The Battle of the River Plate
(Pursuit of the Graf Spee)
Battle River Plate poster.jpg
Directed byMichael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Written byMichael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Produced byMichael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
StarringJohn Gregson
Anthony Quayle
Peter Finch
Narrated byDavid Farrar
CinematographyChristopher Challis
Edited byReginald Mills
Music byBrian Easdale
Distributed byRank Film Distributors Ltd.
Release date
  • 29 October 1956 (1956-10-29) (Royal Film Performance)
Running time
119 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The Battle of the River Plate (a.k.a. Pursuit of the Graf Spee in the United States) is a 1956 British war film in Technicolor and VistaVision by the writer-director-producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film stars John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, Bernard Lee and Peter Finch. It was distributed worldwide by Rank Film Distributors Ltd.

The film's storyline concerns the Battle of the River Plate,[2] an early World War II naval engagement in 1939 between a Royal Navy force of three cruisers and the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.


In the early months of the Second World War, Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine sends out merchant raiders to attack Allied shipping. The heavily armed German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee sinks a British merchant vessel, the Africa Shell. The Africa Shell's crew is brought aboard the Admiral Graf Spee. The Admiral Graf Spee docks with its supply ship and more captured British seamen are brought aboard. Three weeks later, the Admiral Graf Spee sinks another British vessel, the Doric Star. Her crew is also brought aboard.

The Royal Navy responds with hunting groups whose mission is to stop these attacks on Allied shipping. The group that finds the Admiral Graf Spee near South America is outgunned since Admiral Graf Spee is equipped with long-range 11-inch (279 mm) guns, and the British heavy cruiser Exeter has much lighter 8-inch (203 mm) guns, and the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles have 6-inch (152 mm) guns. However, they go straight into the attack, closing swiftly to minimise the Graf Spee's substantial advantage in range of shot.

The British are led by Commodore Harwood (Anthony Quayle), with Captain Woodhouse (Ian Hunter) commanding flagship Ajax, Captain Bell (John Gregson) Exeter and Captain Parry (Jack Gwillim) Achilles. The British use their superior numbers to split her fire by attacking from different directions, but Admiral Graf Spee, under Captain Hans Langsdorff (Peter Finch), inflicts much damage on her foes. Exeter is particularly hard hit and is forced to retire from the battle.

Admiral Graf Spee sustains some damage and takes refuge in the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay, for repairs. According to international law, the ship may remain in a neutral harbour only long enough to repair for seaworthiness, not to refit for battle. The British initially demand the Uruguayan authorities send Admiral Graf Spee out to sea within 24 hours, but once they recognise that reinforcements can arrive for an impending second battle they change strategy and lobby for an extension for the Germans. In reality the most powerful British ships are still extremely distant, but local media spreads false reports that more Royal Navy warships have arrived, including battleships and aircraft carriers; in fact, only three cruisers (Exeter having been replaced by HMS Cumberland) lie in wait.

Taken in by the ruse, Langsdorff takes his ship out with a skeleton crew aboard. As the onlookers watch from shore, she heads down the River Plate for the open sea, bursts into flames from a series of explosions and is scuttled. That is a relief to the Royal Navy fleet, which reports, 'Many a life has been saved today'. Later, aboard a German merchant ship in the inner harbour, Langsdorff is complimented for his humane decision by British merchant marine Captain Dove.


At sea


Cast notes


The Battle of the River Plate had its genesis in an invitation to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to attend a film festival in Argentina in 1954. They decided they could not afford to take the time from their schedules unless it was a working holiday, and used the trip to research the defeat of Admiral Graf Spee. They came across the "hook" for their story when one of the surviving British naval officers gave Pressburger a copy of Captain Patrick Dove's book I Was A Prisoner on the Graf Spee, which became the basis of the human story of the film.[8]

Principal photography began on 13 December 1955, the sixteenth anniversary of the battle. The HMS Ajax and River Plate Association reportedly sent a message to the producers: "Hope your shooting will be as successful as ours". Location shooting for the arrival and departure of Admiral Graf Spee took place at the port of Montevideo, using thousands of locals as extras.[8] However, the scenes showing Admiral Graf Spee sailing from Montevideo were shot in the Grand Harbour at Valletta in Malta, and the launch taking McCall out to HMS Ajax was filmed in Mġarr harbour on Gozo, Malta's northern island.[citation needed]

Two songs written by composer Brian Easdale were used in the film, "Dolores' Song" and "Rio de la Plata". Both were acted by April Olrich as "Dolores", with singing voice dubbed by Muriel Smith.[9]

