Admiral: Compress and Conflate
Long-term readers of this blog will know that I’ve been quite excited about the prospect of a film set against the backdrop of the Anglo-Dutch wars, ever since it first came onto my radar. It premiered in the Netherlands at the beginning of the year as Michiel de Ruyter, and has now been released on DVD in the UK under the title Admiral: Command and Conquer. The eminent Dutch naval historian Gijs Rommelse, who saw it in the cinema in the Netherlands, provided his take on it in a guest post on this site. And now I’ve dutifully watched it too.
I realised as soon as I opened the packet containing it that this is a film I’d watch while wearing several different hats simultaneously, occasionally throwing those hats at each other whenever one sensibility clashed with another. For this review, though, I’ll don each separate hat in turn.
First, the ‘naval historian of this period’ hat (which is a very unfashionable, moth-eaten fedora):
The alarm bells rang at the sight of the DVD case, which claimed that it was about the ‘Greatest Battle Ever’. Now, I’ve been working on the Anglo-Dutch wars for over 30 years. I very nearly wrote a full-length academic book about the Battle of the Texel on 11 August 1673, which forms the climax of the film, and might still return to it one day. But not even in my wildest fantasies, even after consuming (say) a second small glass of shandy at the local, would I ever dream of calling any of the naval battles of that period ‘the greatest battle ever’. And then there was the opening line of the prologue text: ‘The Seventeenth Century: the Netherlands is the only republic in the world’. Luckily, I’d ensured beforehand that all heavy objects that could conceivably be lobbed at the TV screen had been placed well out of reach. Instead, of course, the filmmakers have cued me up perfectly for a variant on one of the oldest and corniest jokes of all:
‘No, I’ve never met her.’
‘What, nor her sister republics Venice and Switzerland?’
It’s the way I tell ’em.
Fortunately, things could only get better, to paraphrase the old song, and they duly did. The opening scene, of a church congregation hearing the gunfire from the battle of Scheveningen in 1653, and going up into the dunes to watch the fighting offshore, is not only beautifully done, it also corresponds exactly to a real historical event, albeit one which only residents of, and visitors to, the village of Huisduinen in north Holland will probably know about. The battle scenes are exciting and as authentic as they probably could be – for example, the prevalence of wood splinters as iron balls hit timber hulls, the commands, the atmosphere above and below decks, and so forth, despite the usual constraints imposed by cost (for example, having far too few people per gun, and far too few real ships to play with). Similarly, the scenes at the Dutch Estates General, the scenes of ordinary town life, and De Ruyter’s funeral – a remarkable set-piece, this, and strikingly true to illustrations of the actual event – all give a real sense of what the Netherlands was like in the seventeenth century. But let’s not mention flags and costumes until I put on my next hat…
As Gijs previously noted, the film actually provides a surprisingly insightful look at the politics of the period, showing De Ruyter’s involvement in the fraught ‘Orangist versus republican’ struggle in a way that even modern biographies of him omit. It also provides a quick but accurate summary of the Dutch ‘naval revolution’ of the 1650s (although you might come away with the impression that this was all sorted out in the space of about three sentences), and of Charles II’s offer of the sovereignty of a diminished rump of the Netherlands to his nephew William of Orange. The latter’s latent (at least) homosexuality is acknowledged head-on, so this film might not be ideal Saturday night post-pub viewing in certain quarters of Belfast, for example.
Second, the ‘significant other of person whose son is a film producer’ hat (a really cool baseball cap):
Once again, the alarm bells rang at the sight of the DVD case, which proclaims Charles Dance and Rutger Hauer to be the stars of this film. Indeed, the film’s original Dutch poster has been photoshopped to make Mr Dance bigger and further forward than everybody else, and if that’s not sending out the message ‘he’s the star’, I don’t know what is. Now, I already knew that these two only had cameo roles: indeed, Hauer’s, as Maarten Tromp, is of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety, dying even before the opening credits. Whereas Dance’s Charles II, hammed up to the nth degree, has only a handful of scenes, playing them as a cloak-swirling, moustache-twirling panto villain (not to mention as a septuagenarian redhead, rather than the swarthy thirtysomething reality). It’s as though the marketing department of the Harry Potter films had tried to project Dumbledore and Harry’s parents as the lead characters. Having said that, the cast is generally very good, with some affecting and powerful performances. The film is beautifully shot and lit – thanks to Roel Reiné, both director and director of photography – while the use of CGI to create entire seventeenth century fleets is usually effective and pretty convincing.
