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Submitted by Nicky Smith

The Battle of the River Plate.
(War film portraying World War II naval battle)
(History Today) Coultass, Clive; 01-08-1996

Clive Coultass on how film makers squared derring-do with a tale
of chivalry and the 'good German' in re-creating a Second World War
epic of naval conflict off the coast of South America.
The Powell and Pressburger film The Battle of the River Plate, issued in Britain in 1956, and the following year in America under the title The Pursuit of the Graf Spee, was based on the real episode in 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War.

In spite of the pre-war treaty restrictions on its naval strength, Germany had equipped itself with a number of fast warships which were ideally suited for harassing Britain's mercantile communications. The Admiral Graf Spee was one of a class of three, known popularly in Britain as 'pocket battleships', vessels of compact size, in theory sufficiently heavily armed and armoured to brush off combat with enemy cruisers, and fitted with Diesel engines which gave them an extraordinary range and also the ability to reach maximum speed very rapidly. No British battleship could catch them, although the Royal Navy's three battle-cruisers were capable of doing so. [There is some debate about which of the German "surface raiders" could be called 'pocket battleships'. The main contenders are "The Bismarck", "The Scharnhorst", "The Gneissau", "The Tirpitz", "The Graf Spee", "The Hipper", "The Prinz Eugen" and "The Admiral Scheer". It all depends how technical you want to get]

The main problem for the British was finding a raider in the vast stretches of ocean across which merchant ships made their way homewards. The Graf Spee was already at sea when war was declared. She chose to operate in the South Atlantic, with a single foray into the Indian Ocean, and here between September 30th, and December 3rd, she sank nine vessels which had been sailing independently. Even more effective was the consternation she created at the Admiralty which had to divert and spread out considerable forces, badly needed elsewhere, in different locations in the hope of catching the pocket battleship. Indeed, it was far from clear that there was only one raider, information being based on random sightings by neutrals and hastily-sent wireless telegraphy messages from some of the trapped British ships.

The battle came about as a result of an inspired deduction by Commodore Harwood, commander of the British South American Division. Hearing of the sinking of two merchant ships to the south of St Helena, he guessed that the raider might turn its attention next to the profitable trade route from the estuary of the River Plate, situated between Argentina and Uruguay. He even correctly estimated the time of the enemy's arrival, the morning of December 13th. ["The ides of December"]

The Graf Spee's Captain Hans Langsdorff knew that his warship needed an engine overhaul and his time at sea was circumscribed. His original instructions had been to avoid action which might disable his ship so far from home but assuming now that he might catch a British convoy, lightly escorted, he was prepared to take more risks. When at dawn he sighted what at first was reported as a British cruiser with two destroyers he decided, thinking that there might be a convoy behind them, to attack at once. In fact, he had come across Harwood's squadron, made up of the heavy cruiser Exeter and the light cruisers Ajax (the flagship) and Achilles, a New Zealand ship.

As early as 1940 another film, a Gainsborough production called For Freedom, had appeared and included a depiction of the River Plate battle and its aftermath, the pursuit of the raider's supply ship Altmark to Norwegian waters. One of its players was not a professional actor but the real Captain Dove of the small tanker Africa Shell, sunk by the Graf Spee off the coast of Mozambique. Dove had written about his experiences as a prisoner aboard the warship and in the film he convincingly re-enacted his role. Fifteen years later Powell and Pressburger were to interview him and to draw on his account for their own script. [Many of the people in For Freedom (1940) were also the real merchant seamen who had been captured by the Graf Spee]

The Battle of the River Plate is a curiosity in the output of its director Michael Powell, his colleague and script-writer Emeric Pressburger and their company Archer Films. Never before had they attempted a realistic film of a historical episode. The inventive series of films made by them during the war and in the first decade after it owed nothing to British cinema's 'documentary' tradition which flourished through the thirties and forties. However, Pressburger had been persuaded in 1943 by Ralph Richardson to have the Archers produce a short recruiting film for the Fleet Air Arm. Powell reluctantly agreed and for the semi-documentary The Volunteer he was allowed to take his camera crew aboard an aircraft carrier at sea, a co-operative attitude on the part of the Admiralty which impressed him. He remembered this experience when the idea of a film about the River Plate battle was being discussed by himself and Pressburger.

In 1954 they accepted an invitation from Argentina to attend a festival at Mar del Plata and capitalised on this event by visiting the locations of the battle. Because Archer Films were in need of financial backing for further productions it is likely that they calculated that a film with a patriotic theme would turn out to be a box-office success, as indeed it was; moreover, it was to be selected for the Royal Film Performance in 1956.

Powell in his autobiography confessed to a boyhood enthusiasm for the navy and he was also so excited by this particular episode that he went on after the film had been made to publish a book about the battle, an account which included all the fictional embellishments of the film script. He owed much to the support of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, himself a film enthusiast, an attribute shared with his son-in-law, John Brabourne, who was to become a distinguished producer. The necessary finance was quickly provided by Rank and Brabourne was appointed as production manager.

