A new restoration of Walter Summers’ 1927 account of two pivotal maritime encounters in World War One has been made available as part of the BFI National Archive’s ongoing commemoration.
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, featuring a new score by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines, complete the British Instructional Films trilogy begun with the reconstructions of the Western Front in Ypres (1925) and Mons (1926). (1926).
After serving as a sergeant in the trenches during World War I, the Liverpudlian director was inspired to write R.C. Sheriff’s seminal play Journey’s End, which was based on his experiences.
Summers, on the other hand, achieved a similar level of realism with this large-scale naval undertaking, which was partly inspired by German historian Louis Ralph’s fair account of the Battle of Cocos in 1914, Unsere Emden (1926).
Summers filmed off the Isles of Scilly with the full support of the Admiralty while working from a screenplay written by a group of four writers, among them the author of The 39 Steps, John Buchan. This allowed him to give the action an immediacy, scale, and realism that would have a lasting impact on naval combat films made during and after World War II.
Despite the fact that some directors were forced to use models in water tanks, all 10 films in this look at cinema’s attempt to capture the unique dangers of war at sea ring with truth.
1. The Sea Hawk (1940)
Hollywood was expected to maintain its neutrality during the early years of World War II, as the United States pursued an isolationist policy.
A steady stream of films supporting the Allies’ cause was made possible by key positions in the studio system being filled by European émigrés. Few people would have missed the parallels between Hitler and Philip II of Spain in this thrilling action film inspired by Sir Francis Drake.
Errol Flynn epitomizes swashbuckling bravado as the patriotic privateer trying to thwart the Spanish Armada in all 12 of his films with Michael Curtiz. Rather than capturing the realism of 16th-century naval skirmishes, the battle sequences in this game are meant to thrill.
As enjoyable as Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s sublime score, Byron Haskin’s creaky special effects, and Flora Robson’s “ruthless ambition” speech as Queen Elizabeth II — supposedly admired by Winston Churchill — are, so too are the anachronisms in this celebration of subversive heroism.
2. We Dive at Dawn (1943)
Walter Summers’ docu-dramatic style, popularized in his silent trilogy, helped shape British cinema during World War II. Its goal was to inspire and inform people about the seriousness of the situation they were in.
But war films had to entertain as well, which is why works by Nol Coward and David Lean, such as 1942’s In Which We Serve, included scenes from the home front to remind soldiers and civilians alike of why they were fighting and what they were fighting for.
Anthony Asquith’s underrated three-act saga deftly captures the claustrophobia and camaraderie aboard skipper John Mills’ submarine while also blending social-realist soap with spine-tingling action.
After pursuing the German battleship Brandenburg across the Baltic, HMS Sea Tiger faces a showdown off the Danish coast that reveals tactical ingenuity. The central segment shows the uncertainties of naval warfare. This book, which is full of nautical slang and gritty naturalism, deserves to be much more widely known.
3. San Demetrio London (1943)
For over a year, supply convoys gave the British military the ability to go it alone against the Nazis. This is a true story about MV San Demetrio and it was made because Ealing boss Michael Balcon wanted to follow up Pen Tennyson’s Convoy (1940) by telling the story of the real-life Chief Engineer Charles Pollard (played by Walter Fitzgerald), who served as an advisor to director Charles Frend.
Lifeboat survivors who decide to save an abandoned oil tanker after a U-boat attack sound like a plot straight out of Boy’s Own.
Unforced documentary detail used to show how hard the skeleton crew is working as they try to get their ship back to Blighty reinforces the idea that the common man was just as capable of taking command and displaying courage above and beyond what one would expect from someone in the officer class during a crisis.
4. Western Approaches (1944)
Convinced that black-and-white film was an inadequate medium for depicting wartime drama, the Ministry of Information requested that the Crown Film Unit use Technicolor for this study of friendship between sailors flying the white and red tricolors in the North Atlantic.
Due to the fact that it was shot on location, Jack Cardiff’s images are remarkable. They convey a palpable sense of immediacy to action, which is further enhanced by the use of real seamen rather than professional actors.
The seascapes, on the other hand, convey to viewers the vastness of the Allied shipping lanes and the dangers they faced from the Nazi wolf packs that sailed through them. A riveting cat-and-mouse game, this is also a stark reminder of the risks involved in tackling a merciless enemy, as the focus alternates between the lifeboat containing survivors from Jason and the rescue ship Leander and the German U-boat hovering overhead.
5. The Cruel Sea (1952)
Ealing’s superb adaptation of Nicholas Monsarrat’s best-seller captures the isolating nature of command perfectly. Eric Ambler’s screenplay focuses more on the human side of heroism than the pressure that comes with making decisions that will have an impact on the lives of crew members and countless other faceless strangers.
