Even some of the most banal films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are capable of throwing up interesting details. The Battle of the River Plate isn’t an immensely good film, but it is a solid enough war film. The interesting thing about Powell and Pressburger’s war films is that the duo’s directing style really isn’t suited to the genre. In fact, all their war films have a rather nice air of pleasantness about them. Nothing truly awful ever really happens. When someone is taken prisoner by the enemy, he always seems to be treated respectfully, as if the Geneva Conventions actually did have some real-life impact. War rarely appears to be a truly mortifying horror and a consistent forbearer of human atrocity. Instead it is more like a gentlemanly dust-up between two decent fellows who have had a disagreement. Perhaps war would be nicer if it were like this.
The Battle of the River Plate plays like a war film with an interest in telling a story of a particular battle with an eye for the facts and details. It is a film which clearly enjoys jumping into the routine of naval life onboard the ships we spend time upon. It enjoys detailing to us the movements and strategies of the ships involved. This is something of a habit of Powell and Pressburger’s. Their fascination with the routine of military life was apparent in both the surprisingly good The Spy in Black and the awful One of Our Aircraft is Missing. But when you combine this fascination with routine with their somewhat pleasant depiction of war and a selective view of certain facts, it does become a wee bit problematic upon closer analysis.
The film is a retelling of the real-life Battle of the River Plate in 1939, where a trio of British warships engaged in a battle with the German battleship Graf Spee. The Graf Spee lost and made it to port in Montevideo in neutral Uruguay. There it was given enough time to make essential repairs, but it would have likely been smashed to pieces by the British Navy waiting in international waters. The captain of the Graf Spee opted, in the end, to scuttle his ship at port, avoiding the death he would have almost certainly faced out in the open water.
The film depicts all this. It depicts the captain of the Graf Spee, Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch) as a gentleman and a reasonable officer, simply ‘doing his job’. It depicts his eventual decision to scuttle as something of a gentlemanly concession to surrender. What it does not depict is his suicide very soon after the event. Suddenly, the film’s idealistic impression of this battle as a gentlemanly dust-up becomes rather more difficult to pertain, as if the greater shame is the destruction of such beautiful ships rather than the loss of human life. Such an impression of war is perhaps not surprising coming from a lifelong Tory like Michael Powell, so for the time being I’ll simply tell you about the rest of the film.
It is, as ever with Powell/Pressburger films, gorgeous to look at. The film makes use of some gorgeous sunrises and sunsets in and around the South Atlantic. In terms of the characters and stories that we follow, The Battle of the River Plate works almost as three films in one. The first is the story of a group of British POWs on board the Graf Spee. They are a typically British bunch, stiff upper-lip and whatnot, though the relatively pleasant treatment afforded to them by their captors means they do not have much to complain about. The second story is the story of the actual fighting itself, and here we focus on the three ships that attacked the Graf Spee. We follow their respective captains and crews in their battle movements and so on. This is easily the best part of the film, as the battle is filmed with quite a lot of attention to scale and with a grandeur that is rather impressive. Afterwards comes the dullest section of the film. Once the Graf Spee has made it to Montevideo we are introduced to the diplomatic wrangling that occurred between various factions in attempting to solve the crisis. This section, coming after the excitement and grandeur of the battle itself is rather too long and too plodding to be of much tension. It ensures that the film’s pacing is ultimately quite lopsided and awkward, with the climax occuring roughly around two-thirds of the way in, followed by a long protracted resolution, which scuttles the majority of the film’s qualities eventually.
It’s not an awful film, and both Powell and Pressburger did much better work, as well as much worse. There are some solid performances here too, though no one actor is called upon to really test his limits. They mostly stand around being gentlemen, as it seems everyone did in the world of Powell and Pressburger whether for better or for worse.