What We Can Learn From ‘Sink The Bismark!’

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.

Conclusion

‘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.

What we can learn from ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’

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45 weeks ago, we took a look at ‘Sharknado 5: Global Swarming’, and now, at long last, it’s time to take a look at the final film in the venerable series: ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’

After five long years of sharknados taking out cites, going into space, becoming radioactive, and destroying the world, the series finally comes to an end with ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’ which, having exhausted all other possibilities, sends the title monster back through time (the only other sensible option would have it going to the afterlife), with surfer-rurned-barternder-turned-sharknado killer Fin Shepard on a journey to stop the sharknados for good. Let’s journey along to see what valuable story lessons we can learn by watching sharks terrorize people throughout history.

Avoid abandoning a greater-scope villain after establishing them

In the previous film, ‘Global Swarming,’ we learned that the sharknados were not just a freak of nature, but were created by a malevolent shark god that Fin and friends (I never get tired of writing that) set out to stop. While they did stop the sharknados at the end of the fifth film (at the cost of every other human alive), it’s odd that the shark god isn’t mentioned in ‘It’s About Time’.

When we introduce a supernatural threat – or any threat so big that it effectively becomes the main antagonist for a franchise – it’s imperative not to have that threat dropped so quickly, especially when it’s a supernatural one. It’s logical to think that Fin would have to take out the shark god to prevent any further sharknados from being made, but its nowhere to be found. If our own greater-scope villains need to be dropped, a good reason needs to be established instead of never mentioning them again, hoping that audiences won’t notice. They will.

Establish solid rules for time travel, lest audiences get hopelessly confused

While traveling through time offers nearly endless possibilities for exciting storytelling, it can quickly become a mess of intersecting timelines, cause and effect, and how actions in the past affect the future (and that’s without getting into the grandfather paradox). ‘It’s About Time’ tries to make things simple by stating that everyone can only travel back in time once, but then it has Gil continuously going through different eras. When it comes to time travel, it’s best to make things as simple as possible. Better to have our audiences focus on the fun shenanigans going on, then wondering how such things are possible.

When doing time travel, consider bringing back minor characters for big roles

One of the things that ‘It’s About Time’ does best is bringing back minor characters for bigger roles in the story, like Bryan and Skye. While they may have served as cannon fodder in their original appearances, or had a small role that didn’t affect the story all that much, we don’t expect much from them. They’re background characters, ones who don’t take the spotlight. Thus, when they come back as main characters, they become underdogs who have a chance to shine and help save the day. Even better is if they’re in a completely new time and location (like the prehistoric era), as not only do they have to contend with being in the spotlight, but now they also have to try and survive in an environment they’re not familiar with.

Consider having monsters and antagonists from the future battle people from the past

One of the most enjoyable aspects of time travel stories is seeing people and technologies from different eras interact with one another. How, for example, would a modern-day person fare in the Revolutionary War era? Or in Ancient Egypt? How do technologically disadvantaged people fight off opponents from a different era? ‘It’s About Time’ has medieval knights, Revolutionary War soldiers, and Cowboys fight off sharks, and those battles are easily the highlights of the movie.

The reason these fights are so interesting is that the people of the past are automatically the underdog and have to fight harder to win. Cowboys have the advantage of guns when fighting sharks, but revolutionary war soldiers only have muskets, while knights are stuck with swords and bows, which makes audiences wonder how on earth they’re going to win. An even cleverer version of this trope is to have the people of the past take advantage of futuristic tech: When sharknados attack Revolutionary America, the British use a sharknado to gain an advantage in their war, almost changing the course of history in their favor.

When writing historical characters in time travel stories, the more authentic they are, the funnier they are

Another draw of time travel stories is being able to use famous people throughout history and put them in exciting fights and teamups with monsters and people from other times in history. Part of this draw is seeing how someone from one era coping with another, and how they would react to, say, modern weapons and technology. However, for this trope to be most useful, it’s important to make historical characters as accurate as possible; much of the humor/awesome factor in their appearances is that they take things seriously. While comedic or light-hearted time travel stories can make famous people goofballs (Think ‘Bill and Ted’), it is possible to go too far: When Finn and his friends go to the Revolutionary War era, I was excited at the thought of seeing George Washington fighting a sharknado. Instead, we get a man who’s more interested in taking a nap and cracking jokes instead of fighting or taking the situation seriously.

Consider having someone alter history in a time travel story, even when they know it’ll hurt them

While ‘It’s About Time’ engages in all the standard time-travel tropes (meeting famous figures, having historical characters and groups fight monsters from other eras, etc.) and get into debates about changing the future to avert a personal catastrophe (Nova trying to save his grandfather), the film smartly changes things up by giving Finn an impossible choice: He has a chance to stop sharknados forever by traveling through time, but at the cost of losing his son, who will never be born, and even be erased from Finn’s memory.

So often, time travel stories are about changing the future for the better, or preserving it, but rarely do we see stories where travelers doing the right thing know they will suffer greatly, even if its for the greater good. By having our characters lose something important to them, whether it’s a loved one, a job, or a dream, and being willing to let them go to save so many others, we give them an unparalleled chance to shine and show how brave and heroic they can be.

If it fits the theme of a series, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending

It’s a classic trope: The characters of a story manage to succeed in their fight. They achieve their goals, get what they want, and live happily ever after. It’s so overused that it’s a scenario that could easily turn into a parody, and many stories try to subvert it by using a darker, or more bittersweet ending where not everything is right or well. But there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending, especially if it’s well-earned, and the end of the Sharknado series has a very well-earned one indeed: Fin manages to restart history and create a timeline where sharknados don’t exist, saving all his friends and acquaintances, and even Gil, with the very last shot of the series has Al Roker declaring that it’s going to be a beautiful day with nothing unusual going on. It’s a satisfying conclusion that ties everything up, and gives everyone a happy ending without any tease or hint of further adventures, giving the characters – and us – closure.

And so, after a year, we finally finish our marathon of all the Sharknado films. Turn in next week, when we’ll do an analysis of the series as a whole.