Sink the Bismarck! is a 1960 black-and-white British war film directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Edmund H North, based on The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck (alternatively titled Hunting the Bismarck), a 1959 fictionalized account of the actual WWII naval battles of the German battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen vs. the British Royal Navy, written by CS Forester.
The film stars Kenneth More and Dana Wynter, with Carl Möhner, Laurence Naismith, Karel Stepánek, Esmond Knight, John Stride, Jack Gwillim, and Michael Hordern. The film was praised for its historical accuracy in spite of a number of inconsistencies. It’s to date the only war film to deal with the Bismarck naval battles, and it’s an anomaly in how it focuses much film time on the back-room strategists, as opposed to devoting the film to the combatants themselves.
A link to quotes from the film can be found here.
The film simplifies and distorts aspects of the battles, particularly those involving HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales. Though the actual man who oversaw the operation to sink the Bismarck was Sir Ralph Edwards (and the film acknowledges him in the ending credits), the film replaces him with the fictional Captain Shepard (More). Another character, WRNS Second Officer Anne Davis (Wynter), was invented with Shepard, their fictional interplay and chemistry adding human depth and emotional interest to the story, as did the fictional characters Forester added to his account (e.g., Dusty and Nobby).
This fictionalized history, in its book and film versions, is meant of course to dramatize the greatness of the British navy in their heroic struggle against Nazi Germany; but speaking of historical inaccuracies here, there is a context that has to be examined in order to understand the true nature of the conflict between England and the Nazis. The film and book would have us believe that Britain and Nazi Germany were on practically opposite ends of the political spectrum, with the UK’s liberal democracy on one side and German fascism on the other; but the political reality of the time revealed them to be not so far apart as it seemed.
II: Some Much-Needed Historical Context
Contrary to the heroic portrayal of him in the media, including this film, Churchill was a dreadful, even despicable, human being. Being a highly-placed man in the British Empire, he was as preoccupied with maintaining and protecting England’s imperialist interests as Hitler was in establishing Lebensraum for Germany. Such preoccupations included a gleeful, even fanatical, support for violence against the Japanese, Indians, Sudanese, Cubans, etc. He was easily as racist, if not more so, than Hitler, looking down on Native Americans, Australian aborigines, etc., as inferior.
Churchill also opposed women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, busting unions and violently suppressing strikes in a way that Hitler would have admired. He only supported Zionism for the sake of Western imperialist interests; like Hitler, he also spoke of the dangers of the “International Jews.”
Apart from the Churchill/Hitler comparison, the crimes of British imperialism are also comparable to those of the Nazis in terms of how horrific they were. Here are just a few examples: Boer War concentration camps, the transatlantic slave trade, the Opium Wars, the Bengal famine (Churchill diverted Indian food to European troops when a bad harvest had already made such food scarce, causing the deaths of millions of Indians), and the brutal repression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.
Given this bloody context, we are now ready to see the fighting between England and Germany the right way: it wasn’t ‘democracy vs tyranny,’ it was simply inter-imperialist conflict. And just as the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany (which also had a wider context not so well-known, and one which makes nonsense out of the notion of moral equivalency between fascists and communists), so did the capitalist West have such a pact with the Nazis: Munich, at which appeaser Neville Chamberlain claimed he’d achieved “peace in our time.”
Indeed, not only Churchill but many British conservatives (including the aristocracy) expressed support for fascism, for they knew it was an effective weapon against the rise of socialism. People like Churchill and Chamberlain were hoping, by ceding the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Nazi Germany, Hitler would be encouraged to go further East, invade the USSR, and crush communism.
Hitler, however, started presenting himself as a threat to Western imperial hegemony, and this caused Churchill et al to change their attitude toward this new imperialist challenger, and to regard him as just as much of an enemy as did Stalin, who’d been desperately trying to get the, till then, deaf Western powers to join him in an alliance against Hitler.
