Pocock Ships“Nelson’s Flagships at Anchor” by Nicholas Pocock (1807)

Last evening I watched a pretty good movie about life aboard a Royal Navy frigate during the Napoleonic Wars.  No, I haven’t had a sudden Road to Portsmouth conversion on the matter of  Russell Crowe’s Captain Aubrey.  Instead, it was  a 1962 film called Damn the Defiant  that I had stumbled across recently while flipping through the Netflix catalogue looking for Alec Guinness pictures.   

Guinness plays Captain Crawford, commander of the frigate Defiant, which is sent on a mission to the Med in 1797 just at the time the Spithead Mutiny is breaking out.  Captain Crawford is firm but humane.  His first officer Lt. Scott-Padget (played by Dirk Bogarde), however, is a sadist and a well-connected schemer.  The bulk of the plot centers around Scott-Padget’s efforts to undermine Crawford’s authority, while at the same time brutalizing the crew, who themselves are meanwhile working their way up to join in the general mutiny of the fleet.

All in all, I thought the movie did a very good job at exploring the microcosm of  one of HM’s ships at this period, and furthermore was able to do so without Russell Crowe’s 800-pound-gorilla ego getting in the way.  So far as I could tell, both the history and the period detail were pretty good (if not quite as “gritty” as current films), the dialogue wasn’t over the top, and even the battle scenes (there are a couple of them) were intelligently done.

The movie also does a pretty good job explaining the Spithead Mutiny, which I have always found to be a fascinating episode.  It wasn’t a mutiny in the Bounty or Hermione sense at all, or even a revolutionary movement a la the recent unpleasantness in France, but rayther something more closely akin to a general strike:  The Admiralty had been horribly inefficient and tight-fisted in its treatment of the sailors – there hadn’t been a pay raise in decades, for instance, and food and other supplies were very, very bad.  The sailors simply couldn’t take it any more, and so they organized.  But even at the height of the crisis, they maintained tight discipline aboard, did no harm to their officers (many of whom openly sympathized), and conducted their negotiations with the Admiralty calmly and reasonably.  And indeed, almost all of their demands were recognized as perfectly just, and duly granted.

Perhaps it would have made things too complicated, but the movie does a poorer job in dealing with the Nore Mutiny, which broke out about the same time.  This was a somewhat different affair, involving hotheads who did have revolutionary ideas, attempting to blockade London and threatening to sail their ships off to France.  Here, there was some brutal treatment of officers (as well as non-mutinying crews), too.  But the mutineers were badly organized and therefore much less efficient in keeping up their front.  So when the Admiralty settled with the Spithead people, the Nore Mutiny pretty much fizzled out.  And while nobody at Spithead suffered any punishment, a number of Nore leaders were hanged at the yardard, no doubt with the “Rogue’s March” being played by the fifers and drummers. 

Of course, all of this was played out with the threat of an invasion by That Napoleon hovering in the background.  I am reminded of what Earl St. Vincent said to the House of Lords in 1801, however:  “I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea.”