Between World War II and the 1960s, a section of the British film industry specialised in churning out war movies. During the war years, these were near-propaganda efforts or simplistic portrayals of British military personnel single-handedly winning the war and defeating the Germans and Japanese. 

In the post-war years, these movies evolved into explorations of the horrors of combat (“The Cruel Sea”) or documentary-style films that focussed on the exploits of real-life characters who played key roles in the British war effort (the Douglas Bader biopic “Reach For The Sky”).

By the 1960s, Hollywood got into the act with several big budget films with huge casts and the smaller British films fell by the wayside. “Sink The Bismarck!” (1960) is a fairly close to life account of the Royal Navy’s chase of the Bismarck, the largest warship ever built by Germany, after she breaks out into the Atlantic Ocean in 1941 to raid troop and supply convoys.

At the time, the US was yet to enter the war and Britain was completely dependent on supplies transported by sea. The British pull out the stops – using reconnaissance aircraft and deploying all available battleships – to track the German warships Bismarck and Prinz Eugen commanded by Admiral Gunther Lutjens.

Kenneth More, Geoffrey Keen and Laurence Naismith in "Sink The Bismarck!"

The Royal Navy’s first encounter with the Bismarck doesn’t go well – the German ships sink the battlecruiser HMS Hood, prompting Prime Minister Winston Churchill to issue orders for the sinking of the Bismarck at all costs.

“Sink The Bismarck!”, directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would go on to helm three movies in the James Bond series, focusses on the men at the Royal Navy’s underground operations directorate who guide the hunt for the Bismarck. The team is led by the fictional Captain Jonathan Shepherd (Kenneth More), a widower who likes to play things strictly by the book and refuses to show any emotion in public, having decided after the death of his wife in the London Blitz that it isn’t worthwhile to form attachments with other humans.

Other key members of the British team are the Royal Navy chief (Laurence Naismith), the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Geoffrey Keen) and 2nd Officer Anne Davis (Dana Wynter) of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, who is introduced as a foil for the stoic Shepherd. Davis lost her fiancé in combat in France and is used by scriptwriter Edmund North to help in the process of “humanising” Shepherd. 

The two main German characters are largely stereotypes – Admiral Lutjens (Karel Stepanek) gets a maniacal gleam in his eyes whenever he speaks of the “glory of the Third Reich” and Hitler (he dies clutching a cable from der Fuehrer) while the Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann (Carl Mohner) is just a professional doing his job.

Largely based on a book by C S Forester (best known for the Horatio Hornblower series), the film adopts a semi-documentary approach in recounting the hunt for the Bismarck. The action cuts quickly from the operations directorate, where the British officers try to plot the Bismarck’s next move on the basis of information from the battlefield, to the action at sea.

This action is depicted through a mix of footage filmed on actual ships and cleverly made sets, archival footage and wonderfully detailed miniatures filmed in a tank. (The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen are always depicted by miniatures – someone must have had a lot of fun rigging those charges that go off whenever the ships fire a salvo!) The masterful editing by Peter Hunt (who would go on to edit several James Bond films and direct “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) is largely responsible for the success of the battle sequences. 

A hokey sub-plot has Shepherd worrying about his son, a member of the crew of an aircraft that goes missing during the search for the Bismarck. Shepherd himself isn’t a very likeable character, coming across as a cold fish and something of a martinet because the reasons for his behaviour aren’t entirely plausible.

On the whole, though, “Sink The Bismarck!” is an entirely watchable production that is probably among the best of the war movies produced in the pre-SPR era. (That’s the pre-Saving Private Ryan era).