And then…flags. I’ve mentioned this before in this blog, after I saw the first trailer online, and I definitely don’t want to be ranked with those jolly souls who watch World War I movies simply to nit-pick about the wrong buttons and medals. But who on earth thought it was a good idea for the British fleet to have the Union Flag as an ensign, especially when it has the correct ensign (well, for a third of it anyway) as the jack? This was clearly no accidental error: somebody clearly thought that Dutch audiences wouldn’t recognise ships as British unless the Union Flag was displayed as prominently as possible. A similarly odd approach seems to have been adopted to costume. For all the principal characters, and the vast majority of extras, the costumes are pretty much as authentic as they can be. So why suddenly go off piste and dress William of Orange’s servants in late eighteenth century outfits, possibly a job lot left over from The Madness of King George, and have Mary Stuart sporting a ruff that would have looked old-fashioned on her namesake Mary Queen of Scots, plus a hairstyle drawn straight from the Bride of Frankenstein?
Third, the ‘author of historical fiction’ hat (except that, of course, authors can’t afford hats):
The characters, with the obvious exception of Dance’s Charles II, are well drawn. De Ruyter himself comes across as a soulmate of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey: bumbling and a bit out of his depth ashore (at least early on in the film), but a real lion at sea. The scriptwriters take liberties by having him swinging from a rope, a la Errol Flynn, to board a British warship, and personally leading his Marines in a night attack at Chatham, but at the end of the day, I’ve been there and done that myself in my own books, so I’m certainly not going to throw stones. The filmmakers’ politics shine through: Johan de Witt, the republican leader, is undoubtedly the second hero of the film, while both of the princes, Charles II and William III, are presented as devious and untrustworthy (although William is given grudging praise for saving his country from the French in 1672, decisively ordering the cutting of the dykes while his ministers vacillate). And a warning to those of gentle dispositions – little is left to the imagination when it comes to the film’s portrayal of the shocking fate of de Witt and his brother. Imagine The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a time before chainsaws.
Unfortunately, the script varies between powerful dialogue and real historical insight on the one hand, and over-the-top melodrama on the other. Charles II’s exchanges with his French mistress (nude, naturally, just because she’s French) are frankly risible, while Johan de Witt’s speech on taking office as raadpensionaris (or, as the classic subtitling cop-out puts it, ‘prime minister’) put me in mind of Bill Pullman’s speech as the President in Independence Day, and Mel Gibson’s infamous ‘Freedom!’ speech in Braveheart. Of course, this might have been exactly what the scriptwriters intended…
And putting on all three hats at once:
Watch this film, and you’ll probably come away thinking the Anglo-Dutch wars, which took place within a twenty-two year timespan, lasted for roughly six months. De Ruyter’s children don’t age: in fact, his son Engel, a weedy adolescent throughout the film, was a senior captain in his own right by the end of the film’s time period. The film begins with the battle of Scheveningen in 1653, then time travels forward by twelve years (thus omitting, for instance, the Restoration in England, or De Ruyter’s own campaigns in Africa). We shoot through the second war: the Four Days battle of 1666 lasts for fifteen minutes, tops. Then, hey, Charles II signs a treaty with Louis XIV to invade the Netherlands (1670), and before you can say ‘Edam’, they’re at war (1672)! And so we sprint through the battle of the Texel – which seems to have been ‘modified’ by artistic licence, so that the fate which eventually befalls the same French admiral in the West Indies in 1678 now takes place on a Dutch beach in 1673 instead – to De Ruyter being sent on a kamikaze mission to the Mediterranean in 1676, where he meets his death on the exact same day that William of Orange marries Charles II’s niece.
Of course, this is a common issue in historical films, and in a way, film-makers, even more than novelists, have very little choice in the matter if they’re going to tell a long and complex story within a finite span. The first film I ever reviewed was the Richard Harris / Alec Guinness Cromwell (when I was thirteen, in the school newspaper), and my principal criticism was exactly the same: Look, Cromwell’s just become an MP (1628)! Oops, here we are at the battle of Edgehill (1642)! A few weeks later (apparently) – it’s Naseby (1645)! Another few weeks – gosh, the execution of Charles I (1649)! Wait another 10 minutes of screen time – Cromwell becomes Lord Protector (1653)! Is he nearly dead yet…? At the time, my thirteen year old self was outraged by this cavalier treatment of the chronology. Now, my (slightly) older novelist self is rather more laid back about such things, so long as a good story, true to the spirit of the original, is being told. Which, in this case, it definitely is.
So, yes, Admiral is flawed: but there’s also a tremendous amount to like about it, and it’s certainly a worthy effort. Moreover, if the Dutch can get a worldwide success out of it (its international sales were excellent), then surely British filmmakers ought to do well with a new version of the Nelson story, and why has Hollywood only ever made one film about John Paul Jones – as long ago as 1959, with Robert Stack as JPJ and Bette Davis as Catherine the Great?
(While checking that I was correct about that last point, I came across the bizarre fact that a screenplay was actually written for an earlier film version of his life. In 1923. By – wait for it – one Franklin Delano Roosevelt.)
As a representation of seventeenth century naval warfare and history on screen, then, Admiral is about as good as we’re likely to get – until, of course, that far off day when Gentleman Captain: The Movie (a Pico Pictures production) comes along.