Review: The Battle of the River Plate DVD

STUDIO: Hen’s Tooth | DIRECTOR: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | CAST: John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, Peter Finch, Bernard Lee, Ian Hunter, Christopher Lee
RELEASE DATE: 11/9/10 | PRICE: DVD $24.95
BONUSES: making-of featurette
SPECS: NR | 119 min. | War drama | 1.85:1 widescreen | Dolby 2.0 mono

RATINGS (out of 5): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Hen’s Tooth presents the first-time DVD release of the 1956 British film The Battle of the River Plate (aka Pursuit of the Graf Spee, as it was titled for its U.S. theatrical run), a compelling combination of docudrama and political intrigue by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the men who gave us such masterpieces as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus.

In the movie, which is based on a true World War II story, the German ship Graf Spee is a sea-going chameleon attacking British ships in the South Atlantic. Damaged in a battle, it takes refuge in neutral Uruguay, where a final “Twilight of the Gods” unfolds in Montevideo Bay.

The seafaring episodes in the film were made with the cooperation of actual naval fleets (U.S., India, New Zealand, et al.), giving the battle scenes a detailed, bruising authenticity. This extends to the credits: Real ships are identified as the ships they play. The Indian ship Delhi, formerly New Zealand’s Achilles, appears as (you guessed it) The Achilles. Talk about typecasting!

In the Uruguay scenes, Powell and Pressburger savor the diplomatic dance of a country maintaining neutrality during war. The final showdown becomes darkly comedic as a media circus ensues, with throngs cheering from the shore and an American reporter going on radio to sell the war back home.

A fascinating aspect of the film is the respect and cordiality between the British and Germans. Contrast this with the depiction of the Japanese in the contemporaneous Bridge on the River Kwai by fellow British filmmaker David Lean. A couple of glimpses of a swastika aside, at times the movie almost takes on the air of a yacht race, complete with cravats, double-breasted blazers and shared whiskey shots.

The cast includes a young (and very thin) Peter Finch (Network), a pre-Avengers Patrick Macnee, Bernard Lee (“M” in the first dozen James Bond films), horror legend Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula) and Ian Hunter, whose previous Hollywood credits are led by his bizarre, Christ-like turn in MGM’s Strange Cargo, in which he walked on water to the amazement of Joan Crawford.

“Warn the men and get my golf clubs,” says Anthony Quayle’s (Lawrence of Arabia) captain when Britania ruled the waves. They did it with flair! And that also goes for the films of Powell and Pressburger.

The DVD’s only special feature is a 2001 retrospective look at the production, a half-hour piece that features interviews with actor Lee, production manager John Brabourne, cinematographer Christopher Challis and film historian Ian Christie.


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About David

David Leopold is an actor, writer and videographer who would take a Sherpa ride up a Tibetan mountain to see an Edwige Feuillère movie.