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Damn the Defiant!

Damn the Defiant!(1962)

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teaser Damn the Defiant! (1962)

In his study of the British film industry, A Mirror for England (Faber and Faber, 1971), Raymond Durgnat notes that the true story of the 1789 mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty was never filmed in England but was filmed twice in America, in 1935 and 1962. (It was remade again, after Durgnat's book was published, as The Bounty, [1984], by an Australian director (Roger Donaldson) and star (Mel Gibson) for Italian producer (Dino De Laurentiis), albeit with a script by British scenarist Robert Bolt.) The reason, Durgnat presumed, was that it concerned a successful mutiny. This was a situation the British, whose Royal Navy was famously beset by uprisings within the ranks, would prefer to ignore or downplay in history or in the cinema. He does observe, however, that Damn the Defiant! (1962) and another in production around the same time, Peter Ustinov's Billy Budd (1962), were in many ways conciliatory at least towards the idea of mutiny.

Ultimately, however, the insurrection presented in Damn the Defiant! (originally released in England as H.M.S. Defiant) is depicted less as a just fight against systemic corruption than as a reaction to an evil, aberrant officer in stark opposition to a benevolent commander with his crew's best interests at heart. The brutal treatment inflicted on the crew by sadistic Lt. Scott-Padget goes unnoticed by Capt. Crawford until the captain's own midshipman son is viciously punished by the second in command. The resolution comes not from Crawford's intervention or the official administration of justice on behalf of the men below deck but through the actions of a "bad" mutineer, and at the end, the singular threat to their well-being removed, the men patriotically unite in the service of defeating the French Navy. "It no more challenges constituted authority than those public school stories about a good house-master and brutal prefects," Durgnat notes.

Nevertheless, the audience was treated to the kind of rousing drama one expects from tales of the tall ships, "the kind of graphic splendor that should set a million boyish hearts aflame," as Bosley Crowther put it in his New York Times review. And the perennial struggle of good against evil is brought richly to life by a first-rate cast. Alec Guinness, as Crawford, was by this point three years into the honorary knighthood bestowed upon him by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to British arts and acting, among them an Oscar® and a BAFTA Award as Best Actor in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and memorable work in a succession of acclaimed Ealing Studios comedies. His co-star, Dirk Bogarde, had recently broken through to stardom with critically praised performances as the lead in A Tale of Two Cities (1958) and as a gay man taking on blackmailers in the groundbreaking drama, Victim (1961). The menace he projects here as Scott-Padget would serve him well a short time later as a conniving valet who takes over his employer's life in The Servant (1963). Also noteworthy, as the leader of the mutiny, is Anthony Quayle, an award-winning stage star renowned for his Shakespearean performances.

The story, while not based on a specific true incident, takes place during the time of the real-life mutinies at Spithead and Nore, uprisings that were a threat to the national security of Great Britain, then at war with the Revolutionary government of France. Those incidents, which involved a great many ships, were not based solely on individual acts of brutality but on a number of unfair and harmful practices and policies of the Royal Navy. Not all of the mutineers' demands were met, but fearing the unrest could lead to a widespread rebellion similar to the French Revolution, a negotiation was reached for better pay, the removal of unpopular officers, and pardons for mutineers; in the more contentious Nore incident, some leaders of the mutiny were hanged, flogged, or sent to Australia.

Damn the Defiant! was directed by Lewis Gilbert, no stranger to seafaring tales. He had directed films about the rescue of a bomber crew shot down over the ocean in The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954) and the hunt for a notorious German warship, Sink the Bismarck! (1960). He also directed one of many adaptations of J.M. Barrie's comedy of class conflict following a shipwreck, The Admirable Crichton (1957) and he went on to helm a handful of James Bond adventures (You Only Live Twice [1967], The Spy Who Loved Me [1977], Moonraker [1979]) the iconic Michael Caine movie Alfie (1966), and the comedies Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989).

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Producer: John Brabourne
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, Edmund H. North, based on the novel Mutiny by Frank Tilsley
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Art Direction: Arthur Lawson
Original Music: Clifton Parker
Cast: Alec Guinness (Capt. Crawford), Dirk Bogarde (Lt. Scott-Padget), Anthony Quayle (Vizard), Maurice Denham (Mr. Goss), Nigel Stock (Kilpatrick), Peter Gill (Lt. D'Arblay).
C-101m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon

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