So inter-imperialist conflict is the basis of the fighting between Britain and the Nazis. In the particular instance of this movie and Forester’s book, the Nazis started the failed Operation Rheinübung in an attempt to block supplies from reaching England.
The notion of the British as the heroes and the Nazis as the (only) villains is, as I’ve stated above, a liberal bourgeois perspective, given that in actual fact both sides were imperialists vying for a bigger slice of the pie. This notion of one side as good, more civilized, more advanced, and therefore superior to the other is actually an attitude held on both sides of the conflict, and is thus an expression of national pride.
That ‘pride goeth…before a fall‘ is a recurring theme in this film, and it is noted on both sides of the conflict. While the tone of the film would have us believe that the irrational emotion of pride is far more a pronounced fault of the Nazis than of the British, there are a number of indications, including some Freudian slips, if you will, in the writing, that suggest that the chasm separating Nazi pride from that of the British isn’t as far apart as is assumed.
The film begins with a newsreel showing the 1939 launch of the Bismarck, with Hitler among the attendees. This is a moment of Nazi pride, assuming their new battleship has a Titanic-like invincibility.
Then we have a shot of the approaching Captain John Shepard in May 1941, walking in the direction of the Admiralty in London where he is to be the new overseer of strategizing in the War Room underground. As Shepard approaches, we see a statue of a lion to his left, a symbol of the strength of Britain. A huge flock of birds flies off the ground where he is walking, just before we see the film title flash on the screen; it is as if the birds deliberately make way for our great hero. In these visuals we see manifestations of British pride to parallel that shown in the Nazi newsreel.
We next see Edward R Murrow playing himself, CBS London radio correspondent. As an American broadcast journalist discussing the threat the Bismarck presents to England, his sympathy to Britain represents the solidarity felt between those countries that were and are part of Anglo-American imperialism. He says Britain is fighting alone, a claim easily proven false given the aid England got from her dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, all before the US would enter WWII by the end of the year. This ‘Britain fighting alone’ is just another example of the country’s excessive pride.
Shepard is in many ways as much the ‘stiff upper lip‘ stereotype of the British as the film’s portrayal of Fleet Admiral Günther Lütjens (Stepánek) is of the Nazis. Within a minute of having entered the War Room, Shepard is quick to find annoyance with the informal work atmosphere he sees: a young man isn’t properly wearing his uniform (no jumper); the charms of the beautiful Davis are jocularly overestimated, by Shepard’s predecessor, as crucial to winning the war; Commander Richards (played by Maurice Denham) is eating a sandwich on duty; and a man addresses Davis as ‘Anne,’ which especially irks Shepard.
This stiff upper lip of Shepard’s extends, predictably, to his refusal to show or talk about his emotions. While part of his reason for this refusal is the pain he felt over the death of his wife during an air raid and the sinking of his ship by a German cruiser commanded by Lütjens, another part of the reason, surely, is his pride, especially seen in his stubborn insistence on the virtue of stoicism as against Davis’s argument for the healthy expression of feelings.
First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Dudley Pound (Naismith) says he’s been told that Shepard is “as cold as a witch’s heart.” Pound approves of this characterization of Shepard, as much of an exaggeration as it is; he wants a man with no heart or soul, but “just an enormous brain.” Fighting the Nazis in the North Atlantic will be “a grim business,” not to be won with “charm and personality.”
The fact is that inter-imperialist conflict is a grim business, making the British as grim in their dealings as the Nazis are. Hence, Pound wants an agent in southern Norway to make direct contact with the Admiralty, as dangerous as making such a contact will be for the agent. The Norway man will be shot by the Nazis in the middle of sending a message about where the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen are sailing, but Pound considers the sacrifice worth it.
V: A Naval Chess Game
Pound and Shepard learn that the German ships are coming out of the Baltic. The two men are looking at a large map on a table with small models of ships that are moved around like chess pieces. Indeed, the conflict turns out to be a “chess game” of sorts between Shepard and Lütjens: who will outsmart whom?
