The Battle of the River Plate

UK 1956, 119 mins
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Made towards the end of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s creative partnership, The Battle of the River Plate is based on the British Navy’s triumph over a German ‘pocket battleship’, the Graf Spee, in the early months of the second world war. Rarely included in discussions of their great works, The Battle of the River Plate was nevertheless Powell and Pressburger’s most commercially successful film.

The gallant heroism of both the British Navy and the German Captain Langsdorff, who scuttles his own ship rather than face defeat, strongly appealed to Powell and Pressburger. Indeed, so fond of the story was Michael Powell that he published a novel, The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee, retelling the story in the hope that, as he wrote in the book’s introduction, future generations of children would ‘read it and absorb it into their experience’.

Echoing the friendship between the British and German officers Wynne-Candy and Schuldorff in Powell and Pressburger’s earlier The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, an important subplot in The Battle of the River Plate explores the relationship of Langsdorff and Captain Dove of the British merchant vessel Africa Shell. Like Wynne-Candy and Schuldorff, Dove and Langsdorff find that, while their two nations are at war, as individuals they have much in common.

Made some 11 years after the end of the war, the sympathetic treatment of the German enemy was less controversial than The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had been in 1943. Its year of release also meant The Battle of the River Plate was not required to be as propagandist as 49th Parallel. Instead, like so many other war films of the period, it fed the public’s insatiable appetite for stories of British victories at a time when the country was still suffering from the economic hardships brought on by the financial cost of the war.
Justin Hobday, BFI Screenonline

A contemporary review
Why do British filmmakers revert so often to the War for inspiration, ten years after its end, and what need in their audience do these films, probably the most consistently popular output of British studios, particularly satisfy? These questions were prompted by the appearance of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s reconstruction of The Battle of the River Plate, which marks a return to a ‘realist’ subject after their excursions into the never-never land of Offenbach and Strauss.

Adopting a straightforward, semi-documentary technique, the new film traces the German pocket battleship Graf Spee through her battles with the British cruisers Ajax, Exeter and Achilles, satirises the diplomatic wrangles which followed the ship’s seeking refuge in Montevideo harbour, and ends with the dramatic scuttling of the pride of the German navy. The events are real enough: their realisation tends to be cool and rather formal. Of all the personalities involved in the drama, the most compelling and perhaps the most tragic was the Graf Spee’s Captain, Hans Langsdorff, a dedicated professional officer who tempered his allegiance to the German cause with a civilised regard for the rights of prisoners; and Peter Finch’s strong and sympathetic performance manages to indicate these qualities. The producers, however, having decided that the battle itself must remain the central point of interest, have presented it inevitably from the British viewpoint, relegating Langsdorff to the background. At the Graf Spee’s death he briefly reappears, a stern, defeated figure, accepting the condolences of a British captain with grave politeness – but there is no mention of his subsequent suicide. Having rejected this opportunity for a full-length character study, the film becomes a war exercise without a firm dramatic centre.

On a surface level, the result is serious and decent, if hardly new. Some beautiful seascapes (notably the opening shot), spacious VistaVision camera work, a good deal of documentary attention to detail on board ship, and a reasonable simulation of the effects of shell fire, successfully fill in the background. The actual progress of the battle remains a little vague, where a more documentary use of diagrams or aerial shots might have made clear the relative positions of the cruisers. The ships’ officers, types rather than characters, are competently portrayed in the service tradition. Anthony Quayle, as the Commodore in charge of the action, breaks rather uneasily away from the stereotype, with a performance that takes on a decidedly theatrical emphasis. His hearty asides, suggesting a certain schoolboyish glee in the panoply of war, disrupt the even tempo of a generally sober battle reconstruction.

