Monday, 11 March 2013

The Battle of the River Plate (1956)


In 1956, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had peaked long ago. It is said that the two filmmakers never made a good collaboration after The Battle of River Platte, their most successful film.  However, Powell did have a little left in him as he went on to make Peeping Tom, one of the greatest horror films of all time, four years after The Battle of River Platte.

The film was conceived when The Archers were invited to a film festival in Argentina, two years before The Battle of River Platte was released. Being two very busy filmmakers, they could not afford to take time off of work, so they decided not to relax on this trip. They spent their time researching a Admiral Graf Spee, a German naval officer. It was then they were referred to a novel called "I Was a Prisoner on the Gaff Spee". The British naval officers who had recommended it to Powell and Pressburger were very fond of it, therefore they assumed it must of created the emotions they want their film to create.

In late 1955, filming of what would later become known as The Battle of River Platte began. This would be the swan song for The Archers, and they knew it.

For once in the entire history of film, the producers of The Battle of River Platte were persistent on the fact that the film pay great attention to detail. They figured that many members of the audience would be offended should the film not follow historical events. Therefore, The Archers decided it was necessary to shoot using real ships. Most of the action that we see aboard the ships, was really shot on ships. It order to afford all of these rental, they required a large deal of money. This was not a problem however, considering the fact that The Battle of River Platte had a massive budget. In order to keep up with all of the action aboard the ship, Powell and Pressburger rented another ship to put their camera on.

The Battle of River Platte was given three awards at the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). These awards included: Best British Film, Best British Screenplay, and Best Film of Any Source. It is undeniable that The Battle of River Platte was a success among film critics and audiences  as it was The Archers' most successful film in the box office. Where does The Battle of River Platte stand today? Sadly, it has faded not only in respect from audiences but it had also faded in popularity  It is now one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's most unknown films. It's most popular purpose for being viewed is one that I myself have conformed to. That purpose is because it is a film by Powell and Pressburger. Their name is what grabs audiences into it. The Battle of River Platte currently stands at a 6.5 on IMDb, this is the lowest ranking of any of any Powell and Pressburger collaboration on IMDb. On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a very solid, 80%. The puts it in a tie for the lowest Powell and Pressburger film on Rotten Tomatoes with The Small Back Room being at the same percentage.

The Battle of River Platte is considered a classic, not because it is a great film, but solely because it was an old one.

The Battle of River Platte is the story of a World War II. Captain Bell is the captain of a ship called The Exeter, one of the many ships in the process of chasing after the German battleship, the Graf Spee. When there is no way that the ship can escape, Admiral Graf Spee steers it into an area protected by the Uruguayan government.

Soon, Admiral Graf Spee must make a decision between battling the many British naval ships that stand in his way, or he must hide out, like a coward. This results in one of the greatest filmed naval battles.

The Battle of River Platte is possibly best known for the fact that it does not represent the German Nazis as emotionless, zombie-like people. Unlike other films of around that time (such as Night Train to Munich) it does not exhibit sequences in which the Nazis are seen doing evil deeds. They are simply personified humans on the other side of battle. Many may think this is a bad thing. People believe the Nazis are emotionless evil people who deserve to die. I believe Nazis are humans, who are mostly in the war for the same reasons as everyone on the other side; to defend the country they were born in.

That said, The Battle of River Platte way not throw dirt on the Nazis, but it certainly does the opposite of it's own country of England. Never have I seen such patriotic love for one's own country. This film states, England is the best, England always win and such other nonsense  I consider this to be the most patriotic film since David Lean's In Which We Serve (just listen to the title to get an idea of how patriotic it is). We have learned that when The Archers try to give credit to another nation... they usually screw up (observe such films as 49th Parallel and I Know Where I'm Going). However, when Powell and Presburger finally try to give the same treatment to their own country... they succeeded. This is most likely because they knew how to properly represent their own country, and because they knew The Battle of River Platte would be watched primarily by British citizens. What I'm trying to say is, I don't like a patriotic film. I don't care whether it is promoting my country or another one. Such films are so opinion based that I consider it impossible to affect a person of another nationality than the one being represented in the film.

Although there is one clearly great performance in The Battle of River Platte, it seems rather deluded of great acting. Peter Finch delivers the great performance I mentioned earlier. He plays Admiral Graf Spee, a man who is caught between two choices. However, there is a large cast in The Battle of River Platte, and that is possibly the main problem. Such a largely diverse cast makes it difficult to tell several of the characters apart from each other. This also fails to give time for each character time to develop. The only character who does get a change to develop is Admiral Graf Spee, and that's why he's the only well-acted character.

Such a grand scale that we become familiar with after watching several Powell and Pressburger films is certainly visible in The Battle of River Platte. In fact, it could be said that it is more visible here than in any of their other films. Here we observe what an extremely large budget can get you: authentic British and German war ships, authentic naval costumes, and some very realistic battle effects. That said, it's not too hard to let The Battle of River Platte suck you in.

Perhaps it was only me who had this problem, but The Battle of River Platte could have been cut down to about 90 or so minutes. There were several moments of both dully executed dialogue and moments of dully executed action. Certainly the producers could have once done what they do best and cut down a film, because for once, The Battle of River Platte is a film that would benefit from it.

The Battle of River Platte is filled with historical details that pass through one ear out the other due to an elaborate array of special effects. However, The Battle of River Platte is very realistic, and overall an enjoyable film.

The Battle of River Plate,
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Peter Finch
6/10 (C)

1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
2. The Small Back Room
3. The Tales of Hoffman
4. The Spy in Black
5. The Battle of the River Plate
6. I Know Where I'm Going

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