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Silver Fleet, The (1943)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Silver Fleet, The (1943)
DirectorGordon Wellesley
 Vernon Sewell
Production CompanyIndependent Producers
 Archers Film Productions
ProducerMichael Powell
 Emeric Pressburger
 Ralph Richardson
ScreenplayVernon Sewell
 Gordon Wellesley

Cast: Ralph Richardson (Jaap Van Leyden), Googie Withers (Helene Van Leyden), Esmond Knight (Von Schiller), Beresford Egan (Kramf), Frederick Burtwell (Capt Muller)

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A Dutch shipbuilder fakes collaboration with the Germans to hide his activities as the secret leader of the patriots.

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Following the success of Powell and Pressburger's "...One of our Aircraft is Missing" (1942), the pair put their name to another story of plucky Dutch resistance. The Silver Fleet (d. Vernon Sewell, 1943) was the first film released under the banner of The Archers, and the first in which Powell and Pressburger acted only as producers, although, consistent with the tradition of joint authorship, the screenplay and direction was co-credited to Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley. At the same time, Powell was busy directing The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) on an adjacent stage at Denham.

The Silver Fleet was inspired by a true story of war: a German U-boat, hijacked by a Dutch crew and gifted to the English navy. As such it provided an opportunity to refuel patriotism in the face of a seemingly interminable war and almost unbearable civilian hardship.

The film was bankrolled by the Rank Organisation, which became home to The Archers and, soon after, to other independent production units headed by David Lean and Carol Reed. This is where the Golden Age of British cinema began, and flourished over the next decade.

Powell was a great fan of Googie Withers, and gave her her first big break in films in "...One of our Aircraft is Missing". Proud of her success, he later wrote, "At last people realised what I had known all along, that her beauty had an erotic quality, strange and provocative." In The Silver Fleet, she plays opposite another star of the London stage, Ralph Richardson.

Rounding out the top-drawer cast was Esmond Knight as Von Schiller. Knight was totally blind in the film, having lost his sight in the war, though his exceptional acting skills and Sewell's direction conceal the fact from the audience. It is a sobering reminder of how many creatives were simultaneously serving in the war.

Although The Silver Fleet is overshadowed in history and reputation by the more lavish Colonel Blimp, the film is more than competent. It has an elegant script, crisp direction and cinematographer Erwin Hillier (later to work with Powell and Pressburger) achieves wonderful effects and textures.

Ann Ogidi

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Video Clips
1. Domestic interlude (3:54)
2. A rift (1:29)
3. The whistleblower (3:51)
Production designs
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Gray, Allan (1902-1973)
Hillier, Erwin (1911-2005)
Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Richardson, Ralph (1902-1983)
Sewell, Vernon (1903-2001)
Withers, Googie (1917-2011)
Powell and Pressburger
Powell and Pressburger: The War Years