“We shall be there too, sir, with a fresh crew ready and anxious to serve.”
In the early 1960s, Columbia apparently felt it was being somewhat left out of the maritime sweepstakes even though it had The Guns of Navarone (1961), which had a naval slant to it, in production. Sink the Bismarck! (1960, Britain) had been quite successful worldwide and looming on the horizon, so to speak, were Billy Budd (1962, Britain) with Peter Ustinov and Robert Ryan, and the Marlon Brando remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962, MGM). Obviously, a naval theme was in! So Columbia turned to a novel by Frank Tilsey called “Mutiny” which drew upon actual events of 1797 in which a British fleet-wide uprising led to much needed reforms of shipboard conditions. The initial screenplay was called “The Mutineers,” but by the time the film was shot in the latter part of 1961 and then released in 1962, it had been retitled Damn the Defiant! (H.M.S. Defiant in its British release).
Columbia has now released Damn the Defiant! on DVD as part of its Columbia Classics series.
Captain Crawford, the humane commander of the British warship H.M.S. Defiant, is ordered to proceed from Britain to the coast of Italy where his ship is to rendezvous with other ships of the navy to escort a convoy of merchant ships to Britain. Crawford has first-mate Scott-Padget to deal with, however. Scott-Padget’s approach is a brutal one in all his dealings with the crew, but he also runs increasingly afoul of Crawford due to his frequent failure to carry out Crawford’s orders. In order to get at Crawford, he coerces one of the midshipmen into disciplining, severely and unfairly, Crawford’s young son who is aboard as a novice on his first posting.
Meanwhile the crew, led by angry seaman Vizard, is part of a fleet-wide plan to seize control of all ships and force improved living and working conditions on board. Despite the provocations of Scott-Padget’s brutality, they bide their time.
During a clash with a French warship, Crawford is wounded and Scott-Padget takes over command. With control firmly and even more brutally now in Scott-Padget’s hands, the crew finally mutinies. Crawford, however, with the lure of a mutiny pardon, is able to persuade Vizard to have the ship join the rest of the British fleet in order to help fight against France’s planned invasion of England. But Scott-Padget is killed by one of the crew, putting this whole plan in jeopardy.
For those who like naval stories, Damn the Defiant! is a fairly entertaining yarn. It’s a variation on the standard “Mutiny on the Bounty”-type tale with this time the captain being the sympathetic character and the first mate the heavy. There’s a bit of a twist in how the mutiny turns out, otherwise the film proceeds much as one might expect.
Direction is by Lewis Gilbert who had a fair bit of experience with this sort of fare. Previous British maritime films directed by him included: Albert RN (1953), The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954), and Sink the Bismarck (1960). Gilbert was apparently quite intent on historical accuracy, so for Damn the Defiant!, the cast traveled south off the coast of Spain where location shooting proceeded using full-scale replicas of British and French warships. The two sequences in the film involving attacks of one ship upon another are handled very effectively by Gilbert. They are crisply edited and convey a real sense of how one imagines such encounters might proceed. Gilbert chooses to play out the final battle involving a fire-ship in foggy conditions which reduce the clarity of what’s going on at times, but on the other hand the fog does enhance the atmosphere of the whole encounter substantially.
The two lead actors are Alec Guinness who plays Crawford and Dirk Bogarde who plays Scott-Padget. Both are fairly believable in their roles although one gets the impression that their hearts aren’t really quite in it. Alec Guinness was at the height of his film career at this time, just a few years removed from his Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, Columbia) and soon to appear in Lawrence of Arabia (1962, Columbia). He had just completed a rather questionable role as a Japanese widower in A Majority of One (1961, WB), so his casting in Damn the Defiant! seemed at least a little more appropriate for him. His Captain Crawford role called for a humane approach, but even given that, one wishes at times he’s really let go and have Crawford deal with Scott-Padget even more decisively than he does.
Dirk Bogarde never attained the reputation that Guinness had, but he had an interesting career first in lightweight British comedies and dramas in the late 1940s and early 1950s, graduating then to more serious roles in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and finally achieving international recognition for an interesting mix of character pieces thereafter. As Scott-Padget, Bogarde certainly succeeds in conveying convincingly both the character’s brutality and air of superiority, but there’s little attempt at giving any shading to his role. In a judgment that is a little harsher than I think the film warrants, Bogarde later commented: “I was shortly bobbing about off the coast of Spain in a three-masted schooner, being beastly to my crew and ordering everyone in sight to submit to the cat-o’-nine-tails, while Alec Guinness slapped his thigh from time to time in a grey wig which looked remarkably like a tea cosy. It was not a very distinguished affair, and apart from the enormous pleasure of being with Alec, a patient and generous actor if ever there was one, it was nothing, I think, which either of us greatly enjoyed. But it brought in a little loot.”
One actor who gives a rather enjoyable performance is Anthony Quayle, who plays Vizard. Quayle had a sort of everyman air about him that translated itself on the screen into believable, usually sympathetic portrayals of characters who often didn’t make it to the end credits alive. So it was in Damn the Defiant!. Quayle had featured roles in a number of action pictures of the time. Two particularly memorable ones were in Ice Cold in Alex (1958, Britain — a war picture with a title whose significance turns out to be quite interesting) and The Guns of Navarone (1962).
Columbia gives Damn the Defiant! about the DVD it deserves. The widescreen version of the film (there’s also a full frame version included) has 28 scene selections, preserves the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. The image is mainly quite nice looking, but far from Columbia’s best effort on a film of this vintage. There is little evidence of any clean-up of the source material. Interiors certainly come across well; they’re sharp and colourful. Exteriors are less clean, however, with noticeable grain from time to time in scenes of the sky and also during the fog sequences of the final battle. There are occasional occurrences of fine speckling on the image. The audio is the original mono and so is rather uninspiring for this type of action material. The difference between what you hear during Damn the Defiant!‘s battle scenes and how they would likely sound had they been shot with a contemporary audio mix is substantial. The original theatrical trailer is included as are trailers for three other military adventures (The Caine Mutiny, Das Boot, The Guns of Navarone).
I mentioned that the film has about the DVD it deserves. Being in its Columbia Classics series, Columbia includes the usual vintage advertising and talent files features. But even a film such as Damn the Defiant! warrants a little better effort on these features than has been done here. Vintage advertising presents merely a handful of poster/lobby card images while the talent files give the barest of career summaries with incomplete filmographies for Gilbert, Guinness, and Bogarde only. If these types of features are going to be included, they should be taken seriously with some effort put into making sure they’re comprehensive. Otherwise don’t bother with them at all.
Damn the Defiant! is an attempt at an epic wartime film that just isn’t in the same league as some of the other big wartime productions of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Despite a cast that is not all performing at its highest level, the tale of a ship on the verge of mutiny is competently told and generally holds the attention throughout. It includes some nicely handled battle scenes between ships. Columbia’s DVD is a workmanlike effort with a reasonable image, but with a few supplements which unfortunately are incomplete.