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Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)
35mm, Technicolor, 117 mins
DirectorsMichael Powell
 Emeric Pressburger
Production CompanyArcturus Productions
ProducerMichael Powell
 Emeric Pressburger
ScriptMichael Powell
 Emeric Pressburger
PhotographyChristopher Challis

Cast: John Gregson (Captain Bell), Anthony Quayle (Commodore Harwood), Peter Finch (Captain Langsdorff), Ian Hunter (Captain Woodhouse), Jack Gwillim (Captain Parry)

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The story of the pursuit of the German battleship 'Graf Spee' by the British Navy at the outset of World War II.

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Made towards the end of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's creative partnership, The Battle of the River Plate is based on the British Navy's triumph over a German 'pocket battleship', the Graf Spee, in the early months of the second world war. Rarely included in discussions of their great works, The Battle of the River Plate was nevertheless Powell and Pressburger's most commercially successful film.

The gallant heroism of both the British Navy and the German Captain Langsdorff, who scuttles his own ship rather than face defeat, strongly appealed to Powell and Pressburger. Indeed, so fond of the story was Michael Powell that he published a novel, The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee, retelling the story in the hope that, as he wrote in the book's introduction, future generations of children would "read it and absorb it into their experience."

Echoing the friendship between the British and German officers Wynne-Candy and Schuldorff in Powell and Pressburger's earlier The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, an important subplot in The Battle of the River Plate explores the relationship of Langsdorff and Captain Dove of the British merchant vessel Africa Shell. Like Wynne-Candy and Schuldorff, Dove and Langsdorff find that, while their two nations are at war, as individuals they have much in common.

Made some eleven years after the end of the war, the sympathetic treatment of the German enemy was less controversial than The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had been in 1943. Its year of release also meant The Battle of the River Plate was not required to be as propagandist as 49th Parallel. Instead, like so many other war films of the period, it fed the public's insatiable appetite for stories of British victories at a time when the country was still suffering from the economic hardships brought on by the financial cost of the war.

Ending with the amicable parting of Dove and Langsdorff, The Battle of the River Plate omits the tragic final act of the Graf Spee story. In a hotel room in Buenos Aires a few days after scuttling his own ship and, unable to cope with defeat, Captain Langsdorff committed suicide. His body was found dressed in full uniform and wrapped in the battle-flag of his sunken vessel.

Justin Hobday

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Video Clips
1. Enemy coming (1:17)
2. 'Urgency overrides security' (2:10)
3. End of the Graf Spee (5:18)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
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Challis, Christopher (1919-)
Delgado, Roger (1918-1973)
Easdale, Brian (1909-1995)
Farrar, David (1908-1995)
Finch, Peter (1916-1977)
Le Mesurier, John (1912-1983)
Lee, Bernard (1908-1981)
Lee, Christopher (1922-)
Macnee, Patrick (1922-)
Mills, Reginald (1912-1990)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Quayle, Anthony (1913-1989)
Late Powell and Pressburger
Powell and Pressburger