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Sunday 19 April 2009

HMS Defiant (1962)

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Stars: Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde

Given the American propensity for bowdlerising titles, it seems surprising that they'd retitle something as simple and inoffensive as HMS Defiant to something far more antagonistic: Damn the Defiant!, especially as that title really doesn't fit in the slightest. I presume it was a cultural thing: 'HMS' has a clear meaning to everyone in England (His or Her Majesty's Ship) but its meaning may not be obvious to an American audience. That makes this change perhaps more understandable than say, the dropping of the III from The Madness of King George III because test audiences couldn't understand why they hadn't heard of the first two films in the trilogy.

We're open in Spithead in 1797 where the Defiant has just docked and sparked a whole slew of action. New officer Lt Scott-Padget is out with the press gangs to fill out a couple of dozen spots on the crew. It's wartime and they have the right. However while they pull people out of one of the local inns, some of the existing crew are already there: in a downstairs room polishing secret plans to remedy the brutal conditions of men below decks in the King's fleet. They're aware that mutinies don't work, but mutinies are generally on one ship. This bunch are aiming for something fleet wide.

The ship's captain, Capt Crawford, is well aware of these conditions and doesn't like them either. He even speaks of them to his superior, though both know full well that the matter is for men further up the chain of command than them. The only man who doesn't seem to be aware of what goes on is young Midshipman Crawford, the 12 year old son of the captain who is about to set sail for the first time under his father's command. He's looking forward to the experience.

And pretty quickly off go the women, in come the pigs and HMS Defiant prepares for sailing. Now, you may expect from the setup that we'd be looking at a straight mutiny story, especially with so many men pressed into service but this is far from that simple. Capt Crawford is no dictator, in fact he seems to be a pretty able and fair captain and the men below decks don't have a grievance with him personally. Their grievance is at a higher level, and it provides us with a suspenseful subplot rather than the focus of our story.

The focus is on a personification of this conflict, in the forms of Capt Crawford and Lt Scott-Paget. The latter is a hard ass of the old school, intelligent and able but vicious and in full belief that he's always right. However what makes him a truly dangerous opponent is that he has contacts back home in England in high places, and his last two captains have fallen prey to his machinations. Capt Crawford is next on his list and he doesn't hold back, using young Midshipman Crawford as the core of his attack.

Given that the captain is played by Alec Guinness and his lieutenant by Dirk Bogarde, it's obvious we're in for some powerful acting. What surprises most is how good Bogarde is as a heel, overtly ambitious and subtly vicious. I'm used to him in far less meaty roles that don't give him the opportunities that this role does, and he does a solid job, never taking the easy way out and becoming a scene stealing sadist. The verbal and politically sparring that this pair run through is tense, building stuff and it's a pleasure to watch, the acting and the script working well together. Guinness has the precise talent to make the captain someone to inspire.

This verbal battle plays havoc with the subplot. The concept of a mutiny or even just support for a petition to the Admiralty is easy to propagate when there's a firm hand crushing them down. Every time Lt Scott-Padget has the upper hand, the cry for mutiny grows, but every time the Captain has his power in check, it wanes again. Of course it all has to come to a head, but it's not clear just how that's going to come about, especially with Anthony Quayle doing a powerful job as Vizard, the leader of the complainants.

Luckily the script is in as good hands as the lead characters. It's based on a novel by Frank Tilsley, who I don't know from Adam but was adapted by Edmund H North and Nigel Kneale. North had written the screenplay for The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 and was experienced with sea stories having written Sink the Bismarck! two years before this film. Maybe the similarity in titles to that film is the reason for the American retitle. Kneale I grew up watching, as the creator of Prof Quatermass and the writer of other films and TV shows. Both are huge talents and they did good work here.

There's not a lot of downside to comment on. Some of the special effects are dated, but they're hardly poor. Complaining about them would seem about as valid as complaining about how hard it was to see in the fog scenes. I loved the hiss of hot cannonballs on water but couldn't ignore the way that knives didn't do too well at actually piercing human flesh. The ships look good, though to be fair I don't know enough about wooden ships of war to really comment. There are people who know this stuff backwards and may well find plenty to complain about. I just saw ships that looked and moved like ships.

It isn't the best Alec Guinness I've seen (he made it during a two month gap in filming Lawrence of Arabia, so may not have had anywhere near the preparation time he might have liked) and it isn't the best seafaring yarn I've seen, but it does precisely what it set out to do and it does it well.

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