Sunday, 25 March 2018

A hero for our times… Nelson (1918), BFI Player

My first thought in watching Maurice Elvey’s celebratory life story of Admiral Lord Nelson was that there was surely hardly anyone producing films of such length and scope in Britain at this time: a two-hour epic covering many years and battles across oceans... something that matched the ambition of American or European features. The film is not as good as the director’s next, The Life Story of David Lloyd George but that was backed more heavily before being pulled for many and complex reasons (c.f. Dutton, L).

Nelson - or Nelson; The Story of England's Immortal Naval Hero - is certainly propaganda, but it takes its facts and its audience very seriously. Nelson’s biography plays out with a minimum of gilded lilies and Elvey shows us major sea battles as forensically as possible with the aid of models, a chalk board and stop-motion ships. In its own way it reminds me of Monsieur Gance and his treatment of Napoleon (who, naturally, also makes his appearance here as less of a poet warrior than an implacable foe… France being our ally at the time of filming).  The style and technique of these films are worlds away, but both directors clearly saw their leads as key to their countries’ ideals of heroism and success.

Napoleon and Nelson both made their way against the odds – and established orders - on the basis of tremendous intelligence and daring. They were glory hunters and self-promoters but maybe that’s the price you pay for your heroes?  I’m sure Horatio would have approved of this film although maybe he’d have liked the crowds bigger at Portsmouth… just as Napoleon might have wanted a fourth screen added to the tryptic at the end of Gance’s film.

Napoléon Bonaparte
Elvey is here to salute the positives and is relatively subtle in this work. As Powell and Pressburger were later to show, to make good propaganda, you have to be fair to the opposition: hate isn’t enough especially when compared with inspiration and the need to do your duty. Here as in actuality, Nelson’s last words were “thank God I did my duty” and there were more than enough reliable witnesses to his last hours as confirmed by Andrew Lambert in his excellent biography (as recommended by Elvey-expert Lucie Dutton).

In the last section Nelson is in bucolic retirement in the beautiful gardens of his house in Merton, along with Emma Hamilton, his intellectual equal and the life of his love, only to be called away when Bonaparte looks to be making a pre-emptive move on the British fleet. In this time of great uncertainty, Pitt, his government and the admirals, turned to their unfailing naval leader, the man whose intelligence and intuitive genius had helped win battles across Europe and down to the Nile.

It was a battle too far, but Nelson won, and the course of history was changed.

When this film was commissioned, there was still no certainty in the result of the Great War and, Nelson’s leadership, luck and determination was still the inspiration required on land and sea. The film starts in the now with the grandfatherly Admiral Fremantle persuading a young lad that there’ s a future in the navy and how the service has been funded by Kings and the Commonwealth as gifts to the people. An impressive shot of HMAS Australia and HMS New Zealand (part of the Royal Navy but funded by New Zealand) forging through rough seas with magnificent intent.

He tells the boy to study the life of Nelson and leaves him a copy of Southey’s Life of Nelson. Then we start the story of Nelson, someone who always had to fight against natural disadvantages but who never backed away from a thing that looked worth doing!  Whether it was falling from trees climbed far too high or fighting with the boys far too big, young Nelson was a boy of courage and endeavour.

He enlists in the navy at just 14 even though he is not considered the finest specimen and he even gets invalided out at one point, but nothing can stop his eventual re-appointment. In all of this he is encouraged by his uncle, Captain Suckling, although not to the extent of favours: the navy is an opportunity for any man made of the right stuff and as Lambert and other commentators support, it was possible to advance based on ability. This is fascinating in of itself and our hero does indeed have extraordinary resources.

This is quickly proved in artic waters when the young officer defends his men from a rampaging polar bear, an event which is portrayed in graphic details that are simply impossible to relay… safe to say the bear comes off second best and Nelson’s momentum to success builds.

