Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 21, 2003)
During the early parts of World War II, the Germans hampered the Allied war effort with their attacks on ships that crossed the Atlantic. The Germans prevented massive amounts of materials from reaching England, which severely hampered their war effort. Eventually an escort convoy system largely halted these disruptions, but they definitely took a toll on the Allied side of things.
1960’s Sink the Bismarck! offers an intriguing examination of the topic. It focuses on one of the Germans’ main warships, the Bismarck. The film briefly opens with that craft’s christening in February 1939 before it leaps to the German air raids over England in May 1941. We meet real-life newsman Edward R. Murrow, who does the Basil Exposition thing here; he pops up periodically throughout the movie to fill us in on facts related to the war effort. At the start, he lets us know about the u-boat attacks in the North Atlantic and sets up the admiralty operations in London.
With these details out of the way, we meet a few denizens of the latter organization. Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More) comes in to take over Operations, and he clearly doesn’t like the informal tone of the place. He cracks down on that and comes across as a cold fish without much tolerance for casual things, though we find out that he used to be warmer until some nasty events affected his personal life. We also learn that his son Tom (John Stride) serves in the British military, and Shepard obviously worries about his safety.
The folks in Operations get a report of two German warships at large around Norway, and they believe one might be the Bismarck, apparently the strongest vessel in German fleet. When the Nazis nail a secret agent in Norway, Operations only receives part of his transmission, and they have to assume it’s the Bismarck involved. The military scrambles to stop the Bismarck from running rampant in the North Atlantic.
In the meantime, we meet the crew of the Bismarck. We get to know Fleet commander Admiral Gunther Lutjens (Karel Stepanek), who desires to use the Bismarck to attain glory for himself and Germany. He’s assisted by Captain Lindemann (Carl Mohner), a more levelheaded person who urges more caution from Lutjens. The latter seems cocky as he brags that the Bismarck’s “faster and unsinkable”.
Essentially the rest of the movie follows the progress in these battles. We see British attempts to halt the Bismarck and German reactions to those efforts. We watch the actions back at Operations, and matters become personal when Shepard’s son’s crew on the Ark Royal enters the fray.
While many movies would accentuate melodrama, Sink focuses tightly on the story at hand. To be sure, we find some divergences into the Shepard subplot. We watch what happens with his son and also find out why he displays such an icy demeanor. The film even hints at potential romance with Shepard’s assistant second officer Anne Davis (Dana Wynter).
Happily, however, the movie doesn’t turn into a Pearl Harbor melodrama, as it keeps matters where they belong: on the military maneuverings. Director Lewis Gilbert moves the story at a nice pace and presents the material in a concise manner. The tale flows smoothly and efficiently as it distinctly depicts the information.
At times Sink seems a little workmanlike, and it doesn’t bring a tremendous amount of spark to the material. One shouldn’t expect a terribly dynamic examination of the subject, as the movie occasionally feels somewhat dry. However, this doesn’t mean that the flick lacks excitement, as the tale generally comes across as rather taut and tense. The film doesn’t telegraph its points, so the eventual outcomes remain somewhat in doubt. That helps make the flick more involving and intriguing.
Some of the film’s attempts at verisimilitude cause mild distractions, though. The Murrow bits seem unnecessary and gimmicky; the tale would move fine without his updates. Sink also uses a fair amount of stock footage, and much of that doesn’t blend well with the other material. Those instances moderately took me out of the story at times.
On the positive side, the acting in Sink generally seems good. Stepanek’s Lutjens comes across as a bit hammy and broad, but the rest of the performers work efficiently and don’t overly embellish their roles. The film also achieves a nice sense of humanity, and while it doesn’t try to make heroes out of the Nazis, it also doesn’t turn them into cartoon baddies.
One of the better World War II dramas, Sink the Bismarck! presents a tense and entertaining piece. Not much about the movie stands out as particularly outstanding, but it appears well paced and generally exciting. The film tells its tale well.
One potential oddity occurs at the start of the film. We see the christening of the Bismarck, and this scene includes some German narration. None of this offers subtitles, though. You can still figure out what’s happening, but it seems strange that the film doesn’t attempt to translate the lines. I never saw this movie prior to this DVD, so I don’t know if this was an oversight or if the film’s always been that way, but I thought I’d mention it just in case it is a goof.