Few people will be able to watch Compass Rose captain Jack Hawkins cry as he gives the order to drop depth charges, knowing that they will kill helpless mariners in the water and destroy the U-boat that sank their ship.
It’s interesting to see Ambler recall the tensions in the ranks between the enlisted men and the conscripts, as well as the training videos that show how inexperienced some crews were when they were put to the test in battle.
Newcomers like Donald Sinden, Virginia McKenna, and Denholm Elliott became well-known because of the movie. The show’s star, however, was the Coreopsis, the Maltese navy’s lone remaining World War II corvette.
6. The Battle of the River Plate (1956)
It shares a lot with The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands in that it takes place off the coast of South America, and the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee is named after the victor of Coronel. This is one of many ‘now it can be told’ pictures made in the decade following the defeat of the Axis.
In contrast to how war was conducted in other theaters, the British and German commanders shared a mutual respect and admiration for one another that stood out as the most striking similarity.
Captain Hans Langsdorff (Peter Finch) shot himself days after scuttling his ship after being trapped in Montevideo Harbour and bidding a fond farewell to former prisoner, Captain Patrick Dove, which Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger do not reveal (Bernard Lee). Even so, the Archers’ chivalric tone from their army classic, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, would have been compromised by such tragic reality (1943).
7. Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
During the 1950s, mental incapacity was a recurring theme in American naval films, with Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) in Edward Dmytryk’s 1954 film The Caine Mutiny (James Cagney) and Captain Morton (John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy) both losing the respect of restless crews eager to do their part.
Pragmatism is often used as a scapegoat for inaction in these situations. Robert Wise, on the other hand, flips the concept by focusing on Clark Gable’s Ahabian obsession, which drives him to pursue the Japanese destroyer that sank his previous vessel with increasing recklessness.
Edward L. Beach despised this film adaptation of his novel, in which the wounded Clark Gable is aided by his disapproving number two, Burt Lancaster.
Contrastingly, in Dick Powell’s The Enemy Below, escort skipper Robert Mitchum treats U-boat captain Curt Jürgens with courteousness after tricking him into surfacing, as Gable does with his bitter hatred of his Japanese counterpart, “Bungo Pete” (1957).
8. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
This $22 million recreation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as producer Elmo Williams liked to say, cost more than the actual attack itself. Akira Kurosawa’s 400-page script would have cost even more if he had been allowed to direct it.
Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku took his place in the Japanese scenes, while Richard Fleischer oversaw the raid’s meticulous research and authentic reconstruction.
Strategic planning, duplicitous diplomacy, flawed intelligence, and missed messages are all prominent themes in the film.
It’s a brilliantly re-created attack with chilling details like American sailors jumping into flaming oil on the ocean’s surface, which brings home to viewers the grim savagery of war once the first planes fly over Hawaii without opposition. There is nothing that could be better than this in terms of design, effects, photography, or editing. Pearl Harbor (2001), by contrast, made $450 million worldwide despite being vastly inferior.
9. Das Boot (1981)
Wolfgang Petersen’s epic adaptation of war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 mémoire à clef reminded German audiences of the perils faced by U-boat crews half a century after Gustav Ucicky revealed the vulnerability of submariners in the Nazi-approved Morgenrot (1933). The theatrical release and TV mini-series both have two editions.
But what unites them all is a terrifying fear of being cooped up in a small space, which plagues the crew members during the long hours of tedious tedium before the inevitable horrors of combat strike.
Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (who served as a consultant) is superbly portrayed by Jürgen Prochnow, and the production design, handheld photography, and immersive sound design by Mike Le Mare (which received two of the film’s six Oscar nominations) expertly convey the cramped conditions and their psychological ramifications on the largely inexperienced recruits… Although the U-96 patrol of Gibraltar Strait is gripping, it is Petersen’s command that makes the experience visceral and unforgettable.
10. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
The 20 Aubrey-Maturin novels written by Patrick O’Brian were plunder for Peter Weir’s historical epic, which could be defined as a “rattling good yarn” by the dictionary. Weir downplays the period’s political complexities by shifting the action from the 1812 Anglo-American conflict to the Napoleonic wars in the year of Trafalgar.
The dangers of being at sea on a man-of-war ship are well-captured by him, and even with models and CGI augmenting the actual tank work, the tussle between HMS Surprise and the French privateer Acheron off the coast of South America is engrossing.
The plot centers on the friendship between Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s surgeon-naturalist (Paul Bettany). When it comes to showing the community on board a ship and the ferociousness of its crew fighting, the movie does an Oscar-worthy job by using sounds like ordnance firing, wood shattering and maimed sailors.