J D Davies

Flashing Blades and Swashing Buckles Revisited

Pretty full on with work and Christmas-related commitments this week, so I thought I’d reblog a post from four and a half years ago – which, although, it’s probably immodest to admit it, is ohttps://jddavies.com/2015/08/05/admiral-compress-and-conflate/ne of my personal favourites out of the ones I’ve written over the years. Reading through it again, I can’t see anything I’d want to change, or even to update, which is itself a reflection of how rarely modern or historical naval subjects get exposure on film or TV. The only exception that I’d have added would be the film about Michiel De Ruyter, released in Britain and the US as Admiral: Command and Conquer, which received extensive coverage on this site (notably here and here). The seventeenth century per se has fared a little better: since I wrote this, we’ve had The Musketeers (which I reviewed here, but which subsequently departed further and further from historical accuracy, albeit still providing great fun as it did so, before ending with peak Rupert Everett, beyond which no series should ever venture to go) and Versailles, which for some reason, I never got round to reviewing; I’ll have to remedy that when series two comes along.

Before I take you back to the summer of 2012, though – yes, before that happened. And THAT. And, oh my God, that – I’ve got some great news. Early in the new year, I’ll be posting a new guest blog by Frank Fox, the acknowledged authority on the warships and battles of the later seventeenth century. Frank’s earlier posts on the fleet lists of the Battle of the Texel / Kijkduin in August 1673 made a major contribution to our understanding of this hugely important engagement by providing the most comprehensive and accurate listings ever put into the public domain. Now he’s taken on arguably an even more important battle, Barfleur in 1692, one of the greatest triumphs of British sea power before the days of Nelson, which effectively ended one of the earliest and best hopes of a Jacobite restoration. Despite its importance, no accurate listing of the combined Anglo-Dutch fleet has ever been published. That all changes, exclusively on this website, in the new year!

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A fun thread developed on Twitter last week: the ‘best navy films ever’. This followed a piece in The Huffington Post which presented quite a decent list, and most of the Twitterati involved in the discussion concurred with its choice of the likes of Das Boot and Master and Commander. (A subsequent attempt by yours truly to start a thread on ‘worst navy films ever’ got no further than the first mention of U-571.) Different national perspectives affected the responses, though. Many Brits, yours truly included, would place The Cruel Sea up at the top of the list, while there were honourable mentions for the likes of Battle of the River Plate, Sink the Bismarck, Hornblower (both the Gregory Peck film and the Ioan Gruffydd TV films) and In Which We Serve, still oddly moving despite Noel Coward laying on propaganda and pathos alike with the largest trowel he could find.

All of these were staples on TV when I was growing up, and I think they probably had a strong subconscious influence on me when it came to writing the Quinton novels. The same was true of some of the rather cornier seaborne epics, such as Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. But the Twitter thread got me thinking about some of the other films and TV series that had influenced me, and some happy memories flooded back. There was Sir Francis Drake, for example, a classic 1960s series from ITV; I must have seen repeats, for IMDB tells me it was originally shown in 1961-2 when I was probably still watching the likes of Andy Pandy and the Woodentops. Later, school summer holidays always seemed to involve the annual repeat of The Flashing Blade, a badly dubbed, atrociously plotted but somehow compulsively watchable French series set against the backdrop of the Franco-Spanish wars in the 1630s. I actually acquired The Flashing Blade on DVD a while back, and while the clunky aspects are more obvious to me now than they were then, it was in many respects pretty exciting stuff. Intellectually stretching stuff, too, for kids aged (say) 10-14, so here’s a thought: would any TV company in any country now dare to make a children’s TV series set during an obscure seventeenth century war, and dealing with reasonably complex historical, political and religious issues?

As for films that impacted on me during my formative years, a troubling number seemed to star Tony Curtis. I’ve already referred in this blog to the fact that I can’t read the word ‘Vikings’ without thinking of those two perfectly cast Norsemen, Tony C and Kirk Douglas, in the film of that name; and when I finally go off to the great library in the sky, my instructions specify that I want the sort of Viking funeral that ends the film, with blazing arrows fired into a longship as it drifts off into the sunset. (‘Health and Safety’, I hear you say? Pah, namby-pamby nonsense.) Then there was Taras Bulba, with Tony cast as a Cossack. Let me repeat that: Tony Curtis. As a Cossack. Complete with Brooklyn accent. Another classic piece of casting for the great Tony was as an English peasant and lost heir to an earldom (still with the Brooklyn accent) in The Black Shield of Falworth, possibly the first film during which I spent much of my time shouting at the TV to register my disapproval at the endless catalogue of historical inaccuracies. (Now, of course, I can appreciate it on its own merits as a piece of prime Hollywood ham, and great fun, to boot – for yes, I have the DVD of that, too.)

Then came the early 1970s. What a golden age, and looking back, what an influence it had on me! On TV, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R, plus the rather less well remembered The First Churchills – pretty much the one and only time the politics and personalities of the period 1689-1714 have ever got an outing on TV – and Timothy West as Edward VII. And on film: The Three Musketeers. Not the increasingly risible efforts of recent years: the Richard Lester version of 1973, brilliantly scripted by George Macdonald Fraser of Flashman fame. Perfect casting, apart from Michael York being impossibly old as D’Artagnan; will there ever be a better Athos than Oliver Reed? Even Charlton Heston, another piece of fine old Hollywood ham (as on the two occasions when I saw him on the London stage, in A Man for All Seasons and The Caine Mutiny) – yes, even Chuck managed to look more like Richelieu than anyone else who’s ever played him, and got the character pretty well spot on too.

So all in all, I think I was lucky in terms of the TV and films that came along when I reached important formative stages in my childhood and youth; for someone who, even then, had aspirations to be a historian and author, the diet was absolutely ideal. I wonder what, if anything, now exerts the same sort of positive influence on potential young historians and historical authors of the future? Pirates of the Caribbean? Downton Abbey? Horrible Histories? Ultimately, as I learned countless times during my teaching career, it doesn’t matter what turns a young person on to history, or a particular aspect of it. Any means to the end is absolutely fine; yes, even if the means in question is Captain Jack Sparrow…