Pop Quiz Time: If you were responsible for writing a movie based around finding, chasing, and sinking a battleship during World War Two, would you:
A. Focus entirely on the ship?
B. Focus on the logistics of finding said ship?
C. A mix of the two?
While action buffs (like myself) would pick A, and strategy fans would pick B, the 1960 film, ‘Sink the Bismark!’ which focuses on the real-life events leading to the destruction of the famed German battleship, tries to find a balance between giving us ship-to-ship action and the behind the scenes efforts to bring the boat down. As an action fan, I was surprised to see how well the film succeeds at accomplishing the balance of both action and strategy, turning the film into a battle not only of heavy shells and big guns, but also a battle of wits.
What does the story do well?
The movie has the protagonists under immense pressure from the very beginning
Much like in real life, ‘Sink the Bismark!’ portrays the British as being in dire straits during the early years of the war. They’re alone against Nazi Germany and their convoys – the lifeline keeping the island nation afloat – are being sunk at an alarming rate, leaving them with few resources to take on the Bismark. In short, the British are the ultimate underdogs in the film, alone and fighting against an enemy who has more resources, more ships, more men, more everything. Failure to stop the Bismark from attacking those convoys threatens to make an already terrible situation even worse.
Though we know that Nazi Germany will ultimately be defeated, the film does an excellent job in quickly setting up what’s at stake for the British should they fail, and how important it is that they sink the Bismark.
The movie focuses on the risks commanders take during wartime.
While most war movies would focus on action and ships blasting each other into scrap metal, ‘Bismark!’ takes the time to show the British struggling with how best to take on said ship. The number of vessels they have at their disposal is limited, and even sending some of them to take on the Bismark is a gamble, as they have to pull those ships away from convoys, and thus gamble with the lives of thousands of sailors and soldiers.
Smartly, though, ‘Bismark!’ shows that the commanders, while aware of the risks that they’re taking, are not cold-hearted monsters who don’t care about the lives that could be lost. They’re fully aware that they could lose thousands of people and don’t like having to take that chance, but they still do, which results in an agent losing his life after transmitting information on the Bismark leaving port, and Captain Shepard thinking he’s lost his son after ordering his ship to find and engage the Bismark.
One of ‘Bismark!’s biggest strengths is showing that these commanders, while still gambling with people’s lives, are people themselves who have to deal with the consequences of those choices. It gives the film an emotional weight that’s more engaging than something like this:
Commander Guy: I say, let’s send our forces here!
Second Commander Guy: Jolly good!
Battleship Guns: BOOM BOOM BOOM.
Showing blood drip out of a communication tube
It’s a minor moment in the film, but an unsettling one: After being hit by a shell, the compass platform of the Prince of Wales is sheared away, and a navigator in a room below has his work interrupted by drops of blood dripping out of the communication pipe. Had we not seen the platform be destroyed, seeing the blood would have been equally chilling, for it would have told us what had happened and left our imaginations to imagine how horrific the carnage would have been.
Even more chilling is knowing that this actually happened during the battle and isn’t the result of the filmmaker’s imagination.
The main character goes through a believable emotional arc
When I first saw ‘Bismark!’ I expected that the highlight of the movie would come from the Bismark blowing up the HMS Hood, and her subsequent final battle and sinking. But to my surprise, I was more engrossed in Captain Jonathan Shepard, the man in charge of finding and destroying the Bismark.
When we first meet him, Shepard is a typical no-nonsense military man, the kind who demands order and discipline and gives no leniency to those who are late, sick, or about to see their girlfriends be shipped overseas. The movie quickly and efficiently shows that he’s good at what he does, and is the right man for a very stressful job, but it’s easy to take a disliking to him. Typically military hard head, we think.
However, as the film goes on, we learn that there’s more to Shepard than meets the eye. He lost his previous ship to German admiral Lutjens (conveniently onboard the Bismark) and wants revenge. Furthermore, Shepard’s coldness to those around him is not because he’s a jerk or a control freak, but from being unable to deal with the grief of losing his wife in a bombing raid by the Nazis, leading him to not wanting to get close to anyone. Yet, after thinking he’s lost his son (after ordering his ship into battle), Shepard breaks down emotionally. While he does learn that his son is alive by the end, it’s these events that make Shepard realize (with the help of his assistant, Anne Davis) that he does need the help of others to get through tough events, and that he doesn’t have to be so hard or cold.
Shepard is a great example of a military man who goes through an emotional arc: at the beginning he’s an efficient, but cold man, but by the end he’s warmed up to others and remains more of his humanity.
It’s also worth noting that ‘Bismark’ also does a good job of setting up Admiral Lutjens as the main antagonist of the film. In the span of just a few minutes, we learn that he’s a Nazi with a big man-crush on Hitler (historically inaccurate, by the way). The movie could have ended there, but it gives Lutjens a little more depth by making him both wanting glory for himself, but also for Germany, due to feeling forgotten and ignored after the First World War. While he’s not a sympathetic character, he does believe in a cause greater than himself, and that’s admirable… even if the movie version of the character is a Nazi.
What would have helped improve the story?
More focus on ordinary sailors on the Bismark
With the film running at a tight and focused 97 minutes, ‘Bismark!’ has to be picky about which characters to focus on, generally choosing to focus on Shepard on land, and the admiral and captain onboard the Bismark, with a few intercuts to sailors on the Prince of Wales and other English ships. While we do get to see the sailors onboard the Bismark fighting for survival, I would have liked to see a focus on one or two of them throughout the story as well, if only to see the story from a pair of people who aren’t involved in command positions.
‘Sink the Bismark!’ manages to achieve the delicate balance between wartime strategy and wartime combat, showing how the decisions made during the former have consequences in the later. While it might have benefited from being just a little longer to allow for a subplot showing two ordinary German sailors and their perspective on things, the movie is still a tight, focused film that engages the audience with the emotional weight wartime commanders have to deal with.