And so the aftermath is reached. A high-powered American radio commentator describes the last hours of the Graf Spee against the hubbub of a polyglot café complete with leggy South American chanteuse; there is some talk of the ‘twilight of the Gods’; and Captain Langsdorff rounds off the story with a gesture suggesting honour to both sides. This final sequence achieves a certain tense authority – the massed crowds on the waterfront, the dark hulk of the Graf Spee moving slowly away from her moorings – though the film’s methods are such that the emotions evoked are fundamentally exterior ones. Perhaps therein lies part of the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this review. The producers have taken great pains to be fair to both the British and the Germans – the film suggests that the conflict is conducted by gentlemen who observe the rules of the game. It is surely an ironic comment on the world today if audiences are now able to look back on the war, almost nostalgically, as a time when personal allegiances were firm and clear-cut, unsullied by the doubts and fears of an uneasy peace.
John Gillett, Sight and Sound, Winter 1956-57

Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
©/Production Company: Arcturus Productions
Presented by: The Rank Organisation
Released by: J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors
Executive Producer: Earl St. John
Produced by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Associate Producer: Sydney Streeter
Production Manager: John Brabourne
Production Controller: Arthur Alcott
Assistant Director: Charles Orme
Continuity: Betty Harley
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Director of Photography: Christopher Challis
Camera Operator: Austin Dempster
Special Effects: Bill Warrington, James Snow
Editor: Reginald Mills
Production Designer: Arthur Lawson
Assistant Art Director: Donald Picton
Artistic Adviser: Hein Heckroth
Make Up: Geoffrey Rodway
Music Composed by: Brian Easdale
Musical Director: Frederic Lewis
Sound Recordists: C.C. Stevens, Gordon K. McCallum
Sound Assistant: Harry Fairbairn *
Sound System: Westrex Recording System
Sound Editor: Arthur Stevens
Naval Adviser: Captain F.S. Bell
Technical Adviser on prison sequences: Captain Patrick Dove
Thanked in credits: The Admiralty, The Royal New Zealand Navy, The Indian Navy, United States Navy, The Uruguayan Navy, The British Merchant Navy, Meditteranean Commander-in-chief, Portsmouth Commander-in-chief, Lady Harwood, Admiral Sir W. Edward Parry, Admiral Sir Charles Woodhouse, The National Council of Government of Uruguay, The Friends of Uruguay Society,
The River Plate Veterans Association, Commander United States Sixth Fleet, Officers and men of the Royal Navy, Royal Dockyards Ministry of Defence (Navy)
Publicity: Jean Osborne *
Made at: Pinewood Studios

John Gregson (Captain Bell, HMS Exeter)
Anthony Quayle (Commodore Harwood, HMS Ajax)
Ian Hunter (Captain Woodhouse, HMS Ajax)
Jack Gwillim (Captain Parry, HMNZS Achilles)
Bernard Lee (Captain Dove, MS Africa Shell)
Lionel Murton (Mike Fowler)
Anthony Bushell (Mr Millington-Drake, British Minister)
Peter Illing (Dr Guani, Foreign Minister Uruguay)
Michael Goodliffe (Captain McCall, British naval attache)
Patrick Macnee (Lieutenant-Commander Medley)
John Chandos (Dr Langmann, German minister Montevideo)
Douglas Wilmer (M. Desmoulins, French minister Montevideo)
William Squire (Ray Martin)
Roger Delgado (Captain Varela, Uruguayan navy)
Andrew Cruickshank (Captain Stubbs, Doric Star)
Christopher Lee (Manolo)
Edward Atienza (Pop)
April Olrich (Dolores)
Peter Finch (Captain Langsdorff, Admiral Graf Spee)
Maria Mercedes (Madame X) *
John Schlesinger (German officer) *
John Le Mesurier (padre) *
Anthony Newley, Nigel Stock (British officers aboard Graf Spee) *
Richard Beale (Captain Pottinger, Ashlea) *
Diane Herman *
Robert Crewdson *
Tita Dane *

