MOVIE REVIEW | Sink the Bismark! (1960)

Here’s a move that wastes no time.  Opening with actual German archival footage of the real Bismark being launched, Sink the Bismark! makes it clear that this ship is like nothing any navy had ever seen.  And unfortunately, it belongs to the Germans, not the allies.  Coinciding with this sea threat, is the promotion of Captain Sam Shepard (Kenneth More) to the British Admiralty’s Chief of Operations.  He’s now the dude who basically commands the entire Naval fleet.  And his first job is to…  Well…  Sink the Bismark (see what I did there?).

Actually, his first job is to make us, the audience, see him is an uptight, by the book, asshole.  On his first day on the job, he cracks it over people slightly out of uniform, eating at the their desk and using each other’s first names.  If only there was a tragic back story to justify his attempts at emotional isolation.  Oh wait, there is, and it’s super clunky, predictable and on the nose.  But that’s OK, because the rest of the movie is good enough to distract you from it.

Following a series if sea skirmishes, Sink the Bismark! goes from one display of the titular boat’s might to another.  In its first test, the Bismark effortlessly takes out two allied destroyers.  The rest of the movie follows Shepard’s process figuring out how to take on this new threat that is like nothing anyone has ever faced before.

It’s different to see a war movie where the main character is so far removed from the actual fighting.  It also means much of the action is far removed from the actual ‘action’.  While the crews of the British Naval ships are largely interchangeable and just there to play a cameo in the story, More’s Captain Shepard is the central figure, standing over a table of toy ships, safe and sound in his London office.

It’s a testament to the screenplay and direction that when Sink the Bismark! cuts from the guns blazing and torpedoes swimming in the Bismark’s latest battle, to Shepard and his team in their quiet and cozy office, it never feels like we’re being taken away of the action.  The tension and stress of formulating strategy and making the decisions how and when to send ships into battle, is just as action packed as the battles themselves.

While the crews of the various British ships remain pretty anonymous, the Nazis helming the Bismark get a little more time to shine.  Unfortunately, it’s in a one dimensional, comic book villain kind of way.   The German Fleet Commander, Admiral Gunther Luthjens (Karel Stepanek) was commanding the ship that sunk Shepard’s last command.

He was also commanding the fleet that bombed London, hitting Shepard’s house and killing his wife.  And he’s on board the Bismark for its maiden run of ass kicking.  I know the screenwriter really wanted to make sure we hated the crew of the Bismark and got on the side of Shepard, but I might have suffered a concussion being hit over the head with it so hard and so often.

Sink the Bismark! Is exactly what I want from an old war picture.  Repressed, stoic men, coldly going about their business of war, and the odd battle thrown in every now and again to liven things up.  The characters and their motivations get a little broad and story-convenient at times, but if you write off every movies for those reasons, there wouldn’t be too much left.

Sink the Bismark!
Directed By – Lewis Gilbert
Written By – Edmund H. North

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