Pound notes the British ships available at Scapa Flow that could engage the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen : HMS King George V, HMS Prince of Wales, and HMS Hood. Pound contacts Admiral Sir John Tovey (Hordern, who actually served as a lieutenant commander in HMS Illustrious during the war) of King George V about the incomplete message from the agent in Norway who was killed: Prinz Eugen was spotted, and one must assume the worst, that the Bismarck is sailing with her.
As other players of this “chess game,” the men on King George V have to anticipate which way the German ships are going in order to intercept them: will they go through the Denmark Strait, will they sail south of Iceland, or through the Faeroes/Shetland passage?
Shepard wants to reinforce the Home Fleet, taking ships away from other duty. He considers taking HMS Victorious and HMS Repulse off escort duty, which would give the commander-in-chief an aircraft carrier and another battle cruiser. 20,000 men’s lives would be risked; Shepard doesn’t consider their lives a gamble, but a calculated risk. Pound approves of his decision.
Defending empire is, indeed, a grim business.
Now that King George V has Victorious and Repulse, Tovey wants the Hood and Prince of Wales in the Greenland area, while the Home Fleet sail from the Scapa Flow area, then south of the Faeroes and Iceland, to be ready to engage the Bismarck south of Greenland if the Hood and Prince of Wales fail…
…which, of course, they will.
Bad weather reinforces the British Navy’s difficulties, making the German ships virtually invisible. Lütjens speaks of the “chess game” he is playing with the British, and he proudly imagines himself able to win. Note the comparison between the stereotypical British vs German forms of pride, the ‘stiff upper lip’ of the former, and the boastful, ‘superior Aryan pride’ of the latter.
Lütjens is, of course, portrayed as a stereotypical Nazi. The historical Lütjens, however, was nothing like this film portrayal, which should help us see that British and German pride aren’t as far apart from each other as is assumed.
The Lütjens of Forester’s book is somewhat prouder, but not as much as he is in the film. The film Lütjens complains of not receiving the recognition due to him in WWI; he is also fanatical in his belief that the Bismarck is unsinkable.
The Lütjens of history, however, was a very different man. He did not agree with Nazi policies: he was one of only a few navy commanders who publicly protested against the brutal mistreatment of the Jews during Kristallnacht. Also, he was one of the few officers to refuse to give Hitler the Nazi salute when the Führer visited the Bismarck on its first and final mission. Such rebellious actions would have taken uncommon courage; it was also in marked contrast to the film’s portrayal of a committed Nazi who’d have us never forget he is a Nazi and a German, and who passionately shouts, “Heil Hitler!“
So, this contrast between the stoic Shepard and the crazed Nazi Lütjens is meant to make the former look like the more reasonable man by far. In effect, it’s to make the British seem superior to the Nazis, when as I indicated above, the crimes of British imperialism make England no more guiltless than Germany. Indeed, it is the role of fascism to be the ‘bad cop’ to the ‘good cop’ of the liberal bourgeoisie, when in reality, all cops are bastards.
VII: Shepard’s Mask of Ice
Shepard’s outer shell of stoicism is shown again when he’s asked about his son, Tom (Stride), an air gunner in Ark Royal‘s Swordfish squadron. One assumes the boy’s father would be glad to know he’s (for the moment, actually) far away from the danger of facing the Bismarck, but Shepard says his son must take his chances like everyone else. This would seem a brave, self-sacrificing attitude, but some might think it callous. In any case, the attitude Shepard presents here is fake; he’s just being too proud to admit to his feelings and emotional vulnerability. We’ll know his real feelings for Tom soon enough.
Shepard is again cold to his staff when he learns a young officer named Dexter is late for duty, though only a little. Commander Richards, the man to be relieved by Dexter, doesn’t mind the lateness, but Shepard does. He punishes the boy by requiring him for duty the next three nights. Richards pleads for Dexter, saying the boy wishes to have some time to spend with his girl, an army nurse, before she’s sent off from Portsmouth to go overseas; but Shepard won’t make an exception.
