The Battle of the River Plate (The Complete War Collection) Review

Early in the Second World War, several ships in the Atlantic are being raided by German battleships, one of which is the MS Africa Shell. Held by the German Navy, Captain Dove (Bernard Lee) watches as his ship is sunk but is shown his crew rowing to safety on a nearby island and is assured that no party will pursue them. Asking what will become of him, Dove is informed that he will be a guest of Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch) of the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee and will enjoy what comforts he is permitted by the captain. What Dove is surprised to find is that Langsdorff has no interest in unnecessary loss of life and though he is unwilling to inform Dove of the course that he has set the Admiral Graf Spee, he does pour him a whisky and asks that he follow his officers to where he must remain. Dove, impressed by Langsdorff's respect for the British officers, discovers that the two men have much in common and in spite of the unbalanced nature of the relationship, develop something of a friendship.

But the actions of the Admiral Graf Spee has attracted the attentions of the Royal Navy and soon, near the mouth of the River Plate between Uruguay and Argentina, it is spotted by three Royal Navy cruisers, the HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles. Although much more lightly armed than the pocket battleship Graf Spee, the three cruisers open fire following the command of their officers, Commodore Harwood (Anthony Quayle) and Captain Woodhouse (Ian Hunter) on the Ajax, Captain Bell (John Gregson) on the Exeter and Captain Parry (Jack Gwillim) on the Achilles. However, the Graf Spee makes a crucial error in its appraisal of the situation, believing that the Achilles and the Ajax were destroyers, smaller than the actual cruisers that they were. For an hour the battle continues with casualties on both sides and quickly turns into a pursuit. But as the sun sets, the Graf Spee heads for the neutral port of Montevideo. The British ships, badly damaged but still operational, follow, not planning on letting this prize escape them...

Made eleven years after the end of the war and the last film produced by the partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the 1956 Battle Of The River Plate is an impressive film. Those eleven years allowed Powell and Pressburger to portray the Germans as being more than caricatures in uniform, sympathetically even, yet were still afforded space to portray the heroism of the Royal Navy officers. Similarly, the story of the actual battle, which is brought to the screen without a great deal of dramatic flourishes, allows the remarkable events to be told largely as they actually happened. Finally, those eleven years also allowed Powell and Pressburger access to the Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy, something that could never have been done during wartime, whilst the USS Salem was recruited for the part, if that be the word, of the Admiral Graf Spee. Without needing to use models, The Battle Of The River Plate looks real and the more one learns of the actual battle, the more it accurately reflects those early days of the Second World War.

The naval battle between the Graf Spee and the Royal Navy ships Ajax, Exeter and Achilles began just after six o'clock in the morning on the 13 December off the coasts of Uruguay and Argentina. The Graf Spee suspected that merchant ships were out of sight behind the cruisers and moved in to attack. The Exeter turned to one side of the Graf Spee whilst the Ajax and Achilles took another with the German ship opening fire only a few minutes after sighting the Navy vessels. For the next hour, the more heavily-armed Graf Spee fired on the three Navy ships, eventually turning towards the port of Montevideo and sailing away behind a smokescreen. The Exeter, being the most badly damaged of the three ships could not keep up and broke away but the Ajax and Achilles kept pace, following a short distance behind the Graf Spee. The German ship fired once more and hit the Ajax but otherwise kept a distance of about fifteen miles ahead of the Allied ships, eventually making the neutral port of Montevideo. So began a subtle game of diplomacy.

What Captain Langsdorff didn't know was that the only two Allied ships that were waiting for it were badly damaged and largely incapable of any further action. The Graf Spee, though damaged, remained in port, concerned about reports that a large British fleet was waiting for it in open waters. British diplomats in Uruguay quoted the 13th Hague Convention, which states that, "...belligerent war-ships are not permitted to remain in the ports, roadsteads, or territorial waters of the said Power for more than twenty-four hours..." They also quoted a later article in the Convention that stated, "A belligerent war-ship may not leave a neutral port or roadstead until twenty-four hours after the departure of a merchant ship flying the flag of its adversary." The British pressed for the Graf Spee to leave port within the day to force Langsdorff's hand but knowing that the only Allied ships in the area were the two damaged cruisers, also arranged for British merchant ships to sail in and out of Montevideo every twenty-four hours to prevent its sailing, thereby giving any Allied ships in the region time to sail to Montevideo. Unfortunately, no significant forces would make it in time and so the Germans were fed false intelligence about a navy fleet amassing in open waters. On the first day that the Graf Spee could have sailed, a crowd gathered to watch, fully expecting an intense naval battle. What happened surprised everyone.

The film follows this story reasonably accurately with it being divided into the meeting of Captains Dove and Langsdorff, the naval battle and the game of bluff that began when the Graf Spee sailed into Montevideo. In this, there's rarely a dull moment in the film with the early scenes between Dove and Langsdorff giving The Battle Of The River Plate the characters that it needs to be much more than a straightforward wartime drama. Granted, Anthony Quayle is fairly bombastic in his playing of Commodore Harwood but that's as well suited to the middle section of the film as Bernard Lee's easygoing Captain Dove is to his. By the time that the Graf Spee opens fire on the Ajax, Exeter and Achilles, Langsdorff is already shown to be a likeable figure, proving to Dove that regardless of which side they are on in his war, they still have much in common. Unfortunately, the film ends without the final postscript of the story in that Langsdorff killed himself in a hotel room in Buenos Aires a few days after the short sailing of the Graf Spee. It's likely that the manner in which the film ends is for the best given that so much of what we learn about Langsdorff is about his relationship with Captain Dove and how, contrary to how Nazis are usually portrayed, he did not wish to cause unnecessary loss of life. As such, The Battle Of The River Plate has all the drama of a dramatisation of a true story of the Second World War but presented as a tale to catch the imagination of anyone with a weakness for Boy's Own tales.


Being made so long after the end of the Second World War, rather than during it like so many of these recently-reviewed war films, The Battle Of The River Plate is in colour and in widescreen, being presented here in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Unfortunately, this DVD is non-anamorphic with the actual presentation of the colour image leaving much to be desired. Like the early days of the DVD transfers of archive films, this film comes with rather a soft image in which the colour is without definition, sometimes presented quite accurately but, generally towards the edge of objects in the frame, drifting towards something of a muddle.

What this bears closest similarity to is the likes of the early transfers of The Wizard Of Oz before Warner Brothers' restoration team got hold of it. It's unlikely that The Battle Of The River Plate will ever be afforded such treatment in spite of it being Powell and Pressburger's most financially successful film with this DVD doing it very few favours. The DD2.0 audio track is actually fairly good with the gunfire sounding very impressive early in the film and the dialogue, of which there is a lot, clear of the ambient effects in its second half. There are few errors in the audio track and nothing more than a touch of noise against it. Finally, there are English subtitles on this release, which look to be accurate throughout.


There is only a set of Cast Biographies, namely those for Michael Powell, John Gregson, Peter Finch and Anthony Quayle.

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Last updated: 21/06/2018 00:50:24

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