Revenge at the Falklands

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 157th installment in the series. NEW: Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.

December 8, 1914: Revenge at the Falklands

For over a century, ever since Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Britain’s Royal Navy had been mistress of the seas, unchallenged in seamanship, shipbuilding, and sheer firepower. So when war broke out in August 1914, most observers expected the British to quickly secure the global maritime trade network. But conventional wisdom failed to appreciate the unusual asymmetrical nature of the threat posed by the German Imperial Navy.

Ironically the German High Seas Fleet, the principal cause of pre-war tension between Germany and Britain, played a mostly passive role once hostilities began, sticking close to its homeports on the North Sea in order to avoid an encounter with the Royal Navy’s superior Grand Fleet, guarding the “home waters” around the British Isles. Meanwhile further afield a handful of German “commerce raiders” inflicted damage out of all proportion to their numbers, roaming the high seas, striking civilian merchant vessels and undefended land installations out of the blue, then disappearing again into the vast empty spaces of the world’s oceans. These “hit and run” campaigns forced the British to divert precious resources to carry out a global dragnet for the elusive raiders. And even with vastly superior forces, the huge distances involved, combined with limited information about the enemy’s position in an age before radar or spy satellites, made it difficult to exploit the Royal Navy’s numerical advantage: by the time one ship spotted the Germans and alerted the nearest vessels (perhaps hundreds of miles away) the battle might well be over.

That’s exactly what happened at the disastrous Battle of Coronel, where Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s German East Asia Squadron destroyed two British cruisers, HMS Monmouth and Good Hope, with the loss of 1,570 officers and men, off the coast of Chile on November 1, 1914. At Coronel the British commander, Admiral Christopher Cradock, made the fatal mistake of engaging the Germans before his strongest ship – the older, slower, but better-armed HMS Canopus – had arrived. Following the failure to prevent the Goeben and Breslau from escaping to Constantinople in August, the sinking of HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue by the U-boat U-9 on September 22, and the sinking of HMS Audacious, a brand-new “super-dreadnought,” by a German mine off northern Ireland on October 27, Coronel was another embarrassing defeat for the British Admiralty, prompting First Lord Winston Churchill and First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher to focus all their efforts on finding and destroying Spee’s squadron.

In this case retribution was swift. After his victory at Coronel Spee sailed south around Cape Horn into the Atlantic Ocean, probably intending to raid British shipping and disrupt South African operations against German Southwest Africa; before doing that, however, he sailed north to bombard the defenseless Falkland Islands. Meanwhile unbeknownst to Spee, Churchill and Fisher had dispatched two fast, powerful battle cruisers, HMS Invincible and Inflexible, to form a new battle group under Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee in the South Atlantic; Sturdee was sailing south intending to round the cape and hunt Spee in the Pacific, but first stopped at Port Stanley in the Falklands to refuel on December 7.

On the morning of December 8, Spee approached the Falklands cautiously from the south, sending two of his ships, Gneisenau and Nürnberg, ahead to destroy the wireless station at Port Stanley and so prevent the British garrison from raising the alarm. As they drew near the harbor around 7:50am, the German commanders were surprised to find a powerful British flotilla taking on coal; Sturdee, equally surprised to see the Germans on this side of South America, scrambled to get up steam to pursue them (it could take several hours of continuous stoking to get the warships’ huge steam engines to top speed). One British crewmember, Signalman Welch aboard the light cruiser HMS Kent, recalled:

Things were now getting exciting & I think all the men were jolly delighted at the chance of a scrap. The thoughts came crowding in – home, wife, child & all that a man has dear to him. The possibilities of the day occurred to me, but there was no time to think of the danger – all that seemed to trouble me was that the other ships in the harbour were taking so long to get under way.

As Sturdee’s ships prepared for battle the Gneisenau and Nürnberg reversed course and sailed southeast to rejoin the rest of the German squadron, sending wireless messages ahead to warn Spee about the British force. At 10am the British ships left the harbor in pursuit of the Germans, about 15 miles to the southeast. By 11am Sturdee had closed the gap to around 12 miles, but heavy smoke from the British ships’ own funnels was obscuring the view, forcing him to rely on signal messages from his lead ship, HMS Glasgow, to stay on course. With a comfortable advantage in speed, around 11:30am Sturdee ordered the Invincible and Inflexible to slow from 24 knots to 20 knots, in order to lessen the smoke and allow some of his slower ships to keep pace (below, the Invincible and Inflexible at the Battle of the Falklands).

