There’s going to be a film about 17th century naval history.

Don’t get too excited: it’s not Gentleman Captain: the Movie, more’s the pity. Instead, the Dutch are making a film about their great national hero, Michiel De Ruyter, apparently set during the years 1672-3. From what I’ve seen so far, it looks very promising indeed. Frank Lammers, the actor portraying De Ruyter, really looks the part, and much of the filming is being done in Veere, which was both a genuine 17th century naval port and is the home town of Matthew’s wife Cornelia in the ‘Quinton Journals’. It’s probably a racing certainty that we Brits will be depicted as the bad guys, but that’s ok – after all, we seem to be the bad guys in pretty well every Hollywood film made these days, too. But it’ll be fascinating to see how the film handles both the complex politics of the time and the complexities of portraying naval warfare convincingly on screen.

Finding out about the De Ruyter movie got me thinking, though: just how often has the 17th century navy been portrayed on screen, even tangentially? Sadly, but probably inevitably, the answer is very little, even if one extends the definition of ’17th century’ down to, say, the end of the Stuart era in 1714 – and before we go any further, let’s be clear that in this context, I’m banning all discussion of the ‘P’ word  (don’t even think of mentioning ‘P of the Caribbean’), even if it means ruling out such wonderful films as those terrific 1930s/40s romps, The Black Swan and Captain Blood, along with the new TV series Black Sails, which hasn’t reached this side of the pond as yet.

It’s easy to see why this should be. I’m currently reading James Chapman’s book, Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film, and he makes the following point:

The favourite periods for producers of historical films…have tended to be those which give rise to narratives of national greatness: the Tudor period, which saw the emergence of England as a great power; the Victorian period, which saw industrial progress and imperial expansion; and the Second World War, which in the popular imagination remains ‘our finest hour’.

The corollary of this is that there have been relatively few films or TV series set in the much more ambiguous and fractured 17th century, and even fewer that touch on naval matters. Of course, the reign of Charles II continues to pop up on screen from time to time, but for obvious reasons, the focus of film-makers has always been overwhelmingly on the racy goings-on at court: witness the likes of the Robert Downey Junior film of Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the Earl of Rochester in The Libertine, and in earlier years, Forever Amber and Nell Gwynn, of which more anon. But on Chapman’s criteria, it’s very difficult to imagine a film-maker successfully pitching a storyline about, say, the Dutch raid on the Medway in 1667, arguably the greatest military humiliation in British history; and even if such a script ever got written, the cost of such a project would probably be prohibitive (which is why there was only ever one Master and Commander film, and relatively few Hornblower TV movies).

There have been a few exceptions. The TV film of Dava Sobel’s book Longitude begins with the destruction of Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s fleet on Scilly in 1707. Naval events get a mention every now and again in the very stagey 1970s TV series, The First Churchills, which is available in its entirety on Youtube; see, for example, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ episode, at exactly 34 minutes in (blink and you’ll miss it, though). But far and away the most frequent 17th century naval ‘presence’ on screen has, inevitably, been that of Samuel Pepys. Equally inevitably, Pepys’s role as an important naval administrator hardly ever gets a look-in; his screen appearances have invariably been as a voyeur on the fringes of court naughtiness, scribbling down notes of all the risque goings-on and, perhaps, taking part in them himself. As such, Pepys has cropped up from time to time in films from the 1934 Anna Neagle vehicle Nell Gwynn (which also has as one of its characters a naval seaman who lost an eye fighting the Dutch) to 2004’s Stage Beauty, where he was portrayed by none other than Hugh Bonneville, subsequently Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey. Over the years, too, he has been portrayed by actors as diverse as Edmund Gwenn, better known as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, and even Steve Coogan (‘Aha!’).

There do seem to have been a few attempts to place Pepys in his professional context, but these are either lost or never saw the light of day in the first place. Chapman records that in 1935, there was serious discussion about making an entire film about him, starring George Arliss, but this project was abandoned in favour of Arliss’s somewhat odd portrayal of the Duke of Wellington in The Iron Duke. In 1954, the BBC’s Sunday Night Theatre broadcast a play called ‘Ninety Sail‘, which seems to have been set at the time of the Popish Plot and features, in additions to Pepys, such characters as Charles II, the Duke of York and, less expectedly, Captain Henry Priestman, a relatively obscure but somewhat controversial sea-captain (who, nevertheless, eventually ended up with an impressive memorial in the nave of Westminster Abbey). The script was written by W P Lipscomb, who wrote the screenplays for the likes of Dunkirk, A Town Called Alice and the Ronald Colman version of A Tale of Two Cities, and who won an Oscar, no less, for co-writing the script of Pygmalion with an obscure and long-forgotten hack named, umm, George Bernard Shaw. So ‘Ninety Sail’ might have been well worth seeing – but alas, the BBC either did not record programmes at all during that period, or else subsequently wiped the tapes, so the chances of it re-surfacing are probably nil.

Anyway, I know one thing for certain: I fully intend to go and see the film of Michiel De Ruyter, at a cinema somewhere in the Netherlands, as soon as possible after it opens. OK, I probably won’t understand a word, but I want to see it on the big screen, and if some cinema, somewhere, could show it with English subtitles, I’d be eternally in your debt. Who knows, I might even dedicate a book to you.


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