Cult Movie: Sink The Bismarck! is British war movie making at its finest

Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More) and WRNS Second Officer Anne Davis (Dana Wynter) in Sink The Bismarck!
Ralph McLean

Sink The Bismarck!

LEWIS Gilbert may be best remembered for his sterling work on the Bond movie franchise (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker were all his) and standalone beauties like Alfie, but in the late 50s and early 60s he cut his directorial teeth on a series of war features that were both ground-breaking and thrilling in their own understated way.

Sink The Bismarck! from 1960 is a perfect example of Gilbert's ability to tell a tale of global conflict in an intimate and involving way. A fictionalised retelling of the real life tale of one of the Second World War's most notorious sea battles it remains one of the greatest British war films ever made.

Announced in 1939 and finally unleashed into North Atlantic waters in 1941, it was a game-changer in the conflict between the Germans and the Allies. Nazi Germany's greatest battleship, the Bismarck was the beast of the battle, the weapon that overpowered any ship that dared to take on its mighty firepower. Faced with its awesome power, British forces were left to scramble around trying to find a tactical way to bring it down.

In the spring of 1941, a moment of opportunity arises when the Bismarck becomes pinned down at her anchorage in Norway. Making a desperate bid for freedom under the cover of the circling Luftwaffe, the great ship is chased down by the Royal Navy, led by chief of operations Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More) and WRNS Second Officer Anne Davis (Dana Wynter).

By pure good fortune, Gilbert managed to secure full cooperation from the admiralty, who just happened to be in the process of retiring an entire fleet of WWII ships at the time of the film's production. As a result, we get to see that rarest of war movie treats – an actual historical story unfolding on real ships with genuine guns. That authenticity adds to the grittiness of the story and that rare sense of reality combined with some excellent model work make the sea sequences particularly memorable and ground-breaking.

As always, Kenneth More is a fine avuncular lead who grapples with the conflict in typical stiff-upper-lip fashion, sparking nicely alongside Dana Wynter as his second officer to come up with his plan for victory.

There's a refreshing focus on the men that are left at home, again an unusual thing for an old war movie to zoom in on, and even the Germans, so often written off in these type of films as super-efficient cold-hearted war mongers, come across as believable human characters caught up in a terrible conflict.

Placed alongside the likes of The Cruel Sea or Dam Busters, this is British war movie making at its finest. Shot in crisp black and white, it may lack the showiness of some of its contemporaries, but there's a strong-willed honesty about this film that sets it apart from the seafaring crowd.

Stylish, tense and genuinely thrilling at times, it's a film crying out for a modern remake.

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