sat 20/07/2019

DVD: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands

DVD: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands

Restored 1927 docudrama captures the hell and pity of war at sea

Seven Royal Navy ships were the only "cast members" listed in the movie's credits.BFI

Walter Summers (1892-1973), formerly Lt. Summers of the East Surreys and a highly decorated veteran of the Western Front, had already directed the Great War reconstruction films Ypres (1925) and Mons (1926) for Harry Bruce Woolf’s British Instructional Films when he embarked on BIF’s docudrama The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927). This silent but thunderous war film, galvanized by Simon Dobson’s tense new score, is remarkable for its impartiality.

Though it centres on the two devastating naval confrontations off South America in late 1914, convincingly recreating what happens when squadrons of massive armored vessels try to blast each other to smithereens, the film has an unignorable human face. For instance, a fatalistic mood engulfs Admiral von Spee (Hans von Slock) immediately after he has dealt the Royal Navy a terrible blow. Having sunk the Good Hope and Monmouth off the Chilean coast near Coronel on November 1, at the cost of 1,570 British seamen, he is feted by German military brass and their womenfolk at a banquet. Disdaining a toast damning the British Navy, he salutes it instead and accepts a bouquet of flowers he says he’ll keep in his cabin in his flagship Scharnhorst in case it’s needed for his watery grave.

In contrast to this august occasion is the dinner the British sailors and blackened stokers grab during the decisive action near the Falklands. It’s a meal of mates laughing and joking as they wolf down soup and hunks of bread: the refurbished titles of the National Film Archive’s magnificent restoration reveal that Summers’s writers (who included John Buchan) were keen to leaven these tragic battles with working-class wit. When the Dad’s Army-like Falklands troops muster to defend their islands, one recruit finds he has forgotten his rifle and dashes home to fetch it. More poignantly, a young female Falklander takes a solitary walk to a promontory to observe the German ships approach.

On December 7, the German Gneisenau and Nürnberg under Spee are repelled by the old pre-dreadnought Canopus when nearing the Falklands and pursued by the Invincible and Inflexible. In a rhythmic preceding sequence that demonstrates British naval efficiency on one hand and the influence of Soviet montage on the other, these powerful British battle cruisers are refitted at port in record speed before crossing the Atlantic under Admiral Sturdee (Craighall Sherry) to restore the nation’s supremacy at sea.

They sink Scharnhorst – Spee going down with his 859 crew, Gneisenau, Nürnberg, and the light cruiser Leipzig, there being an estimated 2,200 losses; Dresden got away (only to be scuttled off Chile the following March). Of the 200 Gneisenau crewmen who escaped, 166 withstood the icy waters. In the film, the craggy, hickory-hard Sturdee (Craighall Sherry) is shown giving the order to pick them up. British sailors anxiously massage frozen enemy survivors prostrate on the Inflexible’s deck.

Dobson’s score was performed by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines; all 24 of the RM bandsmen aboard the Monmouth had perished when it was sunk at Coronel. The British Film Institute’s DVD release contains a galaxy of extras, including four 1914 shorts with a wartime naval theme. The propaganda cartoon Sea Dreams, released two days after the Falklands victory, strikes a dissonantly jingoistic note here.

British sailors anxiously massage frozen enemy survivors prostrate on the Inflexible’s deck

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters