Director Lewis Gilbert--who previously helmed Sink the Bismarck! (1960)--strikes a good balance between the personal drama and sweeping maritime adventure. Guinness successfully varies his firm-but-fair officer from The Bridge on the River Kwai, Bogarde is chillingly hateful, and Anthony Quayle gives strong support. --Gary S. Dalkin
The story begins prosaically enough with the Defiant setting off under the command of a man who has just brought his son in as a midshipman (a typical way for a son to follow his father into the navy; Nelson began by following a maternal uncle into the navy, albeit on another ship). We learn quickly enough that this voyage will not quite be what is intended. The first officer, played brilliantly by Dirk Bogarde, is a vicious but very well-connected man, who punishes harshly for the slightest offense (even an unintended one). The crew are on the point of mutiny, in what is intended to be a concerted action with the rest of the Mediterranean Fleet and the ships in British ports. A few sailors are reluctant to join the planned mutiny, but they are persuaded to join thanks to the harshness of the lieutenant and the lack of action taken by the captain. Is the captain weak? Not really. His choices are limited firstly by the system (whereby powerful enemies can ruin even a captain's career) and secondly by the fact that his son is made a pawn in a vicious game. Things take an unexpected turn, firstly when the captain gets his son off on a prize crew (a small crew commanding a captured enemy vessel, civilian or otherwise) and thus wrests back control from his first lieutenant; and secondly, when the captain is seriously injured.
The denouement comes rapidly. The crew mutinies, driven to desperation - but they must make a crucial choice when the French fleet comes out unexpectedly with fire ships (ships set aflame deliberately) and attacks the British ships still at anchor. Will the crew agree to let the captain take command back and fight off the French ships? Or will the crew choose to murder all the officers (or the most hated ones, at any rate) and take the ship where they will? Watch the film for the dramatic if slightly unrealistic conclusion. This film is particularly recommended for an unflinching portrayal of the harshness of naval discipline (with back-breaking lashes for even the slightest gesture of insubordination or resistance) and for the realistic portrayal of naval actions. The principal roles are played by Alec Guinness (the captain) and Dirk Bogarde (the first lieutenant). The film, incidentally, was directed by John Brabourne (7th Baron Brabourne), a son-in-law of Admiral The Earl Mountbatten of Burma. The DVD appears to have no special features, and the sound and picture quality is said to be only average. I wish that a special edition widescreen DVD was available with documentaries about the naval aspects of the Napoleonic wars, the British navy in the late 1700s, and finally, some information about the great naval mutinies at Spitshead and Nore.
For someone like me, who is just beginning to be fascinated by nautical fiction, this was a great film, better than even the Hornblower series and film (good as they are). If you are reading nautical fiction set in this era, this film is strongly recommended. There is no particular amazing feat of seamanship, merely a realistic depiction of hard choices made by men facing almost impossible consequences.
The storyline moves along smartly most of the time, and the acting is quite good. The special effects are very good--no "bathtub ships" or battles. Guiness does his customary excellent job in his role as captain, although I personally thought he might have exerted more personal force than he did; his leadership style as portrayed in the film is somewhat understated. Bogarde is excellent as the villainous first lieutenant--you'll hate him by the end of the movie.
This is a fine movie worth watching more than once.
"There aren't a lot of movies about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic... Read more