Shepard’s insistence on this punishment happens during a scene when Davis has discussed with him the loss of the man she loved, a “wonderful man” who was missing in action at Dunkirk the previous year. She has argued how good it is to talk about one’s feelings, while Shepard of course doesn’t think so. He similarly shows no warmth or pity to Dexter’s now being unable to be with his girl.
The reality of imperialism, as a modern extension of capitalism, is that it causes alienation to metastasize. We see this intensified alienation in Shepard, as the Director of Operations for the imperialist British fleet, in his callous attitude toward such young people in love as Dexter. While he shows a modicum of sympathy for Davis (presumably because of her elegant beauty), he still won’t concede any validity to her belief in the goodness of showing feelings.
Another provocation, happening by the end of that same scene, challenges an uncovering of Shepard’s outer mask of stoicism: he learns that Lütjens, who sank his ship, is commanding the Bismarck. Since he’s dealt with Lüjens before, though, Shepard will be able to get good hunches about what his nemesis plans to do.
VIII: Bismarck vs Hood
The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen are spotted sailing in the Denmark Strait, so the Hood and Prince of Wales (the latter of which has civilian workers aboard) will have to confront them the next morning. Captain Leach (Knight, who actually served as a gunnery officer on board the Prince of Wales, where he was seriously injured and blinded during the battle with the Bismarck) tells his men to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the coming battle.
To get back to the theme of pride before a fall, the Hood is the pride of the British navy. When the men in the War Room know the Hood is about to face the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (played by Geoffrey Keen) proudly says, “Good old Hood; she’ll get them.”
The problem is, of course, that she won’t get them. Instead, the Bismarck first hits the Hood, only slightly damaging her, then after another salvo, the first three shells of which hit the water near the Hood, the fourth hits just below its main mast, penetrating the deck armour, and the Hood‘s deck explodes. Both the British and German sides are shocked at the destruction of this once great ship. What’s left of it is covered in smoke. The destruction of the Hood is thus a parallel of the upcoming destruction of the Bismarck, indicating a parallel of British imperialist pride with that of the Nazis.
There are enough parallels, or doublings, of so many aspects of the British and German sides in this film, revealed in a more or less Freudian slip-like fashion (i.e., not consciously expressed as doubles or parallels), as to justify–along with the British imperialist crimes mentioned above–the near moral equivalency of the British and the Nazis.
As noted above, the Hood and Bismarck are parallels, the pride of their respective countries’ navies, and they will both meet their demises. Shepard and Lütjens are doubles. Both are embittered from misfortunes of one kind or another from their pasts. The pride of Shepard and Lütjens will, in one sense or another, fall: the former will have to own up to his emotions, and the latter will face the consequences of his overconfidence.
Recall the difference, however, between the film’s portrayal of Lütjens and the historical man, who far from being overconfident, was actually pessimistic about the Bismarck‘s chances of a successful mission. In the film, Captain Ernst Lindemann (Möhner)–who is a parallel to Shepard’s Davis in being a soft-spoken voice of reason trying to temper the stubborn pride of his superior–is ordered by Lütjens to fire on the Hood; while the Lütjens of history ordered Lindemann not to engage the Hood, with Lindemann attacking despite his superior’s orders. And if the Lütjens of the film takes reckless chances, so does Shepard in his giving the Home Fleet Victorious and Repulse, risking the lives of 20,000 men.
The only reason we in the Anglo-American world consider the British in the film to be bold and daring in their risks, while considering the Nazis to be reckless in theirs, is because we have been culturally conditioned to sympathize with the former imperialists and not with the latter. In reality, neither side should have been sympathized with.
Another parallel, or doubling, in the film is the phone call from Churchill to the Admiralty and the telegram from Hitler to the Bismarck. We all know Hitler was a warmonger, but in Forester’s account (page 77 of this pdf), Hitler calls Churchill a warmonger (which he was, technically).
