This is the latest DVD release from the BFI, and it’s very good indeed.
The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands were the first sea battles of the Great War. At Coronel in November 1914, Admiral Graf von Spee’s German force, led by armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, picked off the smaller British cruisers Monmouth and Good Hope. There were no survivors from these sinkings; 1,600 British officers and men were killed, including Admiral Cradock. A British task force was hastily put together to avenge these losses, including the Inflexible and the Invincible. Intelligence revealed that Germans were heading to capture the Falklands, which the British used as a coaling station; the British fleet got there before them, and this time they had superiority of craft and guns. The two big German ships were destroyed.
The BFI have just published the DVD of a new, digitally remastered version of Walter Summers’s 1928 film The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (and it’s an excellent remastering, looking sharply different from some of the muddy-looking versions of silent films currently available.) This was the third war film that Summers made for British Instructional Films.
The first had been Ypres, which I wrote briefly about a while ago. This was a re-telling of the various battles around that ruined city, featuring many soldiers who had actually taken part in the fighting on the Salient, with an emphasis on honouring heroes, especially the winners of V.C.s. The useful booklet that comes with this DVD tells us that in Ireland the tone of this film so enraged the IRA that they caused disruption at cinemas and burned copies of the film. Mons followed. I’ve never seen this film, but I’d like to. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was persuaded to take part, re-enacting his own role.
These films were obviously very popular with the service chiefs, and the Navy offered very full cooperation to The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands (just as, a few years later, they would cooperate with the Gallipoli film, Tell England). Several warships were lent to the producers, playing the parts of both British and German vessels. 40,000 naval personnel were involved in the filming, as well as 4,000 others. The Scilly Isles stood in for the Falklands.
This film is unashamedly propaganda for the British navy, but it is not notably anti-German. Sailors on both sides are shown as doing a difficult and dangerous job, and as having mutual respect. The German community in Valparaiso celebrates the Coronel victory with a banquet, and a bumptious civilian proposes that they drink a toast: ‘Eternal damnation to the British Navy.’ Admiral Graf von Spee corrects him; ‘I prefer to raise my glass in honour of a gallant enemy.’ At the end of the film, British sailors express respect for the German officers who prefer to go down with their ships rather than surrender.
German critics generally approved of the movie apparently, but it caused controversy and resentment in the Falklands, because the islanders’ local defence force provides the film’s comic relief. They are presented a sort of Dad’s Army, taking themselves very seriously but quite irrelevant to the big naval battle.
The story the film tells, of Britain suffering initial losses, but coming back and winning through determination and courage, is the story that the nation often told itself about the whole war during the 1920s. Perhaps the best-crafted sequence in the film is the one which shows dockyard workers working against the clock to get the Inflexible and the Invincible ready for war. It shows the industrial process poetically, with flames, shadows and swinging hammers. The thousands of men are each engaged on a particular job, but all contributing to the complex joint effort (and on the DVD the sequence is greatly enhanced by the rather brilliant score Simon Dobson has composed for this digital version). There is a clear political message here, about the naval victory being the work not only of the sailors, but of the civilian dock-workers, too. Maybe it is significant that this film was made just after the General Strike of 1926. Contemporary fictional representations of the Strike often contrasted the national unity of wartime with the divisive effects of industrial action; this sequence of the film definitely resonates with these concerns. John Buchan, by the way, was among the film’s scriptwriters.
The film’s heroes are ‘Jacky’ Fisher, who had just taken over as First Sea Lord, and Admiral Strurdee, who led the fleet to the Falklands. Both of these are presented as jutting-jawed models of British grit and determination.
Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) is shown in one scene, but the film avoids controversy – there is no mention, for example, of the fact that before Coronel Churchill and the then First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Prince Louis of Battenberg, had refused Cradock’s requests for reinforcements. Nor is there any foreshadowing of the rift between Churchill and Fisher that would lead in 1915 to Fisher’s resignation over the Gallipoli adventure.
The film is beautifully made, and increases my respect for Summers as a director. I wonder, will there ever be a chance of our seeing his version of The Lost Patrol, or are all copies truly lost forever?