“Sink the Bismarck!” is a black and white British movie released in 1960. It is a true story of the events that led up to the Battle of the Denmark Strait and the subsequent action which resulted in the destruction of the German battleship Bismarck. The screenplay was based on The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck by C.S. Forester. He wrote the book with the intention of it becoming a movie and worked closely with the screenwriter. Director Lewis Gilbert had also done “Reach for the Sky” and “Damn the Defiant!”. The producer John Brabourne used the fact that he was son-in-law to Lord Mountbatten when he was Chief of the Defense Staff to get full cooperation of the Admiralty. It allowed Gilbert to film on board and film exteriors of various Royal Navy ships. The movie was a big hit in Great Britain and also did well in America. It inspired Johnny Horton’s song.
The movie opens with footage of Hitler christening the brand new battleship in 1939. Two years later, Edward Murrow (playing himself) reminds the audience that at this point in the war England stands alone and winning the Battle of the Atlantic is crucial. The Admiralty has a new Chief of Operations in Capt. Shephard (Kenneth More) to coordinate this task. He is something of a martinet and is described as “cold, with no heart or soul. Just an enormous brain.” (Sounds like me.) His assistant will be a comely WREN named Davis (Dana Wynter). Their first crisis is a report that the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen have sailed on what may be a commerce raiding expedition. Adm. Lutjens is overconfident and a hard core Nazi. His main motivation is glory. Capt. Lindemann doesn’t drink the Nazi Kool-aid.
The movie covers the cat and mouse aspect of British efforts to locate and defeat the German warships. It intercuts between the British war room and the bridges of the various combatants. Models are used to reenact the battle scenes. The Royal Navy is all in as Churchill proclaims “you must sink the Bismarck!” This will not be painless as the British end up losing their most their poster-dreadnaught the HMS Hood. Although the movie is mostly command-centric, there is a subplot involving Shephard’s son who is a gunner on a Swordfish torpedo plane that is part of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal’s strike force. This allows for some character development as the Blitz-widowered Shephard is very close to his son. The movie will make it difficult for him to keep his upper lip stiff. He manages, of course. I won’t go into detail on the plot because if you are British you already know what happens and everyone else can be in suspense as to whether the title comes true. ( Check out my historical accuracy section below if you want to be spoiled.)
“Sink the Bismarck!” is one of the better British WWII movies. Better, but not radically different. I’ve seen these officers numerous times. Imperturbable would be a good description of them. Shephard is the main character and he is interesting. His back-story makes the cold fish human. Davis helps humanize him and their relationship thankfully is of sympathetic colleagues and avoids romantic banter. There is a powerful scene where she gets him to open up about his wife’s death. The movie eschews emotionalism for the most part. It even has a documentary feel to it. This is apparent from the start with the appearance of Murrow reenacting one of his wartime broadcasts. It is more documentary than propaganda. It seems obvious that Gilbert meant the film to be a history lesson and it has the appearance of being an accurate retelling of the battleships demise. The Germans are not demonized, although Lutjens is depicted as a fanatic whose greatest moment is birthday wishes from der Fuhrer. Although the film does not spend a lot of time with the tars, it is effective in showing the terrible last moments of the German crew. It is not really a celebratory film which reflects the Cold War fact that West Germany was now Britain’s ally.
As far as naval combat is concerned, the movie is as good as could be expected considering when it came out. Models were relied on since there was no CGI back then. If you have seen the recent “Battleship”, you know that computers don’t always enhance combat cinematography. These models are not bad, although they follow each other too closely in the bathtub. When they take hits, it’s not archaic. Lord Mountbatten’s influence allowed for a nifty loading sequence to go with the obligatory big guns firing (or “shooting” as the British called it).
“Sink the Bismarck!” is as good as you are going to get if you want to see how the Bismarck met its end. It is more entertaining than a History Channel doc. (I am, of course, referring to the History Channel back when it had programs about history.)
GRADE = B+
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: No surprise that the Shephard and Davis characters are fictional, as of course was the son who was fished out of the drink. No problem there. That is acceptable cinema. Since the existence of Enigma decoding was not revealed until 1975, Shephard’s hunches actually would have been based on intelligence intercepts. The doomed Norwegian agent replaced a Swedish cruiser that reported the sighting to its government. The report was intercepted by the British. The Prince of Wales did have civilian workers on board to finish their work on the guns, for example. The movie has a few minor glitches in the coverage of the Battle of Denmark Strait. The Brits actually targeted the Prinz Eugen first in a case of mistaken identity. They did manage to hit the Bismarck several times and one of the hits severed access to the forward fuel tanks. The destruction of the Hood is substantially as shown. It was most likely a shell that hit the forward ammunition magazine. The Hood was doomed by its paltry armor plating that was a result of the navy’s decision to sacrifice armor for speed. The movie accurately shows the Prince of Wales withdrawing. In reality, the PoW had to avoid the wreckage which resulted in concentrated fire upon her, plus she had malfunctioning guns. She was hit several times so Capt. Leach ordered smoke. At this point, Lutjens vetoed Lindemann’s proposal to chase the PoW.
The movie’s portrayal of Lutjens and Lindemann is far off. Lutjens was not a Nazi. In fact, the Kriegsmarine was the least Nazi of the branches. He actually protested Kristallnacht and refused to give Hitler the Nazi salute when he visited the Bismarck. Far from being a glory-hound, he was pessimistic about the expedition and was conservative in interpreting Adm. Raeder’s orders to attack convoys and avoid capital ships. He decided going after the Prince of Wales was not worth getting fired over. In some ways, the movie has reversed the Lutjens and Lindemann characters. It was Lindemann who overrode Lutjens in initiating the fire on the Hood, for instance.
The Swordfish attacks are a mixed bag. The first did result in an inconsequential torpedo hit. The second did accidentally target the Sheffield. The magnetic torpedoes were defective, causing the significant switch to contact torpedoes for the next attack. The movie shows some of those attackers getting shot down. In actuality, there were no losses. One of them did jam the Bismarck’s rudder and it did turn out to be irreparable. No doubt Lutjens was not optimistic about their chances after this. The night destroyer attack is enhanced for entertainment as there were actually no torpedo hits and no destroyers were sunk. The HMS Solent is fictitious. The final battle is basically accurate. The movie leaves out the post script of British warships picking up 110 survivors (far from the majority of the crew that was in the water), but then leaving the rest due to an alert that a u-boat was lurking. Only a hand full of the rest of the survivors were eventually rescued by German ships.