“An impulse of anger, instantly regretted”: The Sixties naval film

Today’s guest blog is by Dr Mark Fryers, who has recently completed his AHRC-funded PhD on British national identity and the maritime film (1960-2012) at the University of East Anglia, where he is currently Associate Tutor. Here, Mark discusses the relationship between Britain’s naval past and changing social norms in the naval films of the 1960s. He also focuses on the ways in which the Navy, like other British institutions, became ripe for parody and subversion during this decade.

By the 1960s, the Royal Navy was rapidly losing its potency, both literally and symbolically, as the totem of British imperial power and national identity. Since the earliest days of cinema, the naval film, in its many forms and sub-genres, had been a constant presence on British screens. The abolition of national service (announced in 1957) and the deeply challenging contraction of the British Empire increasingly made these expressions of colonial patriotism appear dated.

However, in an era in which Mods and Rockers were making a mockery of Churchill’s fabled World War II rhetoric by enacting their own fighting on the beaches of Margate, Clacton and Brighton, there appeared a brief cycle of films in which Britain’s historic naval past was evoked to explore the notions of youthful mutiny and rebellion, which seemed to reflect some of the social upheavals of the time.

Youth culture and rebellion

Leading the pack in 1962 was MGM’s updated Mutiny On The Bounty, recalling both the actual mutiny of 1787 by the crew of the Bounty, led by Fletcher Christian, against Royal Naval Captain William Bligh, and the academy-award winning MGM film from 1935. Replacing Charles Laughton in the role of Bligh was Trevor Howard and in place of Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian was Marlon Brando. The sight of Brando, who ten years previously became synonymous with violent youth rebellion as Johnny Strabler, leader of the Black Rebel motorcycle gang in The Wild One (1953) as one of England’s most famous mutineers suggested that British history was ready for re-making, with a new emphasis on youth culture and rebellion.

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Contemporary poster for Mutiny (1960) foregrounding Marlon Brando

In the same year in Britain, HMS Defiant (AKA Damn The Defiant!) was released, adapted from a novel by Frank Tilsely (by Quatermass scribe Nigel Kneale) that dealt with another famous mutiny from the age of Nelson, at Spithead in 1797.  Lewis Gilbert, a veteran of maritime film from The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954) and Sink the Bismarck! (1960), directed Alec Guinness as the benevolent Captain Crawford locked in a battle of wits with his sadistic Lieutenant Scott Padget (Dirk Bogarde) whose extreme methods drive the crew to mutiny. As agitation grows, it becomes clear that the mutiny is led by Vizard (Anthony Quayle) who attempts to do things legally, and the crew are instructed to explain any dissent with the legal phrase “an impulse of anger, instantly regretted”. The mutiny is ended when a disgruntled crew member, Evans (Tom Bell), shoots Padget, thus restoring the status quo and allowing the important business of war with France to be resumed.

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HMS Defiant featured mutiny, press-ganging and corporal punishment a year after prison mutinies at Maidstone and Shrewsbury

Also in 1962 came Peter Ustinov’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (which also drew on the Spithead mutiny) and was released on a naval themed double-bill in the United States with HMS Defiant. In 1797, young innocent, Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) is drafted into service from the British Merchant ship The Rights of Man onto the naval frigate Avenger. Sociable and adored by all sections of the crew, Budd’s popularity infuriates Claggart (Robert Ryan), the sadistic Master-at-arms who makes it his business to destroy Billy by framing him for mutinous behaviour.

In a terse exchange between Billy, Claggart and Captain Vere (Peter Ustinov), in which Claggart accuses Billy of mutiny in front of the captain, Billy, unable to defend himself verbally through a stammer that manifests at times of great emotion and confusion, lashes out and punches Claggart who falls and dies from the impact. Despite knowing Billy to be innocent, the Captain must follow naval protocol and instigate court martial proceedings. He and his three subordinate officers debate whether to do what is ‘right’ (acquitting Billy) or stick to the rule of law and hang him for striking a superior officer, an offence exacerbated by its taking place during a time of war. After much debate, and to the dismay of everyone, they realise that the only way they can continue is to condemn the boy. Billy is hanged; and his last words  ‘God Bless Captain Vere’ seem to incite the men to mutiny. Just as this occurs, however, a French ship is spotted and the necessities of war jolt the company out of their existential angst and back into quotidian warfare. As with HMS Defiant, the film ends at this point.