Ships used

Most of the action of the battle and prior to it takes place on real ships at sea. The producers had the advantage of having elements of the Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy available for their use, and USS Salem to play the part of Admiral Graf Spee, although she had a different number of main turrets. The producers did make use of a 23-foot (7.0 m) model of Salem (with details only on the side being shot) in a six-foot (1.8 m)-deep tank at Pinewood Studios for scenes depicting hits during the battle, and also for the blowing-up of Admiral Graf Spee, which was assembled from multiple takes from different angles.[8]

In an early scene, it is claimed that Admiral Graf Spee is being disguised by the ship's carpenters – using features such as a false funnel – as an American cruiser, a trick typical of commerce raiders.[10][11] The US Navy would not allow any Nazi insignia to be displayed on Salem so the wartime German flag being hoisted and flown was filmed on a British ship. This is also the explanation as to why the crew of Admiral Graf Spee are seen wearing US Navy pattern helmets rather than German "Coal Scuttles" – whilst the filmmakers wanted to achieve an accurate impression and use German helmets they were refused permission. This aspect is sometimes described as a "goof" on the part of the filmmakers, but was in fact a circumstance beyond their control. Mention is made of Graf Spee's sister ships, Admiral Scheer and Deutschland. Admiral Scheer capsized after an air raid in 1945 and the remains of the wreck buried under a new harbour. Deutschland was renamed Lutzow in 1940 and sunk as a target in 1947.

Two of the original ships, HMNZS Achilles and HMS Cumberland were available for filming fifteen years after the events depicted. Cumberland was a disarmed trial ship without her 8-inch gun turrets at this time and was refitted with lattice masts, but is recognisable as the last of the three-funnelled heavy cruisers to remain in service. (In the final scenes, Jamaica represented Cumberland as one of the British trio waiting off Montevideo). This use of real warships was in line with an Admiralty policy of co-operation with film-makers, which saw the corvettes HMS Coreopsis and HMS Portchester Castle reactivated in 1952 for the film version of The Cruel Sea; the cruiser HMS Cleopatra and the minelayer HMS Manxman used in the 1953 film Sailor of the King, and the destroyer HMS Teazer and frigate Amethyst used in the 1955 film Yangtse Incident: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst.

Achilles had been sold to the newly formed Indian Navy in 1948, becoming INS Delhi. The flagship HMS Ajax was her sister ship, and would have looked identical to Achilles, while the original HMS Exeter was a two-funnelled half-sister of Cumberland. HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica, which played Ajax and Exeter, had higher superstructures and more guns, which were mounted in triple turrets. Though different from the ships they represented, both these light cruisers had played a major part in the wartime campaign against the large German surface raiders which began at the Battle of the River Plate, including Bismarck in 1941, Admiral Hipper in 1942, Scharnhorst in 1943, and Tirpitz in 1944.

Historical details

The use of real ships allows the film to pay particular attention to detail even though Admiral Graf Spee was portrayed by the American heavy cruiser USS Salem, which is considerably greater in tonnage, 100' longer, and quite visually distinct from the German Pocket Battleship (in bow, shearline, and having 2 forward triple turrets instead of the single turret of the Deutschland-class cruisers). This includes the warning bells ringing before each salvo, the scorching on the gun barrels after the battle, and the accurate depiction of naval procedures. The film depicts Admiral Graf Spee and Altmark using the complex procedure of alongside refuelling; actually the Germans used the slower but safer method of astern refuelling, but the alongside method is much more dramatic for film purposes, and by 1955 was standard procedure for the British ships involved (see list above). Similarly, although the scene when Harwood meets with his captains on board Ajax is fictional, it was created for the movie in order to explain the tactical situation to the audience. The battle is seen from the perspective of the British ships, and that of the prisoners captured from nine merchantmen and held in Admiral Graf Spee.[citation needed]

The film devotes nearly twenty minutes to the battle, which actually lasted a little more than an hour before becoming a chase into Montevideo. The initial minutes from the spotting of Admiral Graf Spee at 0614, to her opening fire at 0618, and the British ships returning fire from 0620 are depicted in real time. In reality German gunfire did not "straddle" Exeter until 0623, after three salvoes, and her main armament fire was not "split" between the British ships until 0630, although these events are shown happening immediately. Exeter's bridge and forward turrets were knocked out at 0630, but at this point the film begins to telescope the sequence of events.[citation needed]

Commodore Harwood is shown wearing the shoulder tabs and sleeve rings of a rear admiral from the start, although he was only promoted to this rank after the battle. This is historically correct, as 'Commodores of the first class' wore those insignia at the time. Exeter's chaplain is also correctly depicted wearing a civilian dark suit and clerical collar; it was not until later in the war that naval chaplains adopted military uniform as a security measure.[citation needed]

The Battle of the River Plate only obliquely hints at one aspect of the story: the death of Captain Hans Langsdorff after he scuttled his ship. In the film Langsdorff is shown as subdued and depressed afterwards. In reality he was taken ashore to the Naval Hotel in Buenos Aires, where he wrote letters to his family and superiors. He then lay atop Admiral Graf Spee's battle ensign and shot himself,[12] forestalling allegations that he had avoided further battle action through cowardice; another motivation was his desire, as Admiral Graf Spee's captain, to symbolically go down with his ship.[citation needed] He was talked out of this by his officers, who convinced him that his leadership was still needed in seeking amnesty for his crew. Once their fate was decided, Langsdorff took his own life.

