Sink the Death Star!

Promotional poster for Sink the Bismarck! (1960) Note the way the battleship is depicted as this dark, hulking thing bristling with guns and attacked by tiny airplanes. Kind of familiar, right?

It is pretty well-known that World War II movies of the 1950s, particularly the British war film The Dam Busters, were a significant influence on the first Star Wars movie.

I recently watched another British war film from the same period, Sink the Bismark!, and was struck by the degree to which it, too, featured tropes that would be developed further in Star Wars and other space operas.

Sink the Bismarck! is a fictionalized account of the German battleship Bismarck’s attempt to break out into the Atlantic where it could threaten supply convoys and the Royal Navy’s relentless effort to destroy it.

It’s an interesting film, in part because the protagonist is not a heroic pilot or sea captain but rather the (fictional) Jonathan Shepherd, Chief of Operations for the British Admiralty. Much of the action is spent looking at a map in a bunker below London, where Shepherd tries to predict the Germans’ next move. We periodically cut away from the bunker to witness the consequences of Shepherd’s hunches play out on the high seas.

Throughout the film, the Bismarck is depicted as a kind of superweapon–stronger, faster, and more powerful than any comparable British warship and a mortal threat to the trans-Atlantic supply lines sustaining Britain’s war effort. What’s interesting is that the film is able to build this exaggerated impression while remaining relatively accurate to the events themselves.

The sense of menace hits its highest point when the Bismark takes on two British battleships, the HMS Hood* and the HMS Prince of Wales, and proceeds to quickly obliterate the Hood in massive explosion, causing the Prince of Wales to flee.

The film frames this historical skirmish in ways that heighten the Bismarck’s appearance of invulnerability. The Hood’s destruction is not portrayed as the lucky shot that it was but rather as the natural consequence of a direct hit by the firepower of the fully armed and operational battleship. Likewise, the damage the Bismarck suffers in the exchange is significantly underplayed to help convey the notion that its advanced armor in nigh-impenetrable.

The filmmakers also take great care to downplay the threat to the Bismarck from aircraft, despite the fact that aircraft ultimately play a key role in tracking and disabling it. The ship’s success at using cloud cover to evade aerial patrols is depicted as a canny move rather than an admission of extreme vulnerability. The divebomber attacks on the Bismarckflying low in a straight line into a barrage of fire–are filmed to emphasize the threat to the pilots, rather than the fact that the battleship was a giant target with limited anti-air defense. They even have the Germans shoot down several fighters, a feat that the historical vessel never managed.

Finally, the movie does a masterful job of raising the stakes for the Royal Navy as the Bismarck continues to elude them. Right from the start, we’re told that a breakout by the Bismarck could tip the balance of the war. The British are driven to take enormous risks, pulling ships away from other vital duties to join in the hunt. Shepherd even gets a phone call from a really bad Winston Churchill impersonator ordering him to do whatever it takes to sink the Bismarck.

While it’s true that the Bismarck was a top of the line battleship in 1941, by that time the battleship concept itself was increasingly obsolete, as illustrated by the fact that the greatest threat to the warship was always airplanes.

Its lifespan as a commerce raider was also very limited–lacking a submarine’s ability to hide, it would have been spotted sooner or later and destroyed. In all likelihood, the British massively overreacted to the Bismarck’s breakout attempt–no doubt due to heightened concern over threats to their supply lines.

I have no evidence that this particular film was an influence on Star Wars, but as I watched it I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in narrative and cinematography whenever the Bismarck was on screen.

It shows how one can easily translate the tropes of one genre into another. It’s also a great example of how to adapt history into a story: a relatively inconsequential episode in the history of World War II is morphed into a gripping tale of brilliant strategists, terrifying superweapons, and a deadly game of cat and mouse with the fate of the war at stake.

I kind of wonder how reciprocal these tropes are. The high-tech superweapon being brought low by the hubris of its designers is a classic theme in science fiction–and World War II was a conflict that deployed all sorts of advanced weapons and devices that seemed ripped from the pages of pulp magazines. Just as George Lucas and others drew inspiration from war films like Sink the Bismarck!, it’s possible the filmmakers took some lessons from SF when it came to portraying advanced technology.

A final bit of trivia: Throughout the film, Shepherd makes a series of major gambles based on his hunches about the Bismark’s intentions. The one discordant note in the narrative is the fact that all of these guesses pan out without any negative consequences. This is all credited to Shepherd’s cold, calculating mind but the fact that he never makes a mistake ultimately rings false.

That’s because the real reason the British could accurately predict the battleship’s movements was because they were simply reading the German dispatches, having cracked the Luftwaffe’s ENIGMA codes. But in 1960, when the movie was made, the extent of the British code breaking effort remained classified–so instead we got an implausibly brilliant Jonathan Shepherd.

*(Technically the Hood was an upgraded battlecruiser (or “fast battleship”), but the movie depicts it as a conventional battleship and the best available counter to the Bismarck.)

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