Damn the Defiant! isn’t the best naval action film out there however it’s definitely an under appreciated good film. That said, I have a weakness for the subject matter since I grew up on C. S. Forester’s Hornblower and Alexander Kent’s Captain Bolitho books (i.e Napoleonic era valiant British officers fighting the evil Frenchies!). Thus, Damn the Defiant! immediately strikes an intensely nostalgic nerve.
Dirk Bogarde (Mr. Scott-Padget) is as good as ever (still has a few years until his great film roles, The Servant, Accident, The Damned, and Death in Venice) and Alec Guinness (Captain Crawford) is unspectacular yet perfectly underplayed for the role. This is a very competent 1960s Napoleonic war movie. Recommended for those who enjoy naval battles! The high seas! Mutinies! But if you don’t, well, stay away!
Plot (limited spoilers)
Damn the Defiant! takes place in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars (by reference to the Spithead Mutinies the year 1797). Captain Crawford (a humane character) engages in a power struggle with his rebellious, sadistic, and well-connected second in command, Mr. Scott-Padget. Mr. Scott-Padget constantly questions Captain Crawford’s orders and eventually subjects Crawford’s son Harvey, a midshipman, to unnecessary in order to gain control over the Crawford.
Mr. Scott-Padget’s harsh treatment of the crew and general rumblings in the British fleet (that would culminate in the Spithead Mutinies) cause the crew to plan for a mutiny. However, in the Mediterranean, after the H. M. S Defiant captures a French vessel, the captain sends his son and another officer back on the prize ship removing Mr. Scott-Padgett’s means of leverage. In another battle with a Venetian vessel, vital information about a potential French invasion of England is captured from a French aid to Napoleon. However, the Captain is injured in the fight and Mr. Scott Padget takes command. The crew is goaded into mutiny!! Here my summary shall stop.
Damn the Defiant! is part action movie and part character study. Our hero is not a dashing young man — the dashing young man is actually the villain (Mr. Scott-Padget). The melding of the two genres works for the majority of the film. However, the final battle sequence is just too artificial and relies entirely on the action component of the film abandoning the interesting psychological aspects of the rest. In short, 90% of the film is very well-done while the final 10% is rather run of the mill.
My main problem with the film concerns the villainous Mr. Scott-Padget character. Although he has a sadistic streak, I’ve read enough about the navy at the time to say that the punishments he gives (and wants to give) aren’t that uncommon or out of line. I guess the main problem lies in the fact that the truly atrocious conditions the British navy suffered at this time isn’t understood by the audience and this the motives for the mutineers just don’t ring true. Sailors were always punished for hitting officers, for talking back at them, loitering… The film lacks the necessary gritty and disturbing realism needed for the plot to be effective (but it is 60s cinema…).
Despite its flaws, the film has some more effective Napoleonic naval battle sequences of anything made before Peter Wer’s recent film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The sequences are even more realistic than some of the battle sequences of the Hornblower TV where the ships’ sails are seldom filled with wind! Obviously the Hornblower TV movies have better plots and other merits lacking in this film. This is worth watching for the pure fact that Napoleonic War Naval movies are rare and hard to carry out. However, the film’s core (characters, basic story line, etc) ultimately is rather hollow and run of the mill.