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Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands, The (1927)


Main image of Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands, The (1927)
35mm, black and white, silent, 8300 feet
DirectorWalter Summers
Production CompaniesBritish Instructional Films
 The Admiralty
ProducerH. Bruce Woolfe
ScriptHarry Engholm
 Frank C. Bowen
 John Buchan
PhotographyJack Parker
 Stanley Rodwell
 E.E. Warneford

A reconstruction of two First World War naval battles from 1914.

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The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands was one of a series of First World War battle reconstructions made by Walter Summers at British Instructional. If not exactly propagandist, they were certainly patriotic; this film in particular was made "with the co-operation of the British Admiralty, The Navy League and an Advisory Committee".

The film was partly a response to a German production of the previous year, Unsere Emden (1926), representing another famous WWI naval engagement. Despite German navy support, it was a detached, detailed account of the events with a scrupulous fairness in dealing with the British enemy. In his own film, Summers was equally fair in his depiction of the Germans and their actions. Much later, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger followed in this tradition with their own The Battle of the River Plate (1956), which describes an almost identical sequence of South Atlantic naval conflicts during WWII.

The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands is a painstaking reconstruction with necessarily dramatised sections, in which, for example, Lord Admiral Fisher is seen making his strategic response to the German action at Coronel. It was a monumental production, shot almost entirely on location on battleships supplied by the Admiralty. St Mary's in the Scilly Isles convincingly stood in for the Falklands. The few studio sequences are carefully disguised: in one sequence, a lighting effect simulates the reflection of water coming through a porthole and playing on the opposite wall.

Meticulous naval and military detail was supplied by a litany of expert advisors and the script, by a small group headed by John Buchan, celebrated author of The 39 Steps, is pared down and well structured to build dramatic tension in what is essentially a documentary. Summers was an aficionado of the latest cinematic techniques, and some of the film's most striking moments are the montage sequences of the mechanical workings of the ships and shipyards - the inferno of the engine rooms, pumping pistons and dramatically mounting pressure gauges. These sequences may have been influenced by Abel Gance's La Roue (France, 1922), but Summers probably hadn't yet seen Battleship Potemkin (USSR, 1925) or Metropolis (Germany, 1924). Either way, Summers clearly revelled in the beauty of the form, scale and movement of the machines, and his images of them are as good as anything in any of those more celebrated films.

Bryony Dixon

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The Navy's counter-blow (9:55)
2. 'Up anchor and after 'em' (10:26)
Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)
Cruel Sea, The (1952)
Falklands: The Story (1948)
Topical Budget 168-1: Our Naval Losses (1914)
Summers, Walter (1896-1973)
British Instructional Films (1919-1933)