H. M. S. Defiant (Damn the Defiant!) (1962) 

 

 

 

Director:     Lewis Gilbert.

Starring:     Alec Guinness (Captain Crawford), Dirk Bogarde (Lieut. Scott-Padget), Maurice Denham (Mr. Goss, Ship's Surgeon), Nigel Stock (Senior Midshipman Kilpatrick), Richard Carpenter (Lieut. Ponsonby), Peter Gill (Lieut. D'Arblay), David Robinson (Harvey Crawford), Robin Stewart (Pardoe), Ray Brooks (Hayes), Peter Greenspan (Johnson), Anthony Quayle (Vizard), Tom Bell (Evans), Murray Melvin (Wagstaffe), Victor Maddern (Dawlish), Bryan Pringle (Sgt. Kneebone).

based on the Spithead and Nore mutinies, in the form of strikes for better pay and conditions, by sailors of the Royal Navy in 1797 during war with the French Revolutionary government

 

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Spithead, England, 1797.  Captain Crawford is coming ashore.  He tells Lt. Scott-Padget that he will be returning to the Defiant in three hours time.  Coming ashore with him is the press gang.  When ships were short of men for a voyage, the press gang would go out, find men in pubs and many other places, knock them over the head and row them out to the ship.  The lieutenant is leading the press gang.  The Defiant is about two dozen sailors short of a crew.  Captain Crawford speaks with a superior officer.  He says that the situation in the navy is rough on the sailors:  "The lower deck's like a prison.  No freedom, irregular pay and food that even rats won't touch."  Crawford is given his orders.  He will sail to the island of Corsica to report to Admiral Jarvis. 

Crawford's superior is about to warn him about Lt. Scott-Padget, but Crawford asks him not to tell him.  He would rather make up his own mind about his new lieutenant. 

A woman begs the lieutenant not to take her husband of only a few days away from her.  But he just says:  "Bring him along."

The pub is really busy tonight.  But in the cellar serious matters are being discussed.  Two representatives from the Defiant come to a meeting discussing how to get better conditions for sailors aboard ship.  One of the representatives is Vizard and he tells the men that tomorrow they sail for Corsica.  One of the mutiny leaders says that when they are ready every ship in the channel fleet will mutiny.  Another member from the Defiant says they have gotten pledges from more than half of the ship's crew. 

Little Harvey Crawford desperately wants to go to sea.  His mother says Harvey must have the permission of the admiral first before he goes to sea.  When father returns he has good news.  The admiral has approved of Harvey's coming aboard the Defiant.  After saying their goodbyes, father and son head for the Defiant.  The journey could be more than a year in length.  Harvey's position will be that of a midshipman. 

On the boat Senior Midshipman Kilpatrick takes Harvey down below to introduce him to his mess mates.  The atmosphere below deck is perhaps even more rowdy than that found in the local pub.  The men are celebrating with wine, women and song.  Below the lower deck is where the pressed men are kept. 

The women are put ashore and the pressed men are called up on deck for inspection by the captain.  A pressed man named Wagstaffe objects that he was wrongly pressed.  The lieutenant questions him and finds, as he thought, the man is a fraud.  Captain Crawford has to scold Scott-Padget for turning his back on the captain.  He says that unless the captain dismisses him, his duty is to stay with the captain.  Now he tells Mr. Dawlish:  "Read these men the Articles of War, they are compulsorily enlisted."

The ship's sails are unfurled and the Defiant heads for Corsica.  Wagstaffe has to climb the riggings, but he is scared of heights and hesitates as he goes up.  He gets yelled at not to look down!  The guys are pushed hard.  One of them falls from the riggings and breaks a leg.  The captain tells the lieutenant:  "That'll be enough drill for today." 

The ship's surgeon. Mr. Goss, tells the captain that he may have to amputate the broken leg of the sailor who fell today.  He also warns Captain Crawford about the lieutenant.  He is the son of a mistress of a very important person in England and has a lot of influence in high places.  The surgeon says he served with the lieutenant before and one sailor was killed under punishment.  He also implies that the lieutenant got rid of the captain as he had gotten rid of the captain before him. 

The lieutenant comes to eat dinner with the captain.  Crawford has to be careful with this influential man, who likes to backtalk to his captains.  He is going to have to be a good diplomat.  The lieutenant is way too harsh on the men. 