Spee now adjusted his heading to a more southerly course and ordered all his ships to proceed at their own top speeds, with the result that the German squadron began to drift apart. Concerned that the faster German ships might escape, Sturdee ordered the Invincible and Inflexible to increase their speed to 25 knots around 12:20pm. Still hoping to save some of his ships, Spee then ordered his weaker light cruisers, Leipzig, Nürnberg, and Dresden, to scatter while his armored cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, turned to fight the British in a desperately uneven battle; however Sturdee sent some of his own light cruisers to pursue their German counterparts as the rest of the squadron closed with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

At 1:20pm the Invincible and Inflexible opened fire on the approaching armored cruisers at a range of around eight miles (below, the Inflexible fires), still beyond the range of the German guns, but the heavy black smoke from their funnels made accurate targeting all but impossible. The Germans quickly closed the gap and returned fire, with one shell hitting the Invincible, prompting Sturdee to maneuver out of range again by around 2 pm. As the German ships turned to flee again Sturdee resumed his pursuit, and by 2:45pm he was on course to cut the Germans off. Spee responded by turning to bring his short-range guns to bear on the British, opening fire at 2:59pm, but the British heavy guns firing at relatively close range inflicted far more damage, and by 3:20pm the Gneisenau was burning and the Scharnhorst was taking on water, preventing it from using half of its short range guns.

With the Germans ships losing momentum, Sturdee ordered his own ships to reduce steam to clear the smoke, giving them clear lines of sight for targeting; now it was only a matter of time. Pounded relentlessly by the British heavy guns, by 4pm the Scharnhorst was dead in the water and listing heavily to one side, and at 4:17 she rolled over and sank with the loss of all hands (by the time the British ships returned to pick up survivors, they had all drowned in the rough, frigid waters of the South Atlantic).

As the German flagship went down the British turned their guns on the Gneisenau, which valiantly continued firing as rain and fog completed the gloomy scene. At 5:45pm the German captain, seeing the end was near, ordered the remaining crewmembers to scuttle and abandon ship. The German sailors swam frantically to escape the resulting vortex, but once again many drowned before the British could rescue them, as one British crewmember, Assistant Paymaster Duckworth, later admitted (top, survivors from the Gneisenau await rescue by boats from the Inflexible):

Away ahead of us on the dull leaden sea appeared a small pale green patch of water containing a clustering mass of humanity, while the wind brought dismal cries to our ears from the only survivors of the sunken ship… All round the ships there were floating bodies, some on hammocks, some on spars. Some struggling, others drowning slowly before ones eyes before any boat could reach them. Most were so numbed they could not hold on to anything, and were helpless… On all sides one saw all our men hauling half frozen bodies up the side and carrying them down to the Admiral’s cabin. It was a truly terrible sight and one I hope never to see again.

To the northwest the British cruisers chased down the fleeing German light cruisers, sinking two of the three by nightfall; only the Dresden managed to escape, eventually heading back into the Pacific, where it was interned by Chilean authorities and finally scuttled by its own crew to prevent it from falling into British hands in March 1915.

A German officer on the Leipzig recounted the horrible scenes as the ship went through its death throes:

Under the forecastle on the starboard side there was wild disorder. Dead men lay near the No 2 gun starboard and the ship’s side was torn away. Everybody was busy searching for objects that would float, such as hammocks and balks of timber… Dead bodies and wounded and maimed men lay around everywhere, and fragments of bodies were to be seen on all sides. I did not look too closely, it was such a dreadful sight.

Like their counterparts from the Gneisenau, after jumping overboard the sailors spent hours floating in very cold water, often with fatal effects, according to the same officer, who narrowly avoided the same fate when the British almost failed to spot him:

Towards the end I did not see many men in the water. Those who still survived were clinging to all kinds of objects, and they dropped off as their hands became numb… The two boats now approached, and I saw men being pulled out of the water. We began to shout and wave our hands in the gathering darkness. I lost sight of one boat, and the other turned away. We each shouted in turn, but nobody seemed to notice us, then they came straight toward us. I was seized by the hands and dragged in… I lay down in the bows of the boat, and closed my eyes; nothing mattered now.

