless, you can see and feel the influence of Sink the Bismarck! looking back almost sixty years on, from certain trends Gilbert would bring to his big budget James Bond movies through to the psychological tension of a film less about the visceral experience of war, and rather the machinery that exists behind it.
In this case, the British naval machinery behind attempts to take out the Germans most powerful warship, the titular Bismarck, in 1941. The charge is given by the Admiralty to Captain Jonathan Shepard (played by the ever-dependable Kenneth More), himself reeling from the death of his wife and the sinking of his previous ship. On the flip side, Gilbert’s film works to characterise the Nazi counter, through German Fleet Admiral Günther Lütjens (Karel Stepaniak), creating a pitched battle of wits between both sides as they attempt to counteract and outmanoeuvre each other in the North Sea and Arctic Circle.
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Gilbert’s film is one largely made up of men in rooms discussing their game plans but despite this, the whole endeavour is effectively staged; Gilbert understands how to create a sense of movement and character in large rooms with plenty of plans being hatched, and you can see here in his direction the formative directorial quirks later seen in You Only Live Twice or The Spy Who Loved Me in particular. He manages to make what could have been a dry and unengaging film into something with a degree of pace and movement, even when it’s focused more on tactics than sea battles. In this sense it is decidedly British and old-fashioned, striving as it does to paint an accurate picture of what happened to take down the Bismarck in WW2.
The film’s historical accuracy over the years has been questioned, particularly after subsequent revelations in the 1970’s at Bletchley Park decoding documents revealed the battle against the Bismarck had differences from those portrayed here by Gilbert, it doesn’t take away from the fact this is a story well told. It’s well presented too by Eureka in this re-release, with a new 1080p BluRay sheen, but the extras are fairly scant – an original trailer and new interview with film historian Sheldon Hall are all we get, but it does provide an informative level of background to the production.
Though undoubtedly of its time, and it won’t be to everyone’s modern sensibilities, Sink the Bismarck! remains the only telling of the battle to take out one of the Nazis biggest weapons, and as a historical cinematic document, it remains an entertaining entry into war cinema canon.
Sink the Bismarck! is now available from Eureka Entertainment.