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Billy Budd, 1962. The crew look on in despair as Billy is hanged. It was only three years later that death by hanging was abolished in Britain

Casey Harrison (2011) makes some interesting connections between Billy Budd and the rebellious youth culture of the 1960s, linking Billy’s stammer and his inarticulate outburst of violence to The Who’s 1965 song My Generation (which similarly utilises a stammering protagonist to outline its themes of generational friction). That the actor Terence Stamp was to become one of the most notable of the new actors of the 1960s further underlines the way in which current trends were being assimilated into representations of Britain’s naval past.

Queering the naval film

In 1963, Carry On Jack, in the honoured budget-paring Carry On style, utilised some of the same sets and props from HMS Defiant.  Set in the same Napoleonic era, it was the first Carry On film to take place in the historical past. Its comedic orientation meant that its take on the navy differed from the high drama of HMS Defiant and Billy Budd, yet it provided its own kind of subversive undertow.

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The pressbook for Carry on Jack (1963) takes pleasure in its use of nautical metaphor

Carry On Jack signals its intentions from the outset by spoofing the mythical Nelson deathbed scene. As the press-book points out, the film sought to lovingly re-create the details of Arthur William Devis’s famous painting of this scene. No such reverence is afforded the event though, which is given the full Carry On treatment:

Nelson: “Kiss me Hardy”

Hardy: “I beg your pardon sir?”

Nelson: “Kiss me Hardy”

Hardy: “Are you mad? What will they say at the Admiralty?”

Nelson: “They’ll only be jealous”

Hardy: “Look, you’re very weak sir. It may not be good for you”

(Hardy plants a kiss and Nelson breathes his last) “Told you so”.

The film then follows the exploits of Albert Poop-Decker (Bernard Cribbins), a midshipman assigned to the frigate HMS Venus. Visiting the bar/brothel ‘Dirty Tricks’ on the eve of sailing, he is lured upstairs by Sally (Juliet Mills), a barmaid seeking to follow her beloved to sea. In order to do this she knocks Albert unconscious and steals his clothes, leaving him to be press-ganged aboard as an ordinary seaman, wearing Sally’s dress, and forced to do the job of a rating with the equally inept and press-ganged Walter Sweetly (Charles Hawtrey). Echoing both Billy Budd and HMS Defiant, they incur the wrath of belligerent First Officer Howett (Donald Huston) who is also frustrated by Captain Fearless’s (Kenneth Williams) reluctance to punish their insubordination and incompetence. Howett fakes an enemy attack forcing Albert, Walter and the Captain to escape to Spain, where more cross-dressing high-jinks take place as they attempt to pass themselves off as Spaniards. Eventually the crew inadvertently fend off pirate attacks and those of the Spanish to be greeted back in England as heroes and Fearless is made Admiral.

Sacred British naval history is presented here with transgressive irreverence, replacing heroism with incompetence and ‘queering’ the strictly homo-social space of the ship with gender performativity of various kinds, from the cross-dressing women on board to the camp performances of Hawtrey and Williams.

(c) Sir Max Aitken Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Sir Max Aitken Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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Carry on Jack. Nelson’s deathbed scene is carefully constructed before the myth is de-constructed

Even the ‘straight’ films are thoroughly imbricated with ‘queer’ elements and the potent homoeroticism of the naval setting with actors like Dirk Bogarde and Murray Melvin. Billy Budd is a text often critically interpreted as having latent homosexual undercurrents, particularly prevalent in Benjamin Britten’s operatic version, with Claggart’s antagonism towards Billy interpreted as his attempt to stifle his lust for him. A similar dynamic is at work in the sadism of Padget in HMS Defiant, portrayed by the (never openly) gay Bogarde.

Billy Budd, HMS Defiant, and Carry On Jack, along with Hollywood’s The Mutiny on the Bounty, appear at a moment in British history that is generally perceived as a fulcrum of major social changes. Violence, rebellion and working-class masculine anger are in evidence in most of these texts which highlight a specific period in British naval history, to offer a different narrative from the ‘glorious’ victory of Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar. Meanwhile Carry On Jack lampoons naval traditions at a time when the institution it represented was becoming increasingly irrelevant to modern British identity. In all these texts, undercurrents of homosexuality seem to subvert hetero-normativity. It seems that, whether mediated dramatically or comedically, in the early 1960s, every British establishment was ripe for re-appraisal, including its oldest and most venerable Royal Navy. Many of these films display impulses of anger which don’t always seem to be regretted at all.

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