He was one of the lucky ones, as 1,871 German sailors were killed in battle or drowned, leaving just 215 survivors to be taken prisoner by the British.

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EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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The 25 Greatest Heist Movies of All Time

Steve McQueen stars in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
Steve McQueen stars in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
MGM Home Entertainment

In the vast landscape of crime cinema—from movies about murder investigations to small-time crooks to gangster pictures—the heist movie holds a special place in the heart of many fans. There's something about watching all of that planning come together, seeing the often clashing personalities of the characters work side-by-side, and even sometimes laughing or crying as it falls apart, that holds a special fascination. Perhaps because there's a certain satisfaction to seeing all the pieces click into place that more chaotic crime films just can't give you.

In the long history of crime cinema, there have been dozens of heist films ranging in size from small jobs to massive capers, but only a select few stand out as the perfect combination of planning and execution, of character chemistry and filmmaking intricacy. With those factors in mind, we took a look back at the long history of heist films and picked 25 of our very favorites (presented here in chronological order).

1. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Billed as a story of "the city under the city," John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle is the godfather of all modern heist films, and it's easy to see how the various hallmarks of the genre grew out of this gritty, taut caper. It's got a mastermind fresh out of prison, a down-on-his-luck hood looking to turn his life around, and a climactic heist sequence where everything starts to unravel. It's a foundational document in the subgenre, and still holds up as a tense noir masterpiece.

2. Rififi (1955)

After he was blacklisted in his home country, American director Jules Dassin went to France and produced what many people still consider to be the finest heist film ever made. Rififi bears many marks of influence from The Asphalt Jungle, but takes things into more stylized territory, particularly when it comes to the centerpiece heist. It unfolds completely free of dialogue, but the film has set it up so well that the silence is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. It even features the crooks descending on their target from above, something numerous later heist films (including Dassin's Topkapi) would embrace.

3. The Ladykillers (1955)

Part of the appeal of heist films has always been the number of ways in which the plan can go wrong, whether it's in the execution or in the clash of personalities within the gang of criminals. The Ladykillers, one of the most distinctly British crime films ever made, has a bit of both. It features a wickedly iconic performance from Alec Guinness, an essential turn from Peter Sellers, and a final act that devolves in pure impish mayhem when the various crooks all turn on each other as their elderly landlady looks on. (If the title sounds familiar, it might be because Joel and Ethan Coen remade it with Tom Hanks in 2004.)

4. The Killing (1956)

The best heist filmmakers are often the most intricate thinkers, which means it's no surprise that Stanley Kubrick absolutely nailed his turn at the subgenre. The story of a tightly orchestrated racetrack robbery, The Killing unfolds in a somewhat nonlinear style, as Kubrick shows you one character's role, then rewinds the timeline a bit to show you what another character was doing at the exact same time. It's a risky structure, but it pays off spectacularly in Kubrick's hands, and it all builds to one of the most beautifully ironic endings in crime cinema history.

5. Bob le Flambeur (1956)

Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur is another of those classic '50s heist films that's still influencing the subgenre in a major way today. A sleek, incredibly stylish, and sexy film about an aging gambler who hatches a plan to rob a casino, the film is a masterclass in balancing the intricate setup of the central heist with the often tumultuous lives of its characters. The arc of the title character (Roger Duchesne) in particular builds in a truly spectacular way, until the final minutes are positively quaking with tension.

6. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

If you wanted to make a cool movie in the 1960s, casting Steve McQueen got you halfway to where you wanted to be. The Thomas Crown Affair stars McQueen as a bored millionaire who can basically do whatever he wants with his time, and what he wants is to stage extremely intricate robberies just to see if he can. Then along comes Faye Dunaway, and Crown's plans get just a little more complicated. While John McTiernan's 1999 remake is fun in its own right, it's hard to touch the pure effortless cool of the original.

7. The Italian Job (1969)

Ideally, you want a heist film that can pull out of some kind of spectacular caper setpiece while also making you care about the characters pulling said caper off through some combination of a great script and great chemistry. Some films do one better than the other, but The Italian Job manages to excel at both. Even now, more than 50 years after its release, it stands as one of the funniest films on this list. And while the Mini Cooper car chase remains an iconic piece of heist movie history, the final scene on the bus is almost as impressive.

