Behind the Scenes: “Sink The Bismarck!” (1960)

The unexpected U.S. box office success should have propelled star Kenneth More into the Hollywood firmament. The British box office champ of the previous decade, after comedies like Genevieve (1953) and Doctor in the House (1956), war movie Reach for the Sky (1956) and drama A Night to Remember (1958), he had been rewarded by a tie-up between British studio Rank and Twentieth Century Fox. That allowed him bigger budgets and bigger co-stars, pairing him with Jayne Mansfield in comedy western The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), and Lauren Bacall for historical adventure North West Frontier (1959).

While hits in Britain, they failed to raise his profile in America. That changed with Sink the Bismarck!, his performance highly praised, the movie a genuine and very profitable hit. It should have been the stepping-stone he needed to break into the Hollywood big time. And for a short time it looked as if he would.

He was scheduled to co-star with Gregory Peck in the big budget high adventure war picture The Guns of Navarone (1961), in the part that finally went to David Niven. He lost the role  through petulance.

At a public event, he verbally tore into his boss, John Davis, head of Rank, to whom he was contracted and on whose goodwill he relied to loan him out to Columbia for this movie which would become the number one hit in the annual U.S. box office race. In revenge, Davis blocked the loan-out and in effect stymied his career. Few companies were going to invest in a star whose movies would automatically be blocked from being booked on the Odeon chain, owned by Rank, and one of the two biggest circuits in Britain. As a result of his intemperate, drunken, action, More’s career plummeted.

Oddly enough, Sink the Bismarck! also killed off the career of the German-born Dana Wynter, a rising Hollywood star, leading lady to Rock Hudson in Something of Value (1957) Robert Wagner in In Love and War (1958) and James Cagney in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and denoted star of Henry Koster’s Fraulein (1958). After Sink the Bismarck!, and On the Double (1961), she lost out on big roles until the low-budget If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1968).

It seemed almost a contradiction in terms that such a big hit as Sink the Bismarck! could produce no outright winners in the career stakes. And although director Lewis Gilbert had a stab at the Hollywood big budget picture with The 7th Dawn (1964) starring William Holden, he relied on later British pictures Alfie (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967) to give his career the fillip it surely deserved.

Lewis Gilbert was virtually a veteran by the time Sink the Bismarck! appeared, 16 previous pictures including Reach for the Sky, another More-starrer Paradise Lagoon (1957) and  Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Kenneth More explaining details to Dana Wynter. In the movie they would have the most buttoned-down romance you could imagine, feelings not pronounced until the end.

Gilbert described Sink the Bismarck! as a “detective story set at sea,” and that’s the picture  he determined to make, focusing on the hunt more than the normal World War Two heroics, the usual battleground endeavours taking second place to backroom tactics that resembled a “psychological chess game” between British and Germans. It was a change of pace for star Kenneth More, his screen persona the opposite of “someone so stiff and buttoned up.” A star of More’s caliber was all the movie needed to be funded.

The bigger problem was the hardware. “If we were to film on real ships, explode old ones even,” recalled Gilbert, “we would need the cooperation of the Admiralty.” Luckily, the wife of producer John Brabourne (Romeo and Juliet, 1968) was the daughter of Earl Mountbatten, the former Governor of India, who happened to be First Sea Lord (head of the Admiralty) who could put in a good word.

“Blowing up ships, or bits of ships, turned out to be not so hard,” explained Gilbert.  Portsmouth’s naval shipyards contained many vessels whose active days were over and who were considered nothing more than scrap metal. So, prior to the commencement of shooting, Gilbert took a crew into the shipyard and began the blowing up. Because these were not models, the use of real ships “gave the film extra conviction.”

Gilbert also received permission to film on HMS Vanguard, the last British battleship of the era still on active duty although it too was due to be scrapped. That permitted filming the ship’s 15-inch guns in action. It doubled for scenes set aboard HMS Hood, Prince of Wales, King George V and the Bismarck, creating greater authenticity.  HMS Belfast stood in for the pursuing cruisers including HMS Norfolk, Suffolk, Dorsetshire and Sheffield. A Dido-class cruiser provided the set for Bismarck’s destruction.

Aircraft carrier HMS Victorious played herself as well as HMS Ark Royal but any actual flying took place aboard HMS Centaur. The destroyers participating in the night-time attacks were HMS Cavalier and HMS Hogue. The bridge of the Prince of Wales was “reproduced down to the last detail.” One of the officers wounded in that attack was Esmond Knight, an actor on the film, who had virtually lost his sight, but from memory was still able to determine that the bridge was “a perfect replica.”

Three Fairey Swordfish biplanes with torpedoes were used.  Three RAF jet pilots volunteered to the fly the biplanes in the movie for the experience of understanding the risks involved in diving at less than the top speed of 138 mph in a machine which was little more than wood and canvas to drop torpedoes on a highly-armed ship, but Gilbert had already hired specialist crews.

Top Hollywood model maker Howard Lydecker (The Underwater City, 1962) was recruited to build the 20ft model of the Bismarck, which, unfortunately, sank on launch. Raising it was not a problem. Long shots were filmed on the massive Pinewood water tank.  It helped the production that during the battle the weather had been foul, so ships could be seen emerging from fog, or rendered invisible because of it.

Gilbert used his own wartime experience to render the battle realistic. He remembered sailing past the Scharnhorst, one of Germany’s three most powerful battleships, being unable to see it because of fog but aware of its presence from the sound of its guns. “We knew it from what we heard and felt, not from what we saw.”

Post-war the sinking of the Bismarck became a cause celebre. The British were accused of a war crime for nor picking up survivors. However, the British claimed that the presence of U-boats in the area rendered this too hazardous.

SOURCES: Lewis Gilbert, All My Flashbacks (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010) p 197-203; Brian Hannan, The Making of The Guns of Navarone (Baroliant Press, 2013) p67.

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