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Outstanding depiction of life in the British navy circa 1797
on May 2, 2002
This fictionalized story of a mutiny on HMS Defiant, commanded by a captain burdened with a vicious first lieutenant, is worth seeing if you like nautical fiction in general, or are a lover of novels by Patrick O'Brian or C.S. Forester. It is not easy watching, although there is no deliberate crudity (this is an old film for one thing).
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.