The Battle of the River Plate (film): Wikis


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The Battle of the River Plate
(Pursuit of the Graf Spee)

Theatrical poster
Directed by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Produced by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Written by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Starring John Gregson
Anthony Quayle
Peter Finch
Music by Brian Easdale
Cinematography Christopher Challis
Editing by Reginald Mills
Distributed by Rank Film Distributors Ltd.
Release date(s) 30 November 1956 (UK)
Running time 119 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Battle of the River Plate is a 1956 British war film by director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Peter Finch. In the United States the film was retitled Pursuit of the Graf Spee.

The film portrays the Battle of the River Plate,[1] a naval battle of 1939, between a Royal Navy force of three cruisers (HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles) and the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. Unlike many British war movies of its time, The Battle of the River Plate treats the Germans as honourable opponents rather than as cardboard cut-out "Huns". This was a recurrent theme in Powell and Pressburger's films, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.



In the early months of the Second World War, the German Navy sent out various surface raiders to attack Allied merchant shipping. The Royal Navy sent out various hunting groups to find them. The group that found Admiral Graf Spee was very lightly armed in comparison, but went straight to the attack.

The British were led by Commodore Harwood (Anthony Quayle), with Captain Woodhouse (Ian Hunter) commanding the Ajax, Captain Bell (John Gregson) the Exeter and Captain Parry (Jack Gwillim) the Achilles. Captain Hans Langsdorff's (Peter Finch) Graf Spee was much better armed than the three cruisers and inflicted a lot of damage but was fooled by the tactics of the British. The Graf Spee sustained damage itself and took refuge in a neutral port, but according to international law, had to leave by a specified time. Falsely believing that an overwhelming British force was lying in wait, Langsdorff took his ship out with a skeleton crew and scuttled her.

Historical details

The film pays particular attention to detail, including the bells ringing before each salvo, the scorching on the gun barrels after the battle, and the accurate depiction of naval procedures and uniforms - or lack of them: Exeter's Chaplain is correctly depicted as wearing a dark suit and clerical collar. Commodore Harwood wearing the shoulder tabs and sleeve rings of a Rear-Admiral from the start, and not only after he had been promoted after the battle, is historically correct, as 'Commodores of the first class' wore that insignia at the time. The scene where Harwood meets with his captains on board Ajax is pure fiction, created for the movie in order to explain the situation to the audience. The battle is seen entirely from the perspective of the British ships, plus that of prisoners (captured from nine merchantmen) held on Graf Spee. The US Navy would not allow the crew of their ship to wear German helmets, so the American helmets are well in evidence, and slightly jarring.


Cast notes
  • Future director John Schlesinger has a small part as a prisoner onboard the Graf Spee,[3] as does Capt. Patrick Dove, who is himself portrayed in the film by Bernard Lee.
  • Anthony Newley and Donald Moffat have small parts as a radio operator and a lookout. Moffat was making his film debut, as did Jack Gwillim.[4]


The Battle of the River Plate had its genesis in an invitation to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to attend a film festival in Argentina in 1954. They decided they couldn't afford to take the time from their schedules unless it was a working vacation, and used the trip to research the defeat of the Admiral Graf Spee. They came across the "hook" for their story when one of the surviving British naval officers gave Pressburger a copy of Captain Patrick Dove's book I Was A Prisoner on the Graf Spee, which became the basis of the necessary human story of the film.[5] Powell's work on this film was influenced by Noel Coward's film In Which We Serve (1942).[6]

Most of the action of the battle and prior to it takes place on real ships at sea. The producers had the advantage of having elements of the Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy available for their use and USS Salem to play the part of Admiral Graf Spee (although she had the wrong number of main turrets). This meant that they did not have to rely on extensive use of models like most Naval war films, although they did make use of a 23-foot model (with details only on the side being shot) in a six-foot-deep tank at Pinewood Studios for scene depicting the scuttling of Admiral Graf Spee, which was assembled from multiple takes from different angles.[5]

In an early scene it is claimed that the Graf Spee is being disguised by the ship's carpenters – using features such as a false funnel – as an American cruiser, a trick typical of commerce raiders.[7] The U.S. Navy would not allow any Nazi insignia to be displayed on the Salem so the wartime German flag being hoisted and flown was filmed on a British ship. This is also the explanation as to why the crew of the Graf Spee are seen wearing US Navy pattern helmets rather than German "Coal Scuttles" – whilst the film-makers wanted to achieve an accurate impression and use German helmets they were refused permission. This aspect is often erroneously described as a "goof" on the part of the film-makers but was in fact a circumstance beyond their control.

Filming started on 13 December 1955, the sixteenth anniversary of the battle. The HMS Ajax and River Plate Association reportedly sent a message to the producers: "Hope your shooting will be as successful as ours." Location shooting for the arrival and departure of the Graf Spee took place at the port of Montevideo, using thousands of locals as extras.[5]

Two songs written by composer Brian Easdale were used in the film, "Dolores' Song" and "Rio de la Plata". Both were acted by April Olrich as "Dolores", with singing voice dubbed by Muriel Smith.[8]

The film was filmed using VistaVision, a wide screen orthographic process using a horizontal film feed.


Ships used

Release and reception

When The Battle of the River Plate was completed and screened for executives at the Rank Organisation, it went over so well that it was decided to hold the release of the film for a year, so that it could be chosen as part of the next year's Royal Film Performance (in 1956), since 1955's film had already been selected. The film did very well at the box office, and was the most commercially successful film made by Powell and Pressburger.[5][6]

Awards and honours

The Battle of the River Plate was nominated for three BAFTA Awards in 1957, for "Best British Film", "Best British Screenplay" and "Best Film From Any Source".[9]


In 1956, Powell published The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee, also known as Death in the Atlantic, retelling the story of the film.[6]

The Battle of the River Plate does not go into one aspect of the story: the death of the captain of the Admiral Graf Spee, Hans Langsdorff, who committed suicide in a hotel room in Buenos Aires a few days after he had the Graf Spee scuttled. He shot himself, dressed in full uniform and wrapped in his ship's battleflag.[6]

See also




  • Christie, Ian. Arrows of Desire: the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London:Faber & Faber, 1994. ISBN 0-571-16271-1. 163pp (illus. filmog. bibliog. index).
  • Pope, Dudley. The Battle of the River Plate. London: William Kimber, 1956. 259pp (illus).
  • Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann, 1986. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.
  • Powell, Michael. Million Dollar Movie. London: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN 0-434-59947-6.

External links


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