A film can have many details right, but be horribly wrong. The 2019 Midway is a perfect example. The scene of the Enterprise SBDs diving on Akagi and Kaga was like a six year oldís mind camera version of what happened. It is so wrong the scene was stunning in a stupid, useless sort of way. The low budget film Dauntless got the whole Enterprise SBD attack bang on target. In this case, a small budget made for a better film. If they could have paid for millions in CGI Die Hard petroleum explosions (Saturn-sized fire balls), hundreds of berserk airplanes furiously shooting, etc, they probably would, or, maybe, they knew better, which would be stunning from Hollywood.
The matter is giving the audience a feeling for the situation as closely as one can. You can get a good idea what it was like to be a carrier pilot from the 1957 film Kiss Them For Me with Cary Grant. Shore leave in San Francisco was frenetic drinking and humping because all had little faith they were going to have a post war. The film catches the mind set of the pilots perfectly, and if you are able to discern what is propelling the frenzy, the story is damned sad because this is sayonara for a lot of young men. It could not be made now. The Hollywood directors and production people could not imagine their world at war, and would not want to (ďItís depressingĒ). They would make a vehicle about mildly upset young people humping, and end it with P-47s from Queen of the Flat Tops plastering the Tirpitz in Truk. .
This was where the dark and anxious The Cruel Sea excels. Not only is the cast brilliant, the framing of the story is brilliant. You want to know what the Battle of the Atlantic did to the command echelon up on the bridge, this is it. From a Boy Scout Sea Scout adventure it develops into unremitting stress, being attacked, and having to stop a pitiless, unseen enemy. By 1945, the captain and his first mate are obsessive burnouts. The captain is taking amphetamines to perform. Both would likely have had to be taken off the bridge on stretchers if the war had gone on to 1946. The worst of it is that they are going to have one hell of a post war getting over what they have become and what they have seen (like my submariner father, peace for him was a 50 year shore leave, the darkness of the war never left him deep down). You see all of this. Now, throw in a real RN corvette and RN frigates, and all is gravy. I think that what made the film so great was the proximity to the war. Even if an actor spent the whole war acting in the East End, they knew and saw burnouts in the RN. If they were great actors, they could do the job. Shooting a phony bit of rubbish like Greyhound in 1952 would have got you laughed out of the business. There were thousands of officers and matelots who wanted to show their loved ones ďwhat it was like.Ē My father never recommended a US sub warfare film, no doubt because Admiral Lockwood was making sure the bull level was stratospheric to protect the image of the US sub serviceóno frightened early war skippers, no dud torps, no high casualties. Itís still like a Cary Grant film in 1942.
Sink the Bismarck has silly buggers talking in the wartime stereotypical German heavy way, but Kenneth Moore was playing the chief of operations, and the real one at the time, Edwards, kept a diary that is so explosive to the reputation of Churchill it is not often cited. Bismarck is mostly about command from the Admiralty Building, and is excellent. I wonder if somebody knew Edwards, and wanted to do a fictionalized version of his war in the Admiralty War Room? Add to this, ship models made to look like real warships in battle so successfully CGI would have had a hard time beating them (it was done in the Japanese epic series about the Russo-Japanese War, I doubt if the job will ever be exceeded, and it showed a deep respect for their history, which is lacking in most American entertainersóveneration was expressed by exactly, minutely recreating the ships and conditions of Tsushima).
Pursuit of the Graf Spee/Battle of the River Plate has one of the real ships in the battle, and two workable stand-ins. Forget the US cruiser used for Spee (the US cruiser looks more menacing and forbidding than the real item). I wonít comment on the fox hunting jollity of the officers, and would like to know if it really was like depicted in the film.
In sum, intention matters foremost. Those who knew the war either by experience, observation of those in war, or educating themselves, and tried their utmost to give the audience the feeling of the war, understanding that bangs and pops will never recreate the knowledge one is likely to transcend cathartically any second, but the best one can do is show the circumstances well, and by meeting the artists halfway, a connection is made to a time lost forever.