A good, taut little WWII thriller that makes unique and worthwhile viewing.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Who is Piet Hein?"

If you're a fan of older British movies, a fan of Sir Ralph Richardson, or simply a fan of espionage or suspense films, you might enjoy this 1943 British film, "The Silver Fleet." It takes a while to get started, but once it finally gets underway it proves a fairly tense and exciting affair. At least it's worth a look.

"I know death hath ten thousand several doors.
For men to take their exits." --John Webster, "The Duchess of Malfi"

The setting is occupied Holland during the Second World War, the story told through a series of diary notes from the main character to his wife. The main character is Dutchman Jaap van Leyden (Richardson), the chief engineer at a Dutch naval shipyard the Germans need badly to produce ships for them. Specifically, they need the shipyard to construct two submarines for them, submarines they hope van Leyden will help them build. However, to collaborate with the Nazis would be disloyal to the Dutch people. He would become a "quisling," a collaborator, a traitor. What to do? Van Leyden tells the head of the Gestapo in Holland, Col. Von Shiffer (Esmond Knight), that he'll think about it. Van Leyden knows that if he cooperates, he'll be branded a Judas, a betrayer, by his people; if he doesn't cooperate, he'll probably find himself in prison, and his wife (Googie Withers) and son (Willem Ackkerman) will probably starve.

That's when his van Leyden's teacher reminds him of the story of Piet Hein, a Dutch naval hero of the early seventeenth century who captured a fleet of Spanish ships laden with silver from the Americas, and captured them without shedding a drop of blood. It gives him a thought. He agrees to cooperate with the Germans, and thereafter a mysterious "Piet Hein" begins secretly directing the shipyard workers to sabotage the submarine building. Meanwhile, the townspeople and shipyard workers ostracize van Leyden and his family as quislings.

The film moves rather slowly for the first half hour or so until we learn the identity of the saboteur known as "Piet Hein," something the viewer picks up on early. Then the story becomes moderately exciting, and the suspense picks up considerably. Thanks to Richardson's staunch performance and the film's persuasive supporting cast, we become involved with the characters and their predicaments. Of course, it's pure melodrama, but it's good melodrama, and, more important, it provided a good propaganda boost for the people of England and Europe at a time they needed it most.

Interestingly, a preface tells us that the Royal Netherland Government and the Royal Navy provided cooperation and advice in the making of the film. Yet the film is clearly a work of fiction, one so convincingly produced, however, that we tend to think it must have actually happened. That's probably the greatest tribute an audience can give any film, to believe in it thoroughly.

The picture came from the Rank Organization and The Archers production company, the latter founded by director/producer Michael Powell and writer/producer Emeric Pressburger, whose partnership brought any number of movies to the public, movies like "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "Black Narcissus," and "The Red Shoes." But here's the thing: They usually wrote and directed their own films, yet Vernon Campbell Sewell and Gordon Wellesley wrote and directed "The Silver Fleet." Why the change? Well, for one thing, Pressburger, who wrote the original short story on which Sewell and Wellesley based their screenplay, was ticked off that the film wasn't going to portray the Nazis as severely as he had originally written them. This may have been a necessity of war, of course, with the Germans at the time actually occupying the Netherlands.

In any case, Sewell and Wellesley do a terrific job recreating on screen the life and times of occupied Europe, the oppression of the Dutch people--representing the oppressed peoples throughout Europe--and the grim consequences for those who didn't obey their new Nazi masters.

At the same time, the filmmakers provide an inspiring story of courage under pressure, of heroism during the Resistance, of self-sacrifice above all. "The Silver Fleet" takes a look at war from a civilian point of view, painting a vivid picture of the times and struggles of those who never gave up, except to give up themselves for a cause they knew was right. The film is tightly wound and well paced, making entertaining viewing even today.

VCI Entertainment remastered "The Silver Fleet" for this 2011 release, and its 1.33:1 ratio black-and-white photography looks all the better for it. The VCI engineers have cleared the screen of most evidence of age deterioration, so you'll find few or no ticks, specks, flecks, lines, or fades. Although object delineation and detailing is only average, the B&W contrasts are quite pronounced, sometimes a little too much so, with reasonably deep black levels and often glowing whites. It is not likely to disappoint most viewers.

VCI give you a choice of the original monaural soundtrack or a new 5.1 remix via Dolby Digital audio. I listened in 5.1, initially with a little skepticism, but it quickly won me over. The 5.1 track is slightly smoother than the mono track, and the use of the surrounds remains subtle throughout, generally reproducing only some occasional ambient noise and a bit of musical bloom. Voices in both tracks can sound a trifle pinched and hard, with a touch of background hiss, but it's hardly anything serious.

VCI seldom have many extras on their discs, understandable considering the age of most of the films they release and the scarcity of things to go along with them. This time they provide a photo gallery of stills, self-guiding and lasting a little over a minute. In addition, you'll find twelve scene selections, English as the only spoken language, and English subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
"The Silver Fleet" is hardly a cinematic classic, yet it's a good, taut little thriller, set during World War II but not really a typical war film. It's more of a behind-the-scenes-of-the-war film, and as such it makes unique and worthwhile viewing. Especially when it stars one of England's most distinguished actors, Sir Ralph Richardson, putting in a sturdy performance.

"Life and death are only an end and a beginning. What matters is how we live and why we die."


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