Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Frankly, my defiant....

A few weeks back, TCM ran a night of movies set in the British navy of the Napoleonic war era. One that was new to me was Damn the Defiant! It's available on DVD, so I'm OK doing a full-length post on it.

The movie starts on shore in Spithead, England in 1797. There's a scene reminiscent of the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, with a press gang going around to all the local hangouts to get able-bodied men to serve aboard the British navy ships. Right away, you can understand why nobody would want to serve in a navy like that. But beyond that, we hear some of the people in a cellar already talking about a mutiny that's being planned for all the British ships in the Channel fleet.

One of those British ships is the HMS Defiant, captained by Capt. Crawford (Alec Guinness). He's got orders from the Admiralty, which involve going to the Mediterranean and meeting up with some ships there. His second-in-command, Lt. Scott-Padget (played by Dirk Bogarde and always referred to as Mr. Scott-Padget) is angling for a command of his own, not knowing that the men under his command are planning to take that away from both him and Crawford. Scott-Padget treats all the men terribly, with dozens of lashes for even minor offenses. Not only that, but Crawford's young son is serving in a junior capacity, and Scott-Padget treats him badly, too.

Meanwhile, there's a problem with the mission. Apparently, Napoleon's power in the Mediterranean has grown to the point that most of the British ships have left for the Atlantic, which means that Crawford's mission to rendezvous with a particular ship at a particular point isn't going to succeed: the ship has already left. Scott-Padget wants to change the mission, which could be a problem if the original mission turns out still to be feasible. But in the late 18th century with its limited communication, who knows?

Further complicating matters is that in the first skirmish with the French, the Defiant captures a French officer who claims that Napoleon is planning an invasion of England. (Bloody likely that is.) Will the involuntary sailors want to go on a mutiny if it makes it more likely that such an invasion will go ahead, hurting their families back home?

Damn the Defiant! is a movie that seem to me to cover a lot of the same ground as any of the other movies I've seen about that era of the British navy. And yet, the whole time it seemed to be doing what it did very well. I also found something interesting in the inversion from Mutiny on the Bounty of having the first officer be the martinet instead of the commander. Guinness and Bogarde are quite good, and the technical aspects are well-done too, with the possible minor quibble that I highly doubt British ships of that era were that well-lit. (But that's probably a problem with movies in general considering how much light they needed to shoot scenes.)

For anybody looking for a lesser-known movie about the navy in that era, I can highly recommend Damn the Defiant!

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