Tuesday Morning Foreign DVD and Blu-ray disc Report: "The Battle of the River Plate/The Pursuit of the Graf Spee" (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1956)

Glenn Kenny

This is the film that made me fall in love with Montvideo. Montevideo being the major city in Uruguay and the setting for the climax of this picture, a naval battle whose outcome I shall be spoiling (SPOILER ALERT!) below. The climax of this splendid 1956 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the least-talked about pictures in the team's ouevre, takes place in Montevideo, where the notorious German "pocket battleship" (the term, rather confusingly, refers to a large cruising war ship) had been docked for repairs in late 1939. (One thing that made the ship notorious was that it had sunk nearly ten Allied merchant ships by that time.) Hot on its trail...and hence, one of the film's two titles, The Pursuit of the Graf Spee...were several British and Australian ships. Once those caught up with the Graf Spee, the captain of the latter vessel—played here by the great Peter Finch—would be faced with something of a Hobson's Choice...

The resultant fireworks are, in the film, reported over radio by one Mike Fowler, played by Lionel Murton, who's watching the dock from a very cozy Montevideo bar. Throughout the climax, we are treated to views of Montevideans, upper-crust and below, all taking in what could well be an epic sea battle from the comforts of bars, balconies, and such, as the sun goes down and creates a beautiful mauve mirror of gold, purple and pink. It's all rather lyrical for an "action" scene and it fits the elegiac tenor of the actual action. In any event, watching this picture for the first time, it was Mike Fowler's situation that most enchanted (maybe it had something to do with the prospect of working from a bar), and made me think that Montevideo was a city I ought to visit one day. (I have not yet achieved this aim, or even conceived of any sort of pretext which might prod/enable/allow me to achieve this aim.)

Powell/Pressburger films are often thought of as being stylized to the point of near-whimsy. That is, in the imagination or imaginative filing cabinets of some critics, they fall into the category marked "Fanciful." And yet. A picture such as this one expended years of research on the part of Pressburger, who was the member of the team who did the most heavy lifting in the writing department. Huge pains were taken to get every detail right. If not exactly right, then at the very least correct and fitting. One might expect that as much thought was put into the shoes worn by our envied radio correspondent above as was to every single other detail in this meticulously crafted picture.

In the second part of his mammoth, delightful autobiography, Million Dollar Movie, Powell details some of said crafting, lavishing praise on his fellow Archers, including production designer Arthur Lawson: "he built the ship's bridges to suit all my own requirements, which were to fight the battle as realistically as possible without actually killing anybody."

The requirements of this super-production, Powell reminds us, extend to letting the actual people on set—in the frame and outside of it—understand what is happening, and not just in making the thing itself happen. To this end, the production used "an elaborate cue board, which was to be used to signal gun flashes, water splashes, drifting smoke, loud explosions, turning control towers, and rocking bridges, as well as big bangs and flashes between the camera and the actors." Pace Harry Dawes in The Barefoot Contessa, but in an Archers' production an associate producer does have a genuine function; Powell recalls sending his, Sydney Streeter, to Montevideo itself "to mobilize the government, the police, the army, and ten thousand civilians to come down to the dock on a specified Saturday and Sunday." Unlike the entirely created world of a Black Narcissus, this film's world is a combination of the contrived and the actual.

Powell speaks of this tale as a story that "move[s] relentlessly forward, Jules Verne-like, a combination of science, engineering, mystery, and romance...it was an epic, and they don't fall into your lap every day." Why isn't the story better known, and this wonderful film better appreciated?

Part of the answer lies in the time in which it takes place: late 1939. Most of us Americans tend to mark the beginning of World War II as the point in which our country got into it, that being almost exactly two years after the battle of the River Plate. And since the war went on for quite some time after that, one's inclination is to believe that this battle could hardly be said to have been a decisive one.

But it was important, both in bolstering the notion of British sea power and taking German assumed superiority down a notch. Currently there are more than two versions of the picture available for home viewing, all locked in their regions and requiring special equipment for watching on U.S. systems. The first is a very handsome standard-def Region 2 U.K. disc from Carlton Visual Entertainment.. The notes on the back boast of "careful digital restoration" but nowhere else on the disc is there any information about the source material. It is a pretty handsome transfer, as the above screen caps attest. However, it is not enhanced for anamorphic displays, and hence puts its 1.85 frame in a 4:3 box. This was released in 2001; I do not have the 2003 ITV version, but given ITV is the same firm that restored Black Narcissus for high-def, one makes certain assumptions. There is just new a Blu-ray disc of the film, which opens with an ITV logo, and seems truly beautiful (I haven't been able to give it a full viewing yet). Interesting feature of this disc: it's a German release, titled Panzerschiff Graf Spee. Apparently the ship looms larger today in the German pop culture imagination than it does in the realm of those responsible for the title ship's passing...


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