During gunnery practice, a young sailor jumps back from the cannon recoil and runs into the lieutenant. Scott-Padget pushes the man back toward the canon and the fellow automatically puts up his dukes to fight whoever pushed him.  He realizes that it's the lieutenant who pushed him and tries to make amends for it, but the lieutenant gives the order to give this sailor six dozen lashes for threatening to strike an officer.

The captain speaks to the sailor, Wheatley, and lets him explain what happened.  Crawford reduces the punishment from six dozen to two dozen lashes.  This makes Scott-Padget angry.  The captain calmly tells the lieutenant:  "It was not your decision to make."

All hands on deck to witness the punishment.  Harvey nearly passes out watching the 24 lashes being delivered to Wheatley's back.  When Wheatley is released he quickly collapses onto the deck. 

Below deck Mr. Dawlish pledges to support the mutiny even to the laying down of his life. 

They are approaching Gibraltar.  Scott-Padget tells the captain that the news is that Napoleon is overrunning Italy.   He suggests they stop at Gibraltar to pick up fresh supplies.  The captain reminds him that the orders are for them to go directly to Corsica with no stops.  The captain goes to his cabin.  Scott-Padget comes into the captain's cabin saying they should turn around immediately and stop at Gibraltar.  He says they may be sailing into a trap.  Admiral Jarvis may not even be at Corsica any longer.  The captain keeps reminding the lieutenant that their jobs are to follow their orders.  Scott-Padget loudly says:  "Whatever the consequences!"  The captain remains silent. 

Scott-Padget turns to leave but then threatens the captain hinting that there may be bad consequences for him if sailing to Corsica ends badly.  The captain becomes furious and says:  "I will say this to you only once, sir.  I will not be bullied or threatened and I intend to be obeyed.  Your friends in London mean nothing to me.  I assure you that while you serve in this ship, they will mean absolutely nothing to you.  You can go now."

Scott-Padget is very angry and when he hears the name of Midshipman Crawford called out, he seems to be thinking an evil thought.  If he can't punish the captain directly, he can punish him indirectly by abusing his son. 

Below deck the plotting of the mutiny continues.  A man named Vizard objects to calling what will happen a mutiny.  Rather it's an action of protest against the current terrible conditions under which the sailors serve.  If one ship is taken, it's mutiny, but if the whole fleet is taken, the navy can't punish every man in the fleet. 

Scott-Padget speaks to Senior Midshipman Kilpatrick and says he will use his influence to help Kilpatrick become an officer if he will show some officer loyalty to a particular officer.  While Scott-Padget says this he is busy carving into the the table two initials.  These are the initials of HC (Harvey Crawford).  Kilpatrick says he sees what the lieutenant is driving at.  Scott-Padget tells him that Midshipman Crawford must get into some kind of mischief and when he does, he is to be punished.  Kilpatrick sees the initials.

Kilpatrick accuses Crawford of carving the initials into the table.  Crawford is soon leaning over a cannon being hit with a thin, wooden rod.  The captain hears this and says it sounds like someone is going overboard on the punishment of someone.  He walks into the room to find his son being struck on his behind.  The captain said he would show no favoritism toward his son, so he walks away from the incident without saying anything. 

The captain realizes that Scott-Padget has countermanded one of his decisions.  He sends the lieutenant down below and tells him not to come on deck again until he says he can come up.  The sailors have taken notice of this and one man asks why the captain doesn't do something to stop this?  Another sailor says basically that the captain can't do anything about it because he's afraid of Scott-Padget.

Crawford has received a beating every day for a week.  He is so weakened that when he climbs up the rigging, he almost falls.  Vizard goes up to help the boy down.  Back on deck Harvey looks over at his father, whose face remains emotionless.  So Harvey goes about his duties.  The captain acknowledges Vizard for his gratefulness for Vizard helping his son. 

Below deck the sailors are asking can't the captain see what's going on?  The men start thinking that Scott-Padget will be the actual captain of this voyage.  One of the sailors, Evans, really hates Scott-Padget and he suggests that they knife Scott-Padget and throw him over board.  Vizard says they're not after one man.  They are after the whole fleet.  Their cause will be lost if they kill even one officer aboard this ship, 

The ship's surgeon notices the abuse Midshipman Crawford is being subjected to and he doesn't like it.  The surgeon is a bit drunk when he goes to tell the captain about what's happening to his son.  He even says the men are starting to think that the captain . . .  He hesitates to finish the sentence.  Harvey reports to the captain that Scott-Padget wants him to come and see something.  The captain says that the midshipman should be in sick bay.  Harvey definitely does not want to take that option.  The captain goes to see the lieutenant. 