With the way cleared for full assistance from the Admiralty, Powell decided first of all to shoot real warships at sea instead of using studio models. Sequences were taken off the coast of Turkey, where the Mediterranean Fleet was performing manoeuvres, the ships photographed being the cruisers Jamaica (impersonating the Exeter), Sheffield (for the Ajax) and the real Achilles, now the Indian Navy's Delhi.

Powell took great care to secure scenes of sunrise in order to depict the morning of December 13th, 1939, but he ignored the fact that the Anatolian mountains were clearly visible in the background, whereas the real event had taken place out of sight of land (and the South American coast was to the west). [Powell also goofed with a shot of the 3 ships on patrol (in the middle of the Atlantic) & a signal lamp being flashed towards the camera - who were they meant to be signalling?]

Another subject briefly caught on camera was the arrival of a launch alongside the supposed Ajax after Harwood had called a conference of his captains the day before the battle. In fact this was a dramatic device employed by the script; Harwood had held no such meeting and conveyed his intentions by signal.

It would be unfair to chastise the film-makers for too many digressions from literal truth in their version of these historic events. The Battle of the River Plate was a feature, not a documentary, and designed primarily for entertainment. [But that won't stop them listing all the digressions anyway] The film's plot generally followed the outlines of the story accurately, although it invented most of the dialogue. The conference aboard the Ajax, for instance, served to inform the cinema audience of what were to be Harwood's tactics in battle, to cause the enemy warship to divide its fire by having the Exeter, the strongest of the British cruisers, engage her on one side and the Ajax and Achilles on the other.

[The book "The Battle of the River Plate- by Dudley Pope" is one of the best for the tactical and technical aspects of the battle. Such as how, while they were able to remain in radio contact, the 3 RN ships could not only "report each others fall of shot" as mentioned in the film, but also act as as one huge gun platform with a single control]

Although Harwood had died, other participants in the action were able to assist Powell and Pressburger, notably Captain Bell of the Exeter and Captain Dove. While he was a prisoner Dove developed a high regard for Captain Langsdorff who took scrupulous care to treat his prisoners courteously. In the film Dove was played by Bernard Lee, Langsdorff by Peter Finch, and their polite, civilised and even sympathetic conversations form its most significant sub-plot, although their final meeting aboard a German merchant ship interned by Uruguay is fictional.

But even in a feature film there is a point where fact and fiction must converge convincingly in order to bring a genuine flavour of authenticity to a representation of real history. Powell's choice of shooting existing warships at sea is questionable. Neither the Jamaica nor the Sheffield bore any resemblance to the original cruisers and credibility is strained when, for example, one sees an aerial shot of one of them in the middle of the battle with its guns secured fore and aft, or when after the action they are shown looking undamaged. Discreet use of models in a studio tank can work well, as a number of Hollywood films have demonstrated. Even in a far from totally successful British film Sink the Bismarck!, made in 1960 on another famous naval episode from the war, the sea battles were handled satisfactorily. [But could they have done scenes like the resupply of the Graf Spee from the Altmark at sea if they'd used models?]

[Sink the Bismark! (1960) of course had Esmond Knight as the Captain of the Prince of Wales, which was brave as it was in the real battle that he lost one eye & most of the sight in the other]

Powell himself was a master of special effects but in this case one can only surmise that it was his characteristic drive and exuberance that led him away from the confines of the studio and aboard ship with the navy. His autobiography reveals that he was extremely proud of the results, the various warships shot in dazzling VistaVision, and he felt that he had made a favourable impression on Mountbatten and the other naval experts who saw the sequences at a preview.

The Admiralty helped Archers to bring the US navy into the frame, by getting them to let the film-makers shoot the heavy cruiser Salem, part of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, as stand-in for the Graf Spee. Early in the film the launch bringing the captured Captain Dove to the pocket battleship is hoisted aboard by crane from the sea and lowered into a hangar. The photography is striking, as is the implied symbolism of captivity, but the Graf Spee had no such hangar.

In the film Langsdorff explains to Dove how, by using a dummy turret and funnel, he had disguised his ship to look like an American heavy cruiser. The Graf Spee did try some subterfuges to conceal her identity but certainly not that one; [Yes they did. Check the photos at showing the crew attaching a dummy turret and the reference to Korv-Kpt. Rasenack's personal diary at] the Salem anyway was not built until 1948. With her flared bow, bearing a number on it in American style, superstructure and funnel close together, and three medium-sized triple-gun turrets, she looked totally unlike the German pocket battleship which had a large superstructure more widely separated from her funnel, and two very large turrets, one forward, one aft. Powell did build a studio model when he wanted to represent the Graf Spee's scuttling and he also used it in the battle, showing shells bursting on it; he was at least consistent because the model is recognisably of the Salem, not the Graf Spee.

