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Friday, June 29, 2012
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I recently watched a movie that I vaguely remember seeing when I was seven years old. The film in question is Sink The Bismarck, a 1960 British release about the early WW2 battles between the Royal Navy and the newest and most powerful German battleship, the Bismarck. The movie became a surprise hit here in the USA, and my father, being a former US Navy guy, wanted to see it. I was at the ripe age of 7, and a big fan of war adventure TV shows and movies (there were plenty of them back then). Thus I looked forward to watching the evil Bismarck get what it deserved from the Limey’s on the high seas.

Back in those days, war was depicted as a grueling but ultimately satisfying endeavor. Yes, some of the good guys would take a few bullets, but they ultimately gave the bad guys (the Nazis, the Japs, the Commies, even space aliens) their due. And when they did, it was always a thrilling moment, such as when an enemy plane went down in flames or when their tanks were smashed or ships were torpedoed and blown up. War seemed like fun, so long as you could put up with occasional (and possibly painful) set-backs. But even when one of your own guys got hit by a bullet, it wasn’t terribly gruesome. The unlucky guy was usually off to the medical tent in quick fashion to be patched up.

We suburban children of the 60’s had no idea that this was a totally bogus picture of war. We obviously weren’t ready for a more realistic depiction of the carnage of battle. So perhaps that explains why Sink the Bismarck was NOT a favorite after I saw it. I didn’t remember much about the film other than being disappointed. About the only other memory I could conger up before ordering the DVD on Amazon a few weeks ago was of ships on murky grey waters in foggy conditions.

That particular memory turned out to be correct. The real battles with the Bismarck were fought in bad weather conditions on the North Atlantic ocean, which the movie took pains to portray. So why didn’t I remember anything else of it, aside from my disappointment and lack of interest in seeing it again (e.g. when it was shown on TV about two or three years later)?

Having finally re-watched the film in my old age, I now know what bothered me as a child. Sink the Bismarck was different from the usual American “grit and glory” war film. A lot of the plot takes place in Admiralty headquarters in London, as the top British naval officers plan out warship deployments and strategies. The film is almost psychological in nature, a study of the men and women who directed the big picture as best they could given inadequate resources and a powerful enemy. As a 59 year old, I now find it fascinating; as a 7 year old, I found it irrelevant and boring. There were also battle scenes in Sink the Bismarck that contained a lot of noise and excitement, but there was always a hint of confusion and uncertainty about them.

Confusion and uncertainty? The Brits were on our side, so how could they be confused and uncertain? We never saw that on American war films or shows. In Sink the Bismarck, the British ships kept on getting hit and damaged and sometimes even blown up; a lot more than you would expect for the good guys. In the end, when the Bismarck finally gets dispatched to the deep canyons of the Atlantic, there is little joy either afloat or back in London. The British officers seem rather grim and almost regretful about it all, even though they had won! And the grisly scenes depicting what it would have been like aboard a ship being blown up and overtaken with tons of briny, icy waters . . . the suggestion that had you been there, you would have either burned, been crushed, or caught somewhere unable to escape drowning . . . it just didn’t make any sense to me at the time.

Ah yes, we often regret the sorrows of growing old (and many that there are). But we simultaneously underestimate the joys of leaving behind the delusions of our youth and accumulating wisdom. I can now appreciate Sink The Bismarck on its own terms, and savor its intelligent ambivalence regarding the cruel, unfortunate and ironic necessity of warfare in a seemingly civilized world.

P.S., there was an attempt to drum up some good old American martial spirit about the Bismarck movie in a popular song released by country singer Johnny Horton. This tune hit the top ten status on 1960 transistor radios, when the movie was playing in the US. I remembered the song much better than I remembered the movie — “we gotta sink the Bismarck to the bottom of the sea”.