X: Damaging the Prince of Wales
To get back to the story, though, with the Hood gone, it’s up to the Prince of Wales to fight the Bismarck. The British ship hits the Bismarck on the bow, then the latter hits the former on the bridge, killing all but two men there. Hit several more times, the Prince of Wales has to retreat.
Directly below the flaming wreckage of what once was the bridge is the chart room, where the navigating officer sees blood dripping from the voice pipe onto his chart. This scene is in Forester’s account (page 55 of the pdf), and it is reproduced in the film.
Proud of his victory over the Hood and the Prince of Wales, Lütjens wants to continue sailing in the Atlantic in search of more opportunities of Nazi glory. (His pride is shown in both the book [pdf pages 61-64] and the film.) Damage to the Bismarck, however, has caused an oil leak, and Lindemann wants to return to Germany for refuelling and repairs. Proud Lütjens won’t have it, though, and he’ll have news of his victory sent to Berlin; repairs and refuelling can be done in Nazi-occupied Brest instead.
Sad news of the destruction of the Hood is disseminated throughout the Allied press, including Murrow’s sombre report, contrasting with the proud, jubilant news of the same thing in the Nazi reporting. The film and book–the latter dramatizing the loss through the grieving mother of a seaman named Nobby (pdf page 59)–would have us commiserating with the British, and looking with sober eyes at the Nazi gloating; but since, as I’ve said above, it’s just one criminal empire fighting a criminal would-be empire, the opposition between both sides should be seen as a dialectical sublation, not a Manichaean dualism.
Prinz Eugen breaks away, heading to Brest. Shepard is aware that his son, Tom, is going to be exposed to the danger because Force H, the Ark Royal and its Swordfish planes are being deployed to hunt the Bismarck. Shepard’s efforts to contain his emotions are being tested once again.
After evading the radar of the Suffolk and Norfolk, the Bismarck (located by Catalina flying boats) is to be slowed down by an air strike from the Swordfish torpedo bombers. Another fall of British pride comes when, not only do the airplanes mistakenly attack the Sheffield, thinking she’s the Bismarck, but also the torpedoes used have an unreliable magnetic detonator that tends to cause them to explode just after being dropped in the water (pdf page 107). If my lip-reading is at all reliable, the captain of the Sheffield (played by John Horsley), in annoyance with the friendly fire incident, seems to be saying, “Stupid fucking bastards,” the audio being out for obvious reasons.
Later, the Swordfish return with conventional contact exploders, and one of their torpedoes detonates near the stern, jamming the Bismarck‘s rudder, slowing her down, and making manoeuvring impossible. Undaunted in his stubborn pride, Lütjens tells his men (who in Forester’s book haven’t properly slept in days…no rest for the wicked!) not to lose heart, for U-boats will be coming to help soon (the Luftwaffe will come, too), and of course the Bismarck is, apparently, unsinkable. His pride is about to come crashing down with his ship.
Tom Shepard participates in the earlier airstrikes, and with them comes news of his momentary disappearance. Naturally, the boy’s father is shaken upon hearing the news, desperately trying to contain himself with that mask of stoicism. Shepard has been warming up to Davis, though, little by little; and he follows her advice about talking about his feelings.
He tells her his reason for refusing to acknowledge them: the death of his wife has made him believe the disavowal of his feelings will shield him from future hurt. But he forgot about his strong love for his son. Another strong feeling of his, pride, has been thwarted in his forced confrontation with that love.
When he finally learns that his son is alive and well from a phone call, he freezes and cannot answer. He is suspended between the stoic front he always puts on and the awesome wave of relief that has washed all over him. He steps out back to shed a few embarrassing tears, and Davis has noticed; but she’s too elegant a lady to let him know she’s seen him in such a vulnerable state. The film’s sympathy to Britain softens this fall of pride.
