Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sink the Herring!

It was two minutes past midnight when the Bismarck last sank, on Tuesday morning on Channel 2. It had already sunk for real in 1941, then for Fox in 1960, it might as well sink all over again for a French television channel and, against all expectations, it created a small flow of ink. To tell the truth the old Sink the Bismarck, by that English robot Lewis Gilbert, sinks down nicely on TV, that definitive scuppering machine for flimsy films. For instead of suffering as a coloured ham between two slices of black bread, this black and white Cinemascope production benefits from a lovely grey monochrome that’s quite independent of what everyone intended. At the cinema, there must have been a certain meagre charm in those shots of grey boats cutting through the mists and edging past the ice, or in those torpedoes going their merry little underwater way. On TV, thanks to those two black strips added on, the photography of Christopher Challis B.S.C. gains a great deal in refinement. And since the film is really of no interest whatsoever, the uncomplicated contemplation of those greys can be used as an audiovisual spiritual exercise.  
At the point when the Bismarck sinks (‘the Fuhrer promised to send the Luftwaffe!’, are the plaintive last words of the German admiral, a megalomaniac who turns out to be pretty naive), the English heroes of this English film, locked up for days on end in the heart of London (not far from Trafalgar Square, recognisable by its revolting pigeons), savour their victory with moderation. ‘I thought I’d scream with joy, but really, I can’t’, observes Ann Davis, who is answered by a soldier: ‘I know, it’s always like that.’ If the film is about anything at all, it’s about how tight-arsed the English are. With the excuse that the war is hard, that they’re waging it pretty much on their own in 1941 and that the stakes are huge, the men take the opportunity to offer one another (and to one woman, just one) the grandiose spectacle of their emotional infirmity (except for a very pretty telegraph operator who soon gets sent to the infirmary, since the whole thing turns him feverish). 
Oddly enough, Sink the Bismarck doesn’t reproduce the classic opposition between the simple, dignified humanity of the English and the fanatical efficiency of the German machine. Between the admiral of the Bismarck, his commander and the rest of the crew there are emotions, glasses of champagne, speeches and, finally, quite a bit of irrational behaviour. Die as they do, en masse, around midnight, the Germans look more alive than the stuffed English dummies who send them to the deep. 
This is why the film’s real suspense comes not from whether the Bismarck will be sunk or not, but from whether Jonathan Sheppard, the real sinker of the Bismarck, is able to cry or not. Oddly again, it’s the comic actor Kenneth More who has been asked to give a performance of steely sharpness in the part of a military man ‘as cold as the heart of a corpse’, all super professionalism and inner desolation. This man, who lives only for combat, has lost his wife in the blitz and has no one in the world but a son, based in Gibraltar and also caught up in the war. 
At 23 h 34 (French time) Sheppard is told that the lad is missing in action. In as much as we really don’t give a damn, we’re very interested to see how the actor will manage to convey an emotion that we have trouble sharing. And it’s here that we spot that Kenneth More has a rather original way of closing his eyes very hard as if either to hold back the tears inside them or to overcome the physical pain felt by someone who has just banged his knee. Not bad, we say. But when at 23 h 54, eight minutes before the Bismarck sinks, Sheppard is told that the same lad has been found and More shuts his eyes once again, you realise that the real subject of the film isn’t ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ but actually ‘Drown, in tears!’ This transpires during a rather nice shot where we see the actor, in a mirror, letting out little whimpers into a very clean handkerchief. Otherwise, a film like this is the archetypal film that missed the boat. English courage had the good fortune to be filmed (in the blitz) by the English documentarists (is there anything finer than Humphrey Jennings’ London Can Take It?). For, as J.L.G. says, the usual ‘quirk’ of the English is their lack of imagination, the documentary. Fifteen years after the war ended, Lewis Gilbert should have been ready to film something quite different. Not the tears, and not the Bismarck, but whatever connects the two. 

First published in Libération on 11 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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