I got my basic training in British cinema from the late, great William K. Everson, but to the best of my knowledge he never screened The Silver Fleet (1943), starring Ralph Richardson. Its recent DVD release from VCI gave me a chance to see it for the first time, and made me a fan. It is officially a presentation of The Archers, the production unit formed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. That automatically elevates its status, as the credited writer-directors, Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley, had long but generally undistinguished careers. Of that, more later.
The Silver Fleet is a stirring tribute to the bravery of the Dutch people, and in particular one man (Richardson) who runs a shipyard. He appears to be cooperating with the Nazi invaders when in fact he is playing a dangerous game of sabotage, invoking the name of Piet Hein, a revered Dutch hero who sank a Spanish treasure fleet in the 1600s and seized its silver.
The story builds considerable suspense, as Richardson is forced to keep his activities secret from his neighbors and townspeople—who shun him—and even his wife (Googie Withers), who can’t understand his apparent capitulation to the Germans.
Even when the story seems to run out of surprises, there are more in store for the viewer. Unlike some wartime flag-wavers, this one retains its potency, and benefits immeasurably from Richardson’s deft performance in the leading role. (He also served as the film’s associate producer.) Esmond Knight is far from subtle as the Nazi officer, but he’s entertaining to watch. And Powell-Pressburger fans will enjoy seeing Kathleen Byron in a brief appearance as a schoolteacher; she would later appear in A Matter of Life and Death and set the screen on fire in Black Narcissus.
Like so many films, this one has an interesting backstory, which I learned by consulting Powell’s autobiography A Life In Movies and Kevin Macdonald’s biography of his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter.
Although Powell and Pressburger had plenty to do at this time, Powell was hungry to tackle even more projects in a supervisory capacity. This film came about at the specific request of the Dutch government-in-exile, after they saw the duo’s One of Our Aircraft is Missing. Their boss, J. Arthur Rank, was so pleased with Pressburger’s treatment of the material for a propaganda short that he encouraged the writer to expand it to feature length. The job of directing was given to film editor Vernon Sewell, in whom Powell had great faith. (“He is the most competent man I have ever known,” he wrote of his great friend.) Wellesley was signed to co-direct as a result of his experience with naval stories.
Macdonald writes, “...the tone of the finished film was far removed from what Emeric had intended. Vernon Sewell, complaining that the treatment was ‘too theatrical,’ removed all Emeric’s references to the brutality and racism of the Nazis, dulling the impact of the story. Out went the window-smashing and the execution of innocent civilians and in came Esmond Knight playing the Nazi commander as a humorous buffoon. It was exactly the type of polite, anodyne war film which Emeric had been reacting against and he withdrew his name from the writing credits. (Despite Emeric’s misgivings, and decidedly uninspired direction the film was a box office hit and opened up a lengthy directing career for Vernon Sewell.)”
Powell picks up the story, first-hand: “Vernon Sewell directed the film. We got him out of the Navy to do it. He had served two and a half years in small ships and that was enough. He did a fine job. It was very much Emeric’s production, for I was busy on [The Life and Times of Colonel] Blimp, and at first they didn’t get on, because Emeric fancied that Vernon had snubbed him, not realizing that Vernon had literally not seen him. His eyesight had never been first-rate, and during his naval service, he received a nasty head injury on board his ship, which took him to hospital for several months. When he was directing Esmond Knight in the film, he said it was the blind leading the blind, for Esmond was at that time totally blind. He had lost his sight as a result of a direct hit on his gun turret on board the Prince of Wales, in which he was serving during the pursuit of the German pocket battleship Bismarck. I remember he wrote to me from hospital a typical letter saying that while he was wallowing around on the floor of the turret in blood and guts and oil, he heartily regretted that he had not accepted my offer of the part of Lieutenant Hirth in 49th Parallel played by Eric Portman. When Esmond came out of hospital, his fellow actors gave him a magnificent benefit performance which collected a few thousand pounds for him, and thought,’ Well, that was Esmond.’ They could not have been more wrong. In a few months he was back with us, playing a big part as an SS officer in The Silver Fleet, and he has been with us on and off ever since. A little annoyance like blindness only made Esmond’s torch shine brighter.”
One would never know that Knight’s ripe performance was given without benefit of sight! And while The Silver Fleet lacks the audaciousness and emotional layering of the great Powell-Pressburger films to come, it remains an intelligent and rousing wartime tale, well worth discovering. My thanks to Jeremy Arnold for bringing it to my attention, and to VCI to making it available.