The captain feels like having the lieutenant beaten and then thrown in irons.  But, instead, he just asks the lieutenant what he wants?  He wants to be allowed back on deck.  The captain says he wants the boy to be left alone.  But now the captain gives into the lieutenant and allows him to return to duty with no further punishments.  This, obviously, will strengthen the lieutenant's hand and further wreck the captain's reputation among the sailors and marines. 

The captain further damages himself by confronting the lieutenant in front of the whole crew about disobeying a direct order to proceed at full sail, but then just turning and letting it slide after Scott-Padget says he deemed it inadvisable. 

Vizard and Evans now tellsthe reluctant, educated Wagstaffe that he will take the oath that virtually everyone has taken and he will help them write their petition of grievances and demands.  Wagstaffe watches the dictator Scott-Padget abuse his power.  He then tells Vizard that he will sign the oath.  And still another man is flogged. 

The sailors have a rehearsal of the take-over of the ship.  Scott-Padget may not notice, but the captain surely does.  He mentions to the lieutenant about strange things happening among the crew, but Scott-Padget says he doesn't know what the captain is talking about. 

As the ship approaches Corsica the sailors are disappointed to see that there's not another British ship in the harbor.  Scott-Padget requests that they turn around and head back to Gibraltar, like he originally said.   The captain seems to agree to this. 

The captain has the whole crew mustered on deck to talk with them.  He now explains that they are to escort a number of timber ships from the far side of Italy to England.  The captain now tells the sailors that they will head to the rendezvous point and if the timber ships are there, they will escort them to England regardless of what the French or Spanish try to do to them.  A big cheer goes up from the crew, but Scott-Padget just scowls.  The captain turns around and says to Scott-Padget:  "Italy, Mr. Scott-Padget."

Harvey spots two ships headed toward them, a frigate and a merchantman, both French.  The order goes out:  "Beat to quarters!"  The drums are beaten and the men man the cannons. 

The French open fire first and some of the gunners are wounded.  The English fire back.  The captain orders the gunners to aim for the mast and the next blast knocks one of the masts down.  The ships are now very close to each other.  Captain Crawford tells Scott-Padget to take over the boarding party.  As the ships get very close, Scott-Padget orders the party to board the French ship.    A little later the captain orders the gunners to board the French ship.  The gunners respond immediately.  And, finally, it's:  "Marines board!"  This last move does the trick.  The French ship strikes her colors. 

Scott-Padget urges the captain not to continue on to the far side of Italy.  He feels certain that the English fleet is on the Atlantic Ocean and the French will be laying in wait for the Defiant.   The captain insists that Scott-Padget follow his orders.  Whenever Scott-Padget gets angry he takes it out on others.  He is busying hitting the sailors with a rope's end and telling them to hurry it up.  The captain calls him up and tells him that he told him before that:  "I'll have no officer carrying or using a rope's end."  He now suspends Scott-Padget for the remainder of this watch for disobeying an order.   "From now on I'll take steps that will astound you."  Scott-Padget talks back once again, so the captain says that when Scott-Padget returns to deck he will keep watch four hours on and four hours off, day and night.  Now the lieutenant starts to sweet talk the captain, who in turn gives Scott-Padget still another punishment. 

Another frigate is spotted and the gunner sman the cannons.  The Defiant gets very close to the frigate.  The captain calls for the ship to identify itself, but it's all a trick.  The unknown vessel opens fire on the Defiant.  The captain is wounded in the arm and has to be taken down below.  When he awakens he hears French voices and wonders if the Defiant has been captured by the French.  The surgeon tells him it's the other way around.  The captain now calls for Scott-Padget, who informs Crawford that a dozen or so of their crew were killed with about 60 men wounded.  The French ship sank, but before it did they got a lot of contraband from her.  But the biggest prize is Colonel Giraud, a political advisor to Napoleon.  And the colonel knows of plans for the invasion of England within the next few weeks.  The captain now tells Scott-Padget:  "You've done extremely well."  He adds ". . . This crew serves well, if you don't drive them too hard."   This is Scott-Padget 's first conversation with the captain without a lot of back talk. 