UK 1956©
119 mins


Rynox + Hotel Splendide
Mon 16 Oct 18:10; Fri 10 Nov 18:10
A Matter of Life and Death
Mon 16 Oct 20:45 (+ intro by Thelma Schoonmaker and Kevin Macdonald); Sun 29 Oct 12:10; Sat 4 Nov 15:00; Tue 7 Nov 18:10 (+ intro by academic Lucy Bolton); Sun 19 Nov 18:30
Farewell (Abschied)
Tue 17 Oct 18:40 (+ intro by filmmaker Kevin Macdonald); Wed 1 Nov 20:40
His Lordship
Tue 17 Oct 20:50; Sat 4 Nov 12:20
The Fire Raisers
Wed 18 Oct 18:40; Sat 11 Nov 12:30
Black Narcissus
Wed 18 Oct 20:50; Sun 22 Oct 18:30; Wed 8 Nov 18:15; Sun 12 Nov 18:50; Thu 16 Nov 20:50; Sat 18 Nov 20:50; Mon 20 Nov 20:45 (+ intro by author Mahesh Rao)
The Edge of the World + Return to the Edge of the World
Fri 20 Oct 18:20; Wed 8 Nov 20:30; Wed 15 Nov 20:50
The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor (aka The Thief of Bagdad)
Fri 20 Oct 20:30; Tue 24 Oct 14:40; Sat 28 Oct 15:00; Sun 26 Nov 12:00
The Spy in Black + Smith
Sat 21 Oct 15:30; Sun 29 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
The Boy Who Turned Yellow + Heavenly Puss
Sun 22 Oct 12:00
49th Parallel
Sun 22 Oct 12:20; Mon 6 Nov 20:30
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing!
Sun 22 Oct 15:10; Tue 31 Oct 20:40 (+ intro by film historian Ian Christie)
Mon 23 Oct 17:50 (+ intro by Miranda Gower-Qian, BFI Inclusion Lead); Mon 30 Oct 20:30
Red Ensign + The Night of the Party
Tue 24 Oct 20:30; Sun 5 Nov 14:40
A Canterbury Tale
Wed 25 Oct 20:20 (+ intro by academic Thirza Wakefield); Sat 11 Nov 14:50; Fri 24 Nov 20:35
Library Talk: The interior life of an archive: an evening with the Michael Powell Collection
Mon 27 Nov 18:00
The Elusive Pimpernel
Sat 28 Oct 12:20; Mon 13 Nov 18:00 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
Gone to Earth
Sat 28 Oct 18:20; Wed 22 Nov 20:45; Sat 25 Nov 17:50
Silent Cinema: The Magician + The Riviera Revels + intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator
Sun 29 Oct 15:00
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Sun 29 Oct 17:20 (+ intro by Kevin and Andrew Macdonald); Sun 5 Nov 17:45; Thu 23 Nov 17:45; Sun 26 Nov 14:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Stephen Fry)
Paths to Partnership: Powell + Pressburger before The Archers
Tue 31 Oct 18:30
Projecting the Archive: The Queen’s Guards + intro by Josephine Botting, BFI National Archive Curator
Thu 2 Nov 18:20
Twice upon a Time
Mon 6 Nov 18:10 + extended intro by James Bell, BFI National Archive Senior Curator
Talk: Philosophical Screens: A Matter of Life and Death
Tue 7 Nov 20:20
Talk: Centre Stage: The Leading Women of Powell + Pressburger
Thu 16 Nov 18:20
Ill Met by Moonlight
Fri 17 Nov 20:40; Sat 25 Nov 12:40
The Battle of the River Plate
Sat 18 Nov 18:20; Mon 27 Nov 20:30
Behold a Pale Horse
Sun 19 Nov 11:50 Wed 22 Nov 17:50
The Wild Heart
Sun 19 Nov 15:10
Miracle in Soho
Mon 20 Nov 18:10; Sun 26 Nov 18:30

Course: The Magic of Powell + Pressburger
Wed 25 Oct to Wed 22 Nov 18:30

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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