Soon after the outbreak of World War II, the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, one of the fastest and most modern warships in the world, began to cut some dangerous gaps into the vital British supply lines strung across the South Atlantic. The worried Allies sent out ten heavy vessels to hunt her down and destroy her, and on the morning of December 13, 1939, three of them--the cruisers Ajax, Achilles, and Exeter--succeeded in their task. After a sharp engagement that lasted an hour and a half and during which Exeter was crippled, the English task force damaged Graf Spee so severely that she was forced to take refuge in the neutral harbor of Montevideo. But the government of Uruguay would not permit the Graf Spee to remain there for more than 72 hours, So Captain Langsdorff took his ship out and, precisely at sunset on December 19, scuttled her. That night he shot himself.
The incident marks one of the few victories for the English during the dismal opening months of the war, and it makes an exciting story. Unfortunately, the new English film which describes the death of the Graf Spee fritters away most of the excitement. It is an unfocused, chaotic motion picture which makes clear only that the German ship sank.
Just like any other movie, a war picture must, if it is to be dramatically effective, tell the story of men, not just of ships. The obvious figure around which The Pursuit of the Graf Spee should have been built is that of Captain Langsdorff, whom Churchill himself described as "a high-class person." But the screen play of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger scarcely shows what happens on the German warship during the fateful engagement, and does not mention the captain's suicide at all. A potentially tragic figure thus never becomes even really interesting.
Perhaps Powell and Pressburger wanted to avoid making a hero out of yet another German war leader. They certainly succeed, but they do not make the English officers involved in the battle any more interesting. Under Powell's and Pressburger's direction, Anthony Quayle and John Gregson, as two of these officers, are kept so busy holding their upper lips stiff that they appear more like dummies than human beings. Some unusually inept editing and excruciatingly poor sound recording do not much help their performances.
The Lampoon's own April Orlich, who plays a Uruguayan night club singer, is not on screen long enough to permit an assessment of her acting talents.
It should be said to the film's credit that those battle scenes which are shown are quite effective. Whatever shortcomings Messrs. Powell and Pressburger may have as writers and directors, they have, in their role of producers, still assembled a fine special effects crew. And so in the end the ships themselves emerge as the real "heroes" of the picture.
Accompanying The Pursuit of the Graf Spee at the Keith Memorial is a foolish bit of movie-making called The Unknown Terror. This terror turns out to be a supposedly virulent fungus that threatens to inundate the world. But since the terror looks like nothing so much as a mass of soapsuds, it surely deserves some sort of award for the sickliest monster of the year.