PURSUIT OF THE GRAF SPEE (aka: THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE)
(director/writer: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger; cinematographer: Christopher Challis; editor: Reginald Mills; music: Brian Easdale; cast: John Gregson (Capt. Bell, HMS Exeter), Anthony Quayle (Commodore Henry Harwood, HMS Ajax), Peter Finch (Captain Langsdorff), Ian Hunter (Capt. Woodhouse, HMS Ajax), Jack Gwillim (Capt. Parry, HMNZS Achilles), Bernard Lee (Capt. Patrick Dove, MS Africa Shell), Lionel Murton (Mike Fowler, Montevideo), Patrick Macnee (Lt. Cmdr. Medley, HMS Ajax), Christopher Lee (Manolo, Cantina Manager), Anthony Newley (Ralph, Merchant Seaman), David Farrar (Narrator); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger; Archer; 1956-UK)
“… a rather routine chronicle of the capture of the feared German battleship the Graf Spee.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
For their penultimate collaboration together the always marvelous team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (“49th Parallel”/”One of Our Aircraft Is Missing”) shoot in a semi-documentary style a WW2 naval battle that’s set in 1939. The British Powell and the Hungarian-born Pressburger began their partnership in 1939 as co-directors of The Spy in Black. Unfortunately “Graf Spee” is one of their less interesting films, though certainly well-crafted and intelligently realized. But it’s a rather routine chronicle of the capture of the feared German battleship the Graf Spee after trapping her in Montevideo harbor by the three lightweight British cruisers–the Exeter, the Ajax and the Achilles (from New Zealand). In the final scene the German captain scuttles his ship rather than cede it to the British, as the Brits bluff him out by letting him think he’s surrounded by an entire British fleet after the battleship stops in the neutral South American port to make repairs. It was the first naval victory for England in the war, which was going on for two months. Many historians consider this victory to be a major turning point in the war.
The film makes a great effort to show in detail the subterfuge and diplomacy that went on during that incident, and impresses mostly for the sharp photography by cinematographer Christopher Challis. The Germans are treated with more dignity than they usually are in such war tales, as acting honors go to Peter Finch. He plays the sympathetic German Captain Langsdorff of the Graf Spee. The reason for this grudging respect showed to Langsdorff is because of a memoir by Captain Patrick Dove (Bernard Lee), a merchant seaman whose ship was sunk by the Germans, that was used by the filmmakers to get a human angle into their story. Dove became a prisoner on the Graf Spee and got to know the captain very well.
The film disappointed because there was too little action, the story was too choppy, the battle scenes were too confusing and the Technicolor film seemed studio-bound. Adding to the confusion was that the large cast had ill-defined roles in their bit parts. This is in spite of decent performances by John Gregson as captain of the HMS Exeter and Anthony Quayle as Commodore Henry Harwood of the HMS Ajax.
REVIEWED ON 8/13/2006 GRADE: B- https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/