Decades before filmmaker James Cameron re-enacted the death of the battleship Bismarck for the Discovery Channel, my brother and I staged a "sink the Bismarck" tableau in a plastic wading pool in our driveway. I had built a model of the ship from a kit, so we attached some firecrackers, set it afloat, doused it with highly flammable Vitalis hair spray and applied the fatal match. The neighborhood kids were very impressed by the results. And unlike Cameron, we didn't con them into watching by pretending the real Bismarck had almost changed the course of history.
Cameron's overwrought documentary—modestly titled James Cameron's Expedition: Bismarck—which premièred last Sunday and replays this weekend, portrays its subject as "the ultimate killing machine" and "the Death Star of her time." This is nonsense, but most reviewers and feature writers happily went along with the hype. Newsweek, for example, described the Bismarck's defeat by Britain's Royal Navy as "one of the decisive naval battles of World War II." The New York Times called the ship "a Nazi superweapon." But in fact the Bismarck, because she was a battleship, was already obsolete when she was launched in 1939. And her brief career had no impact on the course of the war.
So why did I build that model in the first place? Because battleships are cool, and the Bismarck is a legend. Hitler sent her out into the North Atlantic in May 1941 like a black knight in armor to challenge Britain's vaunted Royal Navy. After she sank the British champion, the battle cruiser H.M.S. Hood, an appalled Winston Churchill ordered his admirals to hunt the Bismarck down. An airplane crippled her with a torpedo, after which two British battleships caught her and blasted her into a shattered hulk. But she refused to sink. Finally a British cruiser put a few more torpedoes into her, and the Bismarck rolled over and disappeared.
For 48 years she lay undisturbed on the bottom, three miles down. Then in 1989 she was found by Robert Ballard, the same undersea sleuth who earlier had located the wreck of the Titanic. Where Ballard goes, Cameron eventually follows. The Bismarck documentary is the follow-up to his massively successful Titanic film—and this time Cameron stars in his own undersea epic, with no Leonardo DiCaprio around to hog the limelight.
Last spring Cameron climbed into a minisub and descended into the inky depths to film the Bismarck in her grave. He deployed tethered robots with cameras to perform an autopsy on the dead ship. Then he edited the footage into a two-hour exercise in forensics that could have been titled CSI: TheAbyss. The film purports to reveal the long-hidden secret behind the Bismarck's demise. You didn't realize this was a mystery? Then you must have missed the front-page story in last week's Times, "Visiting Bismarck, Explorers Revise Its Story."
Cameron and others assert that the Bismarck was not sunk by British torpedoes, as the history books would have it, but was scuttled by her own crew. British experts, predictably, disgree with this conclusion. They insist it was sturdy Royal Navy ordnance that sank the Bismarck.
Who cares? The Bismarck lost the fight, no matter who pulled the plug on her at the end. Why does this arcane dispute still generate so much heat six decades later? That's a question Cameron could have done more to address, had he not been in such a hurry to get into his minisub and play Captain Nemo. He gets the history lesson out of the way early with some nice graphics and some dubious assertions. Cameron is, after all, the creator of The Terminator, and he casts the Bismarck in a similar role: "You have to imagine a ship so powerful that it could bring an entire nation to its knees!" His underwater footage of the Bismarck is fascinating, but his overripe introduction does not adequately set the scene.
The Bismarck in May 1941 was indeed the world's largest warship, but not by much, and her guns were no more powerful than those of her British rivals. In any case she held the "world's largest" title only due to a technicality: The much bigger and more powerful Japanese battleship Yamato was still fitting out and would not be commissioned until December. The recently completed Bismarck would have held the title for only a year, even if she had survived. (By the way, the U.S. Navy ended up building no fewer than four World War II battleships that were bigger and more powerful than the Bismarck.)
But Britain's Hood had held the title for two decades until the Bismarck came along. The Hood was famous throughout the world as the symbol of Britain's enduring claim to naval superiority. When the Bismarck destroyed her after a duel that lasted less than 10 minutes, it stunned the British and shook their confidence.
Churchill had bigger things to worry about than the Bismarck. Britain at this point stood alone against the Nazis, and things did not look good. Hitler's submarines, far more dangerous than his handful of surface ships, were threatening to cut Britain's lifeline to the outside world. German bombers had just capped the London Blitz by leveling the House of Commons chamber. German paratroopers were evicting Churchill's forces from Crete, and Rommel was loose in North Africa, laying siege to Tobruk. Churchill could not do much about those problems, but he could at least avenge the Hood. So he did. The sinking of the Bismarck was an enormous relief to Britons, who could tell themselves that at least they still ruled the waves.