Saturday, 18 October 2014

Battleship Invincible… The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927), LFF Gala with the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines

Back to the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall for the London Film Festival archive gala performance of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) a striking docu-drama with the emphasis on the latter and yet which manages to be authentic and even handed.

Of all the silent films at this year’s festival, Battles has had the most coverage and, remembrance to one side, one of the principle reasons is its revelation of another fine British silent film director in Walter Summers. Aside from marshalling eight Royal Naval ships in his re-enactments he also cuts, cross-fades and controls tempo with the skill of a Gance or an Eisenstein (although as the BFI’s Bryony Dixon points out, he probably hadn’t seen Potemkin at this stage).

Summers had fought in the Great War and he was at pains to keep any retelling of the conflict as respectful and procedurally-accurate as possible. Comic interludes and admirable-Admiralty (on both sides) apart, his drama is derived from the movement of the ships and his mastery of a compelling, historically-accurate narrative. Many sailors died in these battles – almost three and a half thousand - and he’s not going to make a drama out of their tragedy but a tribute.

Tonight was a special night with a magnificent, moving new score from Simon Dobson being performed by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines – a 24 piece ensemble in memory of the 24 bandsmen who perished on HMS Monmouth at Coronel. My cousin is a serving marine and whatever your politics and beliefs you have to respect the sacrifices these men and women have to make in the service of their country.

HMS Good Hope begins to slip away
This was a main them for Summers who showed the nobility of both sides, their discipline and willingness to follow the rules of engagement even down to helping to rescue the vanquished. There may have been broader political motivations behind this at the time but they shouldn’t diminish the director’s clear agenda. Born in Liverpool - as I'm contractually-obliged to point out - he described himself as a “workman”, constructing his pieces in methodological fashion with little or no aspiration to be an “artist”…

SMS Scharnhorst under attack
He had already made a number of Great War films by the time Battle came along but none on this scale. Working from a script co-written by John Buchan amongst others, this was to be the jewel in the crown of Harry Bruce Woolfe’s British Instructional Films re-telling of the greatest battles of the conflict still regarded as perhaps the “war to end all wars”; an alien event that, surely, could never happen again. The film’s international success suggested that hope was also shared outside of Britain.

There are no model shots in the film; everything is either in-studio or shot on the high seas using Summers' large grey acting fleet. The cinematography of Jack Parker should also be commended with the restored images revealing some dazzling compositions that help to create a believable spectacle under-pined by the close-quarters human drama in cramped cabins and over-heated boiler rooms.

Rapid-cut re-fit
There are strange echoes of more recent South Atlantic naval conflict as two Royal Navy battleships, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible are rapidly made ready for a revenge mission after the defeat of Coronel. This sequence shows men working around the clock on the two battle cruisers and is a masterpiece of montage that composer Dobson found almost musical, so regular was the rhythm of the cutting, the hammer strikes and the movements of men on and off board.

But whilst South American German colonists gather to celebrate their victory, von Spee refuses to toast anything but the nobility of the vanquished noting also that a large bouquet of flowers should be kept for when his time comes…

After the almost impossible dash to ready the British squadron, the remainder of the film gives a detailed account of the second, decisive battle. War at sea moved at its own deathly pace and the margins between success and failure were remarkably prosaic, depending on the accuracy and calibre of your guns as well as basic speed: when the balance of forces became clear to von Spee he knew in moments that he faced defeat. Yet, he had found the British squad re-fuelling in Port Stanley and, had he pressed on, there may have been a different outcome…

The skill of Summers' film is in creating such a compelling story around these fateful moments. There are good performances – especially from von Spee and Vice Admiral Sturdee - yet the actors are unnamed and instead the credits list the names of the naval vessels involved along with the twenties ships that acted in their place.

That’s as it should be with Battles celebrating the communal resolve of the Royal Navy, the collective greatness achieved by the unity of spirit contained in these warcraft. It’s a past the navy are proud to celebrate but also one that connects to their future, as Admiral  Sir George Zambillas’ introduction made clear with his reference to the new "Elizabethan age" with the Royal Navy’s long-awaited aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth.

It watching silent film is a process of trying to re-connect with the sensibilities of their makers and audience, this event was lent additional poignancy by the naval presence - smartly uniformed marines were even handing out programmes. This along with the almost pristine restoration and the excellence of both music and musicians, created a moment in which the boundaries between past and present shifted just a little bit more than usual.

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands is showing now in selected cinemas across the UK and is also available to view now on the BFI iPlayer.

Details of the battles are on the Naval History web pages and The Coronel Memorial  website.

The reality: HMS Inflexible picks up survivors from SMS Gneisenau (copyright IWM)
The Battle of Coronel was fought on 1 November 1914 with the loss of two Royal Naval ships: battle cruiser HMS Good Hope and light cruiser HMS Monmouth

1,570 British lives were lost.

HMS Good Hope
The Battle of the Falklands took place on 8 December 1914 with four German ships sunk: battle cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau along with the light cruisers SMS Nürnberg and SMS Leipzig.

1,871 German sailors were killed and 215 rescued.

SMS Scharnhorst

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.