A historical judgement must be then that the location sequences at sea hinder, rather than help, the film's acceptance as a credible reenactment of the battle. It is ironical that the actual scenes shot in the studio at Pinewood, using reconstructed bridges and decks from the British cruisers, are more convincing. The playing of the British officers by a cast which includes Anthony Quayle as Harwood and John Gregson as Bell projects a determined insouciance in the face of danger and death which is true to Royal Navy tradition. However, the forced jokiness of the dialogue for lower-deck characters conforms more to the cliches of British cinema in the fifties and that kind of stereotyping is reproduced also in the conversations of the Graf Spee's prisoners, earthy Merchant Navy men, but with an over-preponderance of London accents. A Yorkshireman, for instance, has to be identified by making him the subject of a joke about 'Yorkshire pud', a typical piece of class-bound clumsiness in the scriptwriting of that period. [Or a way of explaining British accents to the world audience?]

The Graf Spee mounted six 11-inch guns and eight 5.9-inch ones, against the Exeter's six 8-inch guns and the other cruisers' each with their eight 6-inch ones. A single broadside from the German ship' s main armament weighed approximately 4,140 lbs, to 1,600 lbs from the Exeter and 900 lbs each from the Ajax and Achilles. [Also the Graf Spee had a crude radar system to direct it's guns] Despite the enemy's overwhelming fire power Harwood engaged her with maximum effort, manoeuvring his three ships skilfully and often making Langsdorff wary of possible torpedo attacks. Even so, after two hours the Exeter had been forced to withdraw from battle seriously crippled, all her guns silenced, and the Ajax had only one turret still firing.

Although the Graf Spee had been hit several times the damage, thanks to her thick armour, was only superficial and there seemed to be no reason why she could not finish off the British cruisers. Instead she turned away and made for Montevideo. There has been much speculation about Langsdorff's loss of nerve, after he had been temporarily knocked unconscious in the action, and the exaggerated view he took of his ship's need for repairs. He must have known that in harbour he would be in danger of being bottled up there while other British forces made their way to the Plate.

The film shows no glimpse of the German side of the battle, except through the reactions of the British prisoners as they hear the gunfire and the explosions. The nature of Langsdorff's dilemma only emerges in a later conversation with Dove and in the exchanges, also in English, between himself and the German ambassador with the Uruguayan foreign minister.

Thanks to a campaign of deception practiced by the British diplomatic authorities in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, a process well dramatised in the film, Langsdorff was convinced that a powerful British fleet was waiting for him. In fact Harwood had been reinforced only by the cruiser Cumberland; the nearest British capital ship, the battle-cruiser Renown, was still a thousand miles away. Faced as he seemed to be by the threat of destruction of his vessel and the loss of his crew, Langsdorff made the decision to avoid bloodshed by evacuating the men and scuttling the ship. Watched from the shoreline by large crowds, unaware of what was about to happen, the Graf Spee moved from her anchorage on the evening of December 17th, to deeper waters where the seacocks were opened and a series of explosions set off, causing a huge outbreak of fire as she started to sink.

The film heightens the tension of these moments by having them described by an American radio commentator. Powell took his camera crew to Montevideo to film people at the harbour, specially assembled for him, though the sequences he cut in of the Salem making for the sea have an obviously different background. There is a touch of caricature in his filming of a local cafe (with Christopher Lee, unrecognisable as its Spanish- speaking owner).

In general, though, the South American scenes are successful in rounding-off the plot. But there is one puzzling omission; the film has nothing to say about the suicide of Langsdorff on December 20th, in Buenos Aires, an incident which the world press saw to be a fateful postscript to the apocalyptic end of the Admiral Graf Spee.

The British victory at the River Plate was a rare moment of illumination amongst the greyness of the 'Phoney War' which lasted until April 1940. Much publicity was given to the personality of Langsdorff (creditably impersonated in the film by Finch) and the poignancy of his personal tragedy. He was seen in press photographs at the funeral of his sailors who had been killed in the battle saluting in the naval fashion -- while those around him raise their arms in the Nazi manner. Before he shot himself he wrapped his body in the old German Imperial Navy flag.

Powell and Pressburger had put forward in their wartime film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp the image of a 'good German'; they did so again in The Battle of the River Plate when they looked back with some nostalgia to that early illusory part of the war, but it is surprising that they did not carry forward the story to its ultimate conclusion.

As it is, this worthy, but flawed, film finishes with the wreck of the Graf Spee on fire and Harwood's squadron sailing away. To emphasise the dramatic impact of the extraordinary finale the film's soundtrack quotes Loge's fire music from Wagner's Die Walkure as the pocket battleship burns. Millington-Drake, the British ambassador in Montevideo, says: 'Timed to the second. Exactly at sunset. Twilight of the Gods'. But it was a false sunset; the era of the 'gentlemanly' Hans Langsdorff was soon to be over.

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