XIII: Sinking the Bismarck
The most brutal fall of pride, of course, is reserved for the men of the Bismarck, since it is the filmmaker’s (and Forester’s) intent to maximize the contrast between the UK and the Nazis, and therefore their respective falls of pride. Lütjens has received a telegram from Hitler saying that all of Germany is waiting to welcome him as their great hero. They, of course, will never receive him, since he will die, ironically, with the telegram on him.
The destruction and sinking of the Bismarck (finished off by Dorsetshire) is shown in all its brutality, with salvo after salvo hitting her and penetrating that thick armour, a man from King Charles V saying, “Shoot!” over and over again. We see Germans trying to rescue their wounded on a stretcher, then a shell hits the ship, throwing the men and making them drop the wounded. Men down below race in the rising, flooding water, trying to escape a drowning. Men open a top hatch only to find flames preventing their escape.
Now, Admiral Tovey is gracious enough to have the Dorsetshire rescue the German survivors, but one controversial historical detail left out of the film is how this ship quickly left after rescuing only 110 Germans, because a U-boat was suspected to have been in the area. The film must do all in its power to portray the British as well as possible, while doing a caricature of Nazi evil.
XIV: Shepard and Davis
The potential for a romance between widowed Shepard and Davis has been kindled in her preference to work for him over a job offer in the US. He asks her out to dinner, thinking it’s evening, when in fact it’s the morning, so they leave the Admiralty to have breakfast together instead. This minimizing of any romantic chemistry between them seems another example of stereotypical British stoicism, the affectation of virtuous self-control.
Shepard and Davis walk away in that same shot that introduced him, with the lion statue on the left and the flock of birds flying off to make way again for the hero who now gets the girl. It’s pride in would-be British superiority on display once again, in contrast to the Nazi pride that the imperialist British navy felt they had a right to judge.
My point is that while Nazi Germany’s racism, brutality, and imperialism were blatant and obvious, the British version of these vices has been obscured in a cloak of ‘civilization.’ The conventional capitalism of the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. is perceived by many as innocuous (thanks in large part to the propaganda of films like Sink the Bismarck!, which aim to glorify these countries), while only the authoritarianism of fascism is seen as cruel and barbaric.
Mainstream Western capitalism is, however, on a continuum with fascism, the latter not emerging until the hegemony of the former is threatened by socialism, the true opposite of both ideologies. The bourgeois liberal would have you believe that not only is his ideology opposed to Naziism, but that…an obscene comparison!…fascism and communism are somehow sister ideologies. The fighting between the British and Nazi navies in this film is supposed to represent the opposition between mainstream capitalism and fascism, when really the fighting only represents a competition between the imperialism of two countries. After all, competition is part of the core of capitalism, so inter-imperialist conflict is to be expected.
As for the absurd comparison of fascism and communism, a study of the far more significant fighting of WWII–that on the Eastern front, between the Nazis and Soviets, a bitter struggle that dwarfs that of the Western front–should clear up any confusion about where those two ideologies truly stand in relation to each other.
And as for the actual comparability of bourgeois liberal ‘democracy’ and fascism, consider a few quotes from the ever-maligned Stalin: “Social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” (And social democracy is the most leftward-leaning of bourgeois liberalism; consider, therefore, how much closer to fascism the ‘centrism’ of the Clintons, Blair, Obama, Biden, and Macron are!)
To clarify the meaning of the above Stalin quote, consider this other one of his: “What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.” The depredations of thirty years of post-Soviet neoliberalism have proven Stalin to have been prescient.
In sum, England’s defeat of the Nazi threat to her shipping routes was heroic and salvific only to her, not to the preservation of ‘democracy.’ It’s only natural that, when two empires collide, they fight. The British saw themselves as trying to better the lives of their own people; so did the Nazis with respect to Germany. None of this, however, is to the betterment of humanity in a global sense.
Indeed, the oppressed peoples outside of the Anglo-American world see the political situation quite differently. One doesn’t fight empire with empire (consider Operation Paperclip and the tensions that led to the building of the Berlin Wall to see how ex-Nazis continued to collude with the capitalist West); one fights–and defeats–it with anti-imperialism.