If you had to name one great WWI movie, what would you say? Wings? All Quiet on the Western Front? Oh! What a Lovely War? War Horse? It’s safe to say that one film wouldn’t appear on your list: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands.
The 1927 movie, directed by Walter Summers, is “virtually unknown”, says the BFI, but it has been restored by them for the 2014 London Film Festival Archive Gala screening. It soon becomes apparent why.
The film depicts two significant battles in the First World War. The first, Coronel, took place on 1st November 1914 and saw the Germans sink two British ships: HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope. More than 1,500 souls perished in the attack, which Summers shoots with poignancy. The British Navy, it soon becomes apparent, were willing to go into the doomed conflict, just to wound the Germans before they could go on to seize vital trade routes.
“If we can cripple him we have served our purpose,” says Rear Admiral Cradock, accompanied by a noble fanfare in the background. The rousing music, composed especially for the restoration by Simon Dobson, is aptly played by The Band of HM Royal Marines – and fits in perfectly with Summers’ style. Snare drums rattle in time with the guns firing, while the Germans have their own Imperial March-like parping melody.
While the enemies are led by the nefariously-named Admiral von Spee, though, what’s striking about The Battles Of Coronel And Falkland Islands is just how balanced it is in its depiction of each side. “Eternal Damnation to the British navy!” toasts a German officer to von Spee at a dinner in the first half of the movie. “That I cannot say,” replies the moustached gentleman. “I prefer instead to raise my glass in honour of a gallant enemy.”
This sentiment remains mutual all the way into the second half: when Britain deployed battle cruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible to deliver payback on 8th December 1919. Far from cheering on the vessels of revenge, though, the Germans’ fighting spirit is portrayed with respect. “We only have one gun left, Admiral!” cries one. “Why is that gun not firing?” he replies, stoically.
That’s not say it’s not an exciting watch. The movie’s one-two punch (downfall and victory) is assembled with tight pacing, paying off with a thrilling chase sequence that sees HMS Kent racing to catch up with, and sink, Germany’s HMS Nurnberg. As sailors rush to find anything to shove in the burner instead of coal, we see them frantically hack a piano to pieces, as Dobson mimics the destruction with discordant brass. The Isles of Scilly, near Malta, stand in beautifully for the Falkland, but there are no models or trick photography at all – the film was made using ships donated by the Admiralty. What scenes were shot in a studio blend seamlessly with the interiors of the craft. That veracity gives every shovel of coal and 25-degree turn a gripping sense of immediacy; and a tragic sense of loss.
The film’s opening title cards proclaim the movie a story of “a victory, and a defeat as glorious as a victory”. The Battles Of Coronel And Falkland Islands was originally released on Armistice Day as a memorial to the heroic soldiers who fought on all sides. In 2014, 100 years since the start of the First World War, its re-release feels just as timely. Made available to the public around the UK on VOD while it debuts at the London Film Festival, this is one WWI movie that is certainly worth knowing.
The Battles Of Coronel And Falkland Islands is available to watch online from today at Player.BFI.org.uk – and as part of a BFI Player+ £4.99 monthly subscription.
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