8. The Sting (1973)

Most heist films are about a group of guys who are going somewhere to get something, whether it's a bank or a casino or a fancy house. The Sting, anchored by the pure magic that is the Paul Newman/Robert Redford team-up, flips that and tells a story about two con artists who make the heist come to them. It's got all the hallmarks of a great heist picture, from the assembly of the team to the planning to the teasing out of the relationship with the target, but it all unfolds with an amusing sense of reversal. By the final scene, you're just as giddy that it all came together as the characters are.

9. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Some heist films spend most of their time setting up the caper, while others prefer to leap into it right at the beginning. No matter where they start, there's usually a clear indication that there was a plan. Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet's white-hot bank robbery picture starring Al Pacino in what is arguably his best performance, makes it clear that the crooks at the center of the story did have a plan. It was just a plan with a whole lot of flaws, and the very human response to how all of those flaws reveal themselves throughout the film makes for one of the most raw displays of empathy in crime cinema history.

10. Blue Collar (1978)

After making a name for himself as a writer with films like Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader chose this story of down-on-their-luck auto workers who plot to rob their union's safe as his directorial debut. It remains, even today, a searing portrait of income inequality, middle class pain, and the way those with power manipulate the powerless into thinking they might be able to get some of their own. Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Pryor all turn in powerful performances, and the whole film is a masterclass in how to use the hook of a heist plot to say something bigger.

11. Thief (1981)

Michael Mann remains one of crime cinema's greatest living practitioners, and he came out of the gate swinging in the subgenre with his directorial debut. Thief is the story of a safecracker (James Caan in top form) who longs for a fulfilling life beyond criminal pursuits after he gets out of prison. Of course, in classic crime cinema fashion, he finds that having it all isn't as within reach as he'd like. Thief features some of the best scenes of fiery, authentic safe-cracking in cinema, and remains one of the highlights of both Mann and Caan's stellar careers.

12. Die Hard (1988)

Whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie is still up for debate. What's not up for debate is its place in the pantheon of gripping, high-octane heist films. While it's best remembered for its action setpieces that take place around the heist, the inciting incident of John McTiernan's legendary film is indeed Hans Gruber and crew plotting to steal a corporation's stash of bearer bonds under the guise of a terrorist hostage situation. It's got everything you want from a great heist, from manipulating law enforcement to drilling a safe to an amazing mastermind at the head of it all. They just didn't count on a barefoot New York cop who's really into Roy Rogers to come and steal their thunder.

13. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino has hyped his debut film in countless interviews as a heist film where you never see the actual heist, and it's true that Reservoir Dogs never shows us exactly what happened during the planned diamond robbery at the heart of the story. So why is it on this list? Because, through a combination of careful character work, planning sequences, and absolute mayhem as everything goes wrong, Tarantino allows us to piece the heist together in our heads. By the end we feel like we were there with the characters even if we weren't.

14. Heat (1995)

At two hours and 50 minutes long, Michael Mann's Heat is the very definition of an epic crime film, and from the outside looking in it seems so massive that you might wonder what the filmmaker is possibly filling it with. Once that opening armored car robbery hits, though, the film moves at such a blistering pace that we're left wishing it was even longer. The film is best remembered now as the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared the screen, but it should be just as remembered for one of the greatest shootout sequences in film history.

15. Bottle Rocket (1996)

Wes Anderson's debut feature is his take on "what if a group of total weirdos and idiots tried to pull a heist," with everything the Wes Anderson style implies about that—and the result is an unforgettably quirky entry in the subgenre. The practice heist in which the main characters (played by Owen and Luke Wilson) steal from a predetermined list of items within one of their family owns, remains a classic Wes Anderson moment.

16. Out of Sight (1998)

Before he made a trilogy of stylish, impossibly star-packed heist films in the 2000s, Steven Soderbergh turned his eye for genre cinema to this adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel of the same name, about a U.S. Marshal's budding romance with a bank robber she just happens to meet as he's escaping prison. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez bring the sex appeal, Don Cheadle and Steve Zahn bring the comedy, and Soderbergh brings his eye for setups and payoffs to one of the best crime films of the 1990s.

17. Sexy Beast (2000)

At its core, Sexy Beast is less about a heist than it is about a retired criminal who can't shake the demons of his past, which arrive on his doorstep in the form of a sociopathic colleague (Ben Kingsley at the peak of his powers) who demands he do one more job for him. Through this lens of regret and fear and tension, director Jonathan Glazer also manages to deliver one of the most spectacular heist setpieces of all time, as a crew breaks into a vault by drilling through the wall of a filled swimming pool.

