Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Damn the Defiant!"

Boy, I just loved this film.

Forty years before "Master and Commander," "Damn the Defiant!" is a rousing sea adventure with wonderfully staged ship-to-ship battles, and an engrossing dramatic storyline.

Based on the novel "Mutiny" by author Frank Tilsley, the film was called "H.M.S. Defiant" in its native Britain and everywhere else, but given a livlier title for the U.S. release. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert, a little-known name who directed several James Bond flicks, the original "Alfie" and "Educating Rita."

The main conflict is between Captain Crawford, wonderfully played by Alec Guinness, and his first officer, Lt. Scott-Padget (Dirk Bogarde). Crawford is a seasoned naval officer who believes in being humane to his crew, but is not above the severe treatment common during British Navy at the tail end of the 18th century -- such as flogging, and pressing civilians into service against their will. As the story opens, the Defiant is about to leave port a few dozen men short of a full crew, so a press gang is sent out to the streets and taverns to literally beat candidates into submission.

Still, Crawford is the sort of captain who believes in inspiring rather than subjugating a crew.

Contrastingly, Scott-Padget is a brilliant young officer, but believes sparing the rod spoils a crew. He has connections in high places in London, and Crawford learns that he has had his last two captains "broken" -- i.e., their careers ruined. Crawford is determined not to let it happen again.

Unfortunately, the conniving lieutenant has a vulnerable point with which to exploit his captain -- Crawford's son, who is on his first voyage aboard the Defiant as a midshipmen. It's one of the more interesting aspects of this period of history, when young boys could serve aboard warships, and even command grown men into battle.

Scott-Padget begins a campaign of targeting young Crawford for punishment, having him beaten for minor infractions and even inventing ones, such as carving the boy's initials into a table himself and then blaming the lad for it. At one point the boy nearly collapses from pain while high up in the rigging -- likely a fatal fall. Captain Crawford, intent on not showing favoritism toward his son, seems helpless against Scott-Padget's bold ploy to grab the upper hand in their contest of wills.

Observing all this is the crew, who have a scheme of their own to mutiny at a critical juncture in the British Navy's war against Napoleon's France. A large number of crews have made plans to simultaneously grab control of their ships and present demands for better pay and treatment. This is based on an actual incident in 1797 called the Spithead Mutiny, in which 16 crews staged something more like a strike than a violent mutiny. No one was killed, and most of their demands for better treatment were met.

Anthony Quayle plays Vizard, the ringleader of the Defiant crew, who must vie to keep in check the more vengeful members of his group, who want to see the hated Scott-Padget hauled up on a yardarm. If any officers are harmed, it makes it much more unlikely that the mutiny will end peacefully.

Interestingly, the smarter crew members point out that the hard-driving lieutenant actually helps their cause by invoking such harsh punishments for minor offenses. It's harder to make a case for ill treatment if it were only the benevolent Captain Crawford running the show.

With its blend of exciting action, flawless period costumes and settings, and the tense psychological warfare between captain and first mate, "Damn the Defiant" is a thrilling and sobering sea drama. I'm glad I discovered it.

4 stars out of four

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