Thoughts on Films #1 – Damn the Defiant!

One of my favourite things to do if I’m home on a day off is to catch the old films on BBC2 or Channel 4, particularly if they are action films. On Monday I was looking for something to have on the TV while pottering doing the washing, cleaning and so forth, and Channel 4 was ten minutes into this film. As soon as I turned it on and saw Alex Guinness as captain of an 18th Century Royal Navy ship I knew I wouldn’t be getting any chores done.

Despite being set on a warship during the war between Britain and France, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a war movie. The real story is the tension on the ship itself, the battle of wills between the mild-mannered Captain, the new discipline-focussed Lieutenant, and the hard-working crew. Only occasionally does the war intervene.

Guinness’ older Captain runs a stern but ‘happy’ ship (‘happy’.. all things are relative), and the crew reward him with respect and hard work. In comes Bogarde’s career-minded Lieutenant with connections in London and a mind for working the crew hard and clamping down on even the slightest misdemeanor with the harshest of punishments. As the Lt. starts undermining the Captain’s orders, the crew start making their own plans to petition against such treatment.

In some ways it is a bit like Crimson Tide. Tension magnified by the confines of a boat, a clash of wills, the future at stake. However this time it isn’t the younger officer you find yourself rooting for.

Obviously I’m not going to tell you how it ends, especially with a film you might not have heard about before now. I’m not always the first to spot the direction of a plot and in this one I had no idea which way it would turn. Then suddenly the French Navy would show up!

The real eye-opener is the portrayal of working conditions on naval ships of the day. Not only were minor rule violations reprimanded with corporal punishment, multiple lashings on deck with the entire crew made to gather around to watch (to a drumbeat.. presumably to mask the cries of pain), but also boys in their mid-teens were put on ships as messengers and lookouts – and should they get into trouble they’d be up for a beating too. You’d think the Royal Navy would be above such things. It isn’t a brutal film though, if it had been filmed today you can imagine the scenes but in a film of this era it is more tastefully handled.

As for the production itself, a couple of the sets looked dated but that is to be expected for a 50-year old film. The main set of the ship’s topside was very well done, particularly the shots from high up in the rigging where you got a sense of how small the boat really was compared to a modern warship. The battle scenes were filmed with models, obviously you can’t go around building big wooden ships, you could tell they were models but I’ve seen a lot of films using models at sea and this was one of the better ones. You could happily suspends your disbelief enough for it not to matter. If a new film did that I’d slaughter it but not one from 1962.

The actual pacing and execution of the story is very well done and that is very much the most important thing. Worth watching.

Name: Damn The Defiant! (per IMDB also known as H.M.S Defiant)
Year: 1962
Runtime: 101 minutes (+ ads on TV)
IMDB link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055884/
Actors: Alec Guinness, Dirk Bogarde, Nigel Stock, Anthony Quayle, etc.
Director: Lewis Gilbert

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