The Silver Fleet is one of the two features produced by The Archers in the 1940s that weren’t directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who were usually bracketed together as producer/writer/director on all The Archers films). The omission of the two names on the credits has led to this film being slightly overlooked in the general interest shown by cinephiles in The Archers’ work. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality work in the film and I found it a worthwhile addition to The Archers work in the period.
The project followed on from the success of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), the first official Archers film. The Dutch authorities in exile in the UK were delighted by that film’s portrayal of Dutch resistance in helping a British bomber crew escape from the Netherlands after they were shot down. They requested another film showing resistance featuring Dutch sailors. Powell and Pressburger, with J. Arthur Rank’s money behind them, were keen to comply but they were already setting up the mammoth shoot of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). At this point details get a little murky as Powell’s biography and the biography of Pressburger written by his grandson Kevin Macdonald provide different details. (Powell was well-known for embroidering or simply mis-telling his stories.) The original idea for the film was based on a true story about a U-boat brought to the UK by a Dutch crew. Pressburger fashioned this into a propaganda piece and the project was assigned to the team of Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley. Sewell was well-known to Powell and had worked with him on Foula making The Edge of the World in 1937. He was ‘borrowed’ from the Royal Navy (he was a captain of ‘small ships’) and Powell believed he was perfect for this job. Wellesley was an experienced writer of British films since the early 1930s. He was perhaps best known as the writer of the original stories for Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940) and the Ealing film Sailor’s Three (1940). Pressburger was the main producer on the film with Powell busy shooting Blimp on the adjacent sound stage at Denham. Macdonald suggests that he was unhappy with the finished script and felt that Sewell and Wellesley produced a film that toned down the viciousness of the occupation forces. Macdonald himself argues that the film was “exactly the type of polite, anodyne war film which Emeric had been reacting against”. I think I can understand Pressburger’s reaction but I’m not sure I agree with Macdonald.
The film is set in a fictitious Dutch coastal town where Jaan van Leyden is the owner of a small shipbuilding yard which at the time when the Nazis invade is in the process of building two submarines for the Dutch Navy. The occupation authorities soon summon him and give him an ultimatum. He must complete the building programme and hand over the submarines. His workforce will be forced to carry on (effectively starved into work through food controls). Before he accepts his fate van Leyden goes to collect his son from primary school and through the classroom window he hears the teacher (Kathleen Byron) telling the children the story of Piet Hein, the Dutch admiral who captured the Spanish silver/treasure fleet in the Caribbean in 1628, thus contributing greatly to the war effort of the Dutch in their fight against Spanish hegemony in the Low Countries. Van Leyden decides he must follow Piet Hein’s example. He adopts the name of the hero and having agreed to the German demand, secretly begins to plan a resistance struggle. He tells no one (not even his wife Helene played by Googie Withers) about his new identity and communicates with resistance fighters in his workforce through messages from ‘P.H.’. One consequence of this is that he and his wife and son are branded ‘quislings’ (after the Norwegian collaborator and puppet-state leader for the Nazis).
I think there are three main reasons to rate this film. First the performance by Ralph Richardson and in the smaller roles by Googie Withers, Kathleen Byron and others are very good. I don’t know Richardson’s film work as well as I should. He handles this difficult part with great aplomb, moving from engineer to action man and then into the masquerade of collaborator with ease. Googie Withers is arguably under-used after her success in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. (Ms Withers’ mother was Dutch-German.) The rest of the cast included some familiar names such as Valentine Dyall as the chief Nazi and also some Dutch Navy personnel and other non-professionals. The performance by Esmond Knight is one of the talking points in the film. Knight, a good friend of Powell’s, had been blinded while serving on HMS Prince of Wales in the sea battle with the Bismark. In The Silver Fleet he plays the local Gestapo chief as an uncouth, callous but also arguably comical character. His visual impairment (he later got back the use of one eye) perhaps explains some of his ‘over’-acting. It didn’t really work for me and I’m usually a fan of his work.
The second important feature of the film is the use of location shooting and carefully constructed studio sets. The creative trio of Erwin Hillier, Alfred Junge and Allan Gray worked together on this film for the first time and would later become the mainstays of The Archers productions in the mid-1940s. Junge had worked extensively in British film production since the 1920s, including work for Hitchcock as well as Powell, but the other two were both more recent recruits. Hillier and Junge were both born in Germany and Gray was born in Austria-Hungary. The locations included docks in Dundee and Cammell Laird’s in Birkenhead and street scenes in King’s Lynn (also used, I think, in One of Our Aircraft is Missing) as the part of the UK most like the Netherlands.
The third interesting feature is the narrative structure. The film begins with an unusual scene on board a submerged submarine with men seemingly comatose. This cuts to Helene reading her husband’s secret diary and we eventually realise that the rest of the film is then one long flashback, starting with van Leyden’s summons to meet his new masters. One of the heavy criticisms of the film is that there is relatively little ‘action’ for a war movie and that the final section, when the audience knows what is going to happen, goes on too long. This wasn’t how I felt watching the narrative unfold. I didn’t mind the lack of action as such, just as I don’t think it matters too much that the Nazi actions against the local population are not as severe as they are in other Dutch resistance narratives. This narrative is all about van Leyden’s actions and the price he pays in order to play the Piet Hein role. The narrative tries to be a stirring propaganda picture and also a presentation of the pain and terror of resistance acts and how they must be faced down – with a stiff upper lip and a display of bonhomie and charm. In this sense, the long final section of the narrative works because Richardson’s performance is so beautifully judged. Richardson is credited as ‘Associate Producer’ on the film and he was, at the same time, working on a short (45 mins) propaganda film for The Archers, The Volunteer (1944), but this time written and directed by Powell and Pressburger.
The Silver Fleet was another screening on Talking Pictures TV.