Horton’s song is not played in the actual movie. It was totally out of character with the British flavor of the movie (Johnny Horton was mostly a country and western singer). But it was used in the American trailer for the film, which can be seen on the movie DVD; as such, the trailer seems to be referring to an entirely different film.

Second P.S., my father took my family to see Sink the Bismarck at the local drive-in theater. Yes, a real drive in, out in the meadowland dumps along Route 3 in Rutherford, NJ. Drive-ins catered to two markets — families like mine, where rambunctious kids could be kept under control better than in a dark, crowded theater; and horny young couples looking for some quasi-private passion. For young guys without girlfriends, it was also a good place to go with your chums to drink beer and smoke, something you couldn’t do in a theater (and probably couldn’t do at home either with mom and dad hanging around).

The world has changed and drive-ins are gone now; ever since movies came out on VCR and cable TV, and then DVD and internet downloads, families and young people no longer need the drive-in as an alternative to the old-fashioned theater. It’s nice that the theater has survived, though; I guess we still need impromptu gathering places in our world.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:03 pm      

  1. Jim, I remember WW2 myself–lying on the floor of the front room, studying maps of the South Pacific where our troops were fighting. About 20 years later the man I married turned out to have been over there in that South Sea area, getting ready to be a part of the invasion of Japan.

    War is a strange thing–at least WW2 was. I’ve tho’t long about it and wondered whether it was “different” from other wars we have had since. Perhaps. How else to stop Hitler who marched into France (even before the war officially started) and took over the country? Or was it that the French let him have the country.

    I’ve just finished reading a book about a family of Jews who were among the very last ones to leave Marseilles, on the very last ship ever allowed to leave Europe with refugees and who were not kindly received in Cuba on their way to New York. (It made me think of the last helicopter out of Saigon.) Thos book told the story of 2 “star-crossed lovers” (as the daughter herself calls her mother and the mother’s lover) who were separated because of the war and 50 years later found some little happiness together.

    That particular war (as all wars are, I’m sure) was messy in so many ways–so much wrong, so little right, in so many different ways. This says nothing of the attempt at the annihilation of an entire group of people–the Jews and all the others too.

    I remember the shortages during the war, the stamps one had to have to buy butter, sugar, shoes, meat, so many things, almost everything. In fact, somewhere I still have a few of those stamps left that I’ve kept for a remembrance. There were NO cars made, no construction of buildings or houses. Absolutely everything went into making materiel and material for the war. I remember my mother mentioning to me about where all the men and their families would live when the war ended. A sign in a window of an apartment for rent prompted her remark. Even apartments were few and far between.

    And I think of the gray area of the dropping of the atom bombs. Yes, of course, it was horrible that we killed so many Japanese. But then I have often tho’t of my husband’s view of the situation: He was glad they dropped the bombs; he was still alive and lived be 69. If the U.S. had invaded Japan over a million U.S. men would have been killed–not counting Japanese men–many more of them likely. What was better?

    Then barely had the war ended, when in the 1950s, a cousin of mine married a Japanese woman and brought her over to the U.S. to live. Imagine that sitaution! Yet, in my family she was well received. I remember my aunt (my cousin’s mother) saying “storm heaven”. Did she mean that my cousin would not marry the Japanese woman? Or did she mean that the shock and scandal of the “enemy” being within the family would be survived somehow, particularly by her and her family? Yet only a few years ago this Japanese woman died, having lived a long (and I hope a happy) life here in the U.S., loved by all who knew her.

    Then I had a cousin who was killed in March 1945–a few months before the end of the war. I remember the sorrow when his body was brought back for burial here in the States.

    Nothing about war is good in any way, shape, or form. Movies somehow seldom show the actual reality of war, the actual effect on the lives of regular people.

    Then there have been all the other wars since the end of WW2–and the wars going on now, even yet. All the deaths, all the suffering–for what? Some politicians thurst for power? Or, even more complicated, some countries’ thursts for power?

    The whole thing is enough to make one a pacifist. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 29, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

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