18. Ocean's Eleven (2001)

Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors who feels as much like a perpetual student of film as he is a filmmaker, so it makes sense that if he was going to make a star-filled heist film on the scale of Ocean's Eleven, he'd try to make the ultimate heist movie. While the sheer amount of stuff going on in Ocean's Eleven might mean it doesn't always succeed in certain respects like its heist cinema ancestors, the film still plays today as an endlessly entertaining, utterly stylish, and effortlessly witty take on the subgenre that has just about everything you could ever want in a heist film.

19. Inside Man (2006)

Spike Lee's Inside Man is a film that promised in its trailers to show us "the perfect bank robbery," and it hooks us immediately by throwing us right into things with very little prologue or sense of a plan. The plan for this perfect robbery is only revealed to the audience at the same speed as it's revealed to the NYPD detective (Denzel Washington) and the secretive fixer (Jodie Foster) who are watching it unfold from the outside as the robbery's mastermind (Clive Owen) moves forward with an agenda we can't see coming. Lee pushes the film at a breathless pace, delivering twist after twist with the grace of a master, until we finally see the whole game board.

20. The Town (2010)

What Heat was for Los Angeles, Ben Affleck's The Town is for Boston. Affleck clearly learned a lot of his tricks from Mann, but what's most striking about The Town—aside from its structural similarities to Heat—is the way that Affleck and company take that sensibility then twist it to defy our expectations. What starts with a gloriously tense opening robbery setpiece and builds to a big last job ultimately becomes a standoff not between a cop and a crook who respect each other, but between two best friends who are supposed to be on the same side, each longing for their own version of freedom.

21. Fast Five (2011)

The Fast & Furious films began as a solid street racing franchise before becoming globe-hopping action spectaculars that defy all laws of motion and speed. Fast Five is the pivot point between those two eras of the franchise, and the one that leans most heavily on heist movie conventions. As Dominic Toretto and his crew plot to steal a drug lord's safe and a relentless DSS agent (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, in his first appearance in the series) tries to bring them down, the film builds and builds in its ambition. By the end, a giant safe is racing through the streets of Rio, and from that daring heist on the franchise would never be the same.

22. Hell or High Water (2016)

There are a lot of films out there (Arthur Penn's brilliant Bonnie and Clyde among them) that stage a series of bank robberies in an effort to set up some kind of fiery last stand between the robbers and law enforcement, but few of them unfold with the intricacy of Hell or High Water. Chris Pine and Ben Foster shine as two brothers who've planned a high-stakes series of bank robberies, complete with a money-laundering scheme, to save their family's land. The plan is elegant in its simplicity, but grows increasingly complicated as a wise Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) closes in. It all builds to one of the most emotional climaxes of any film on this list.

23. Baby Driver (2017)

You'd think a film that's ostensibly about the getaway driver wouldn't necessarily lean as heavily on the heist elements, but Edgar Wright's clever car chase musical Baby Driver manages to find room for them in between all the driving. Wright's hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), is a young man who is gifted behind the wheel yet just wants to escape the criminal life. But what's supposed to be his last job puts him in deeper than he's ever been before. Come for the car chases, stay for the complexity of the setup and the fallout that heist movie fans crave.

24. Logan Lucky (2017)

Yes, Steven Soderbergh is on this list three times. And yes, he deserves it. After completing his Ocean's trilogy and playing in various other subgenres for a while, Soderbergh returned to heist pictures with this hilarious story of two brothers who try to turn their family's luck around by robbing Charlotte Motor Speedway in the middle of a busy race weekend. The accents alone—particular Daniel Craig's turn as an explosives expert named "Joe Bang"—are worth the price of admission, but the heist itself is also every bit as satisfying and intricate as anything Danny Ocean's crew ever pulled off.

25. Widows (2018)

After the success of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen could have made a lot of different movies. What he chose was a team-up with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to tell the story of a group of women driven to desperation after the deaths of their criminal husbands. Together they hatch a plan to rob a local corrupt politician based on an idea one of their husband's left behind, and in so doing find their own power. What's perhaps most striking about Widows is that it could have worked as a very straightforward heist film. In McQueen and Flynn's hands, though, it becomes a twist-filled ensemble drama about so much more than planning and executing a job.