Scott-Padget gives Evans two dozen lashes just for looking at him in an angry way.  The captain tries to get up saying that he authorized no flogging, but he is too weak to get up.  The punishment is over, but Evans now threatens Scott-Padget:  "Enjoy yourself?  You won't for long!  I'll have your throat out, you bloody swine!"  Scott-Padget gives the man two dozen more lashes. 

Evans is angry about the bread being filled with red worms.  He throws his piece on the floor.  Kilpatrick is there and he tells Evans that this is a flogging offense.  He then tells Evans to pick up the bread and eat it, worms and all.  Evans gets so mad that he attacks Kilpatrick.  This, in turn, puts a real mutiny into action.  The men slowly go up on deck to take their positions.  Vizard tells them to wait for the cheer. 

The surgeon has to operate on the arm of the captain.  Two men help holding the captain down. 

The sailors arm themselves with pistols.  The cheer is shouted out and the sailors and marines immediately grab all the officers. 

The captain has a talk with Vizard.  He tells them that they have the French plans for an invasion of England.  Their French prisoner knows much more than he's saying and he will have to be questioned further.  The Frenchman will have to be handed over to Admiral Jackson who is in command of the squadron blockading Rochefort.  Vizard says they can't do that.  They will all be hanged.  The captain says he can't promise Vizard anything for the Admiralty does not encourage mutiny.  Vizard says this was not to happen like it went down.  He hands the captain the petition. 

Vizard thinks about it and decides to sail for Rochefort.  He only asks the captain if he will stand by them in court?  The captain says he will do his best for them. 

When Evans hears the news, he is not pleased at all, and walks away from the men.  Vizard has a marine follow Evans, because:  "All our lives depend on this." 

They reach Rochefort and the English ships.  Vizard goes to get the captain. 

A boat from the flagship comes alongside the Defiant and a couple of men come aboard.  With them is none other than Midshipman Crawford.  The men from the flagship want to give the captain a message.  Vizard takes the message from them.  He is thrilled when he reads the message.  "They've done it at Spithead!  The fleet mutinied!"  Pardons will be available for all.  The crew gives a big cheer at the news. 

The officers and midshipmen are released.  They all come up on deck.  And, of course, Scott-Padget threatens retribution on the crew and the captain.  So, the captain puts the man under arrest.  Evans uses the opportunity to throw a knife into Scott-Padget's chest. Vizard is furious at Evans.  He strangles Evans and throws him overboard. 

Vizard now gives the order to bring up the anchor and set sail.  As they start moving away from Rochefort, they hear cannon fire.  Vizard tells the lookout to sound off!  He says the French are attacking the English ships!

Vizard now turns the ship back over to the captain.  The captain tells the crew that they are going to sink that fire ship set out by the French.  "Beat to quarters!"  They get the Defiant into position and they fire on the French fire ship.  Soon the captain has his men throw grappling irons onto the fire ship's deck.  They pull the fire ship away from the flagship and then sink the fire ship with their cannon. 

Now the flagship can concentrate on sinking the French ships.  A cannon ball hits the ship and wounds Vizard.  A message comes from the flagship:  "Thank you. Defiant, for swift and honorable action."  Vizard says:  "No mutineers onboard this ship now, sir."  He dies.  The captain drapes his coat over Vizard's body. 

The captain now says they will join the squadron.  His son hands him his cap.  Dad puts his left hand on his son's shoulder. 

 

Good film  There is some history here.  It's the Napoleonic war and the British ship the Defiant is out to sink any French ships in their way.  At the same time the film is about a large-scale labor action against the British navy.  This puts the sailors in a bad position because they need to keep their patriotic feelings heated up to fight French ships, while at the same time they are planning what the Admiralty will undoubtedly call a mutiny.  And for the sailors it's a constant fight between duty to country and duty to themselves and their poor families back home.  Thanks to the trusting relationship between labor leader Vizard and Captain Crawford, things never really blow up in the faces of both leaders.  Life on board ship is shown in all it's nasty details for the sailors, some of which are only boys. 

Acting by Alec Guinness (as Captain Crawford) and Dirk Bogarde (as Lieut. Scott-Padget) is very good.  Bogarde was good as the spoiled rotten opportunist who is way too often a sadist to the poor sailors. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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