Battle of St Vincent - Nelson boarding the San Nicholas...  "surrender and be damned!"
Elevy is meticulous in his detail and replicates the major victories in Nelson’s rise faithfully starting with the incredibly bold attack on the Spanish fleet at the Battle of St Vincent in which he attacked their flagship, the San Nicolas, after leading his men through an adjacent vessel. The director details the ship movements in these battles and we see clearly how Nelson’s instincts led to counter-intuitive surprises for the opposition.

One man could indeed make a difference!

What a message for 1918 and indeed for 2018… perseverance leads to Victory (of course) and of course, Elevy uses the actual HMS Victory when the time comes with some gorgeous shots looking down on Nelson as he boards the vessel as if stepping up to a higher level.

Bothered by Britannia in delerium dream
There is impressive use of visual metaphor throughout the film; Horatio clutching his locket of Emma when thinking of his love or Nelson viewed within the Union Jack and as literally the heart of nationhood. The young Nelson is visited by Britannia and great admirals past as in delirium he dreams of his future greatness in much the same way Gance’s man saw the ghosts of Danton and the fathers of the revolution. These men are so great they must surely have been divinely aware of their fate… inspiration teasing a forgone cinematic conclusion.

Given his budget, Elvey also injects as much actual awe as he can muster with impressive shots of battleships out at sea and numerous location shots even though the Defence of Calvi (1794) looks like it’s taking place in Kent, we still get a feel for the action.

Out of the shadows
I like the use of shade in creating dramatic intimacy, with shots out of the dark of Nelson leaving for battle or in the thoughts of his family as he is away from home. For a while this was a family formed by his marriage to Mrs Nesbit the widow – played by the excellent Ivy Close (another link with Gance as she later played in La Roue, his epic of transgressive love off the rails…) but, in a shockingly frank title card she is dismissed; Nelson craving action and warm-hearted appreciation which his wife lacked the power to supply…

Sorry Ivy, it’s not you it’s him.

Donald Calthrop and Ivy Close
The film stops off in Naples which seems a world away from the wars with its flimsy regent (Edward O'Neill) less interested in his elegant and intelligent Queen than Mrs Emma Hamilton (the suitably eye-catching American actress Malvina Longfellow) the wife of the British envoy to this small Mediterranean ally. Sir William Hamilton (Allan Jeayes) scarcely notices Nelson’s instant fascination with his wife whilst the pair are happy to use her to encourage the King to resist Napoleon’s advances. Much adventure ensues as the Neopolitans revolt (and having been there I can understand why, a tough city not given to powder-puff princes…) and Nelson leads the escape following a nail-biting siege.

Malvina Longfellow,
Back in Britain, after all of these successes – Nelson settles down eventually with Emma after his dear friend Hamilton passes away. They live in the rural bliss of Merton, probably not that far from Wimbledon Dog Track as it used to be and the bog Sainsbury at Abbey Mills, and there are superb sequences of them in lush English gardens. Emma gifts Horatio (formerly Herbert actually) a baby and all is bliss. That is, until Bonapart escapes and the fight for Europe reaches the make or break Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson seems happy to settle but he knows there is no other option but to do his duty and, possibly, he is the only man who can do what is required.

Nelson and Emma in the garden of Merton
Even if this were not true, it’s what those watching in 1918 wanted to see and Elvey, who had based the script on the aforementioned Robert Southey’s biography of Admiral Horatio Nelson, made sure this was what they got. More reading is required to find out exactly how much Nelson is myth but in 1918 this was as much as needed to be. England expected as every man was doing his duty.

You can view Nelson on the BFI Player in very decent quality. There’s no score and I trust that one day soon, it will be screened. After all, how many British feature films get shown from 1918 let alone films of this ambition and importance? Given the specific circumstances of the War, I wonder how the film came to be and how it was received? I’m sure we’ll get the answers soon…

Let's make this quite clear!
Produced under the sole direction of Maurice Elvey

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