Langsdorff's funeral
Langsdorff's funeral

Hans Langsdorff was buried in the German section of the La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina and was honoured by both sides in the battle for his honourable conduct.[citation needed]

Prior to the destruction of the Graf Spee, the German crew were seen rowing away from the ship whereas in reality they were taken off by an Argentinian tugboat. Also not shown is the use of certain captured merchant vessels as prizes, sailed by crews from Graf Spee to carry captured sailors, which were later sunk. In addition a Norwegian merchant ship reported the Graf Spee heading for South America before being spotted by lookouts but this is omitted. Furthermore the British Government secretly arranged for French and British merchant ships to leave Montevideo harbour every 24 hours to delay Graf Spee's departure. Also omitted is Graf Spee attempting to force a merchant ship to stop while she herself was being pursued by the British cruisers.

Release and reception

When The Battle of the River Plate was completed and screened for executives at the Rank Organisation, it was received so well that it was decided to hold the release of the film for a year, so that it could be chosen as part of the next year's Royal Film Performance (in 1956), since 1955's film had already been selected. The royal premiere was held at the Odeon Leicester Square on 29 October 1956 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.[13]

Box office

The film performed very well at the box office, being the fourth most popular film in Britain in 1957, after High Society, Doctor at Large and The Admirable Crichton.[8][14][15]


The Battle of the River Plate was nominated for three BAFTA Awards in 1957, for "Best British Film", "Best British Screenplay" and "Best Film From Any Source".[16]


Graf Spee (Death in the Atlantic)
AuthorMichael Powell
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherHodder and Stoughton,[17] Rinehart (1956), White Lion Publishers (1976)
Publication date
October 1956 (UK), 1957 (US), 1976 (second edition)
Media typePrint

In 1956 Powell published Graf Spee with Hodder and Stoughton, a.k.a. Death in the Atlantic (Rinehart, US), retelling the story of the film in more detail. In 1976, a second edition was released by White Lion Publishers with the amended title, The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee.



  1. ^ Macdonald, Kevin (1994). Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. Faber and Faber. p. 357. ISBN 978-0-571-16853-8.
  2. ^ "River Plate" is the English name for the "Rio de la Plata", more correctly translated from the Spanish as "River of Silver"; See Río de la Plata#Etymology.
  3. ^ "Blue Star's S.S. Doric Star". Archived from the original on 20 July 2008. Retrieved 17 October 2011.
  4. ^ "SS Roxby". Mercantile Marine Forum. February 2009. Archived from the original on 4 April 2012. Retrieved 17 October 2011.
  5. ^ van der Vat, Dan (3 September 1999). "Obituary: Captain Ralph Medley". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 October 2011 – via The Powell & Pressburger Pages.
  6. ^ Trueman, C. N. "The Graf Spee in Montevideo". History Learning Site. Retrieved 17 October 2011.
  7. ^ John Schlesinger (I) at IMDb
  8. ^ a b c d Miller, Frank. "Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1957)". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on 14 October 2012. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  9. ^ "Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1956) Soundtracks". IMDb. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  10. ^ Asmussen, John. "Admiral Graf Spee in Disguise". Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  11. ^ "Admiral Graf Spee". 6 July 2008. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  12. ^ Adam, Thomas (2005). "Admiral Graf Spee". Germany and the Americas. ABC-CLIO. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-85109-628-2. Retrieved 13 June 2009.
  13. ^ "Her Majesty: a new book of photographs celebrating the life of Queen Elizabeth II". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  14. ^ Anderson, Lindsay; Dent, David (8 January 1958). "Time For New Ideas". The Times. London. p. 9.
  15. ^ The Battle of the River Plate at IMDb
  16. ^ "Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1956) Awards". IMDb. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  17. ^ "Graf Spee". Retrieved 5 April 2018.


  • Christie, Ian. Arrows of Desire: the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London: Faber & Faber, 1994. ISBN 0-571-16271-1. 163pp (illus. filmog. bibliog. index).
  • Pope, Dudley. The Battle of the River Plate. London: William Kimber, 1956. 259pp (illus).
  • Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann, 1986. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.
  • Powell, Michael. Million Dollar Movie. London: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN 0-434-59947-6.