Director: Walter Summers
This little-known silent movie from 1927 recounts events from early on in WWI, a devastating defeat for the British Navy at the hands of Admiral von Spee’s powerful squadron off the coast of Chile, and then the rematch off the Falklands. It’s not quite the tub-thumping, gung-ho patriotic piece you might expect though. The film is what we would now call a drama documentary – the clue’s in the dryly polysyllabic title – and the tone is cool, unemotive and fair-minded, with Von Spee, the British Navy’s nemesis, portrayed as a ruthless yet worthy adversary.
That said, it serves up some moments that will be sure to stir British hearts. After the losses at Coronel, the Admiralty bring forward work on HMS Invincible and Inflexible, and the extended montage of these two mighty warships being fitted out for action by toiling dockhands has an Arthurian-cum-Nibelungian grandeur (especially when accompanied by Simon Dobson’s newly commissioned score, played by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines). A metaphor for implacable resolve, even today it’s guaranteed to put the frighteners on anyone thinking of messing with the Brits.
Although more interested in facts than feelings, director Walter Summers shows some flair for the human aspect of the drama. There’s a delightfully humorous vignette where the action shifts to Port Stanley and its ragtag volunteer defence force (with scruffy dog), and a very authentic feeling – and also strangely impressive – moment later on when the British are about to engage the enemy but before they do, they calmly have their tea.
The battles scenes – filmed with the cooperation of the Admiralty, with existing warships of the time playing the parts of the combatants – feel like what they were, lavish, large-scale reconstructions rather than the real thing. But even if they skimp on the carnage, they’re undoubtedly spectacular, and they’re imbued with a compassion for anyone, of whatever nationality, who risks their lives on the high seas.
The restoration from various fine grain and nitrate positives could hardly be better. A few of the long shots are a little soft and grainy, but most of the medium shots are almost clinically sharp – there’s some gorgeously picturesque footage of the Falklands, and any number of Expressionistically shot scenes of sailors manning huge guns, stoking boilers and scurrying up ladders. Summers seems to have known his Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin was made just two years previously), and he’s no slouch when it comes to fast-paced narrative and lean, muscular cross-cutting.
The extras including a 12-minute featurette on the new score, a 5-minute look at the restoration process and a selection of Naval themed shorts, including a piece about one of the ships lost in the battle of Coronel. All in all, anyone with a keen interest in the British Navy is going to be thrilled by this new BFI release, and fans of silent movies will be delighted to see what is undoubtedly a major British film of the pre-talkies era reclaimed from oblivion and presented in a stunning new print.