Sunday 14 October 2012

HMS Defiant 1962 (Damn the Defiant U.S. title)

The producer John Brabourne along with miniatures supervisor Howard Lydecker followed up the success of Sink the Bismark with Damn the Defiant, a tale of brutality in the English Navy during the Napoleonic era.

In his fascinating and somewhat acerbic book " Are They Really So Awful- a cameraman's chronicle" (Janus 1995), legendary cinematographer Christopher Challis, himself a keen sailor, devotes a chapter to the making of Damn the Defiant, including some details of the miniature work.
A top specialist from Hollywood, Howard Liedecker (sic), had been engaged to supervise the model work and he expressed the firm opinion that the only way to achieve something near realism was to shoot it at sea. If we could find a protected bay somewhere, he was certain it could be achieved. We all agreed whole heartedly with him and I left the meeting greatly encouraged. I had given the problem a great deal of thought and, after talking to various friends in the boat building industry, I was convinced that we could find stock fibreglass hulls on which we could build whatever we liked. There is a golden rule with model work. The bigger they are, the better they are, until the optimum is reached and absurdity taken to the extreme, when they are full size.

With these thoughts running through my mind, I was dismayed to get a call from (producer) Richard Goodwin to say that Leidecker had carried out a grand tour of all the studios and had hit upon some old models, relics of some long forgotten picture which, with a bit of work on them. would fill the bill and save a great deal of expense. They were being transported to a firm of model makers next day and I could go along and see them.

Needless to say, I was horrified with what I found. They had been constructed for a sequence which was shot in a studio tank, only four foot deep. they were built around an oblong, galvanised flotation tank with large pieces of iron grid battened onto the bottom to keep them upright. They had been pulled along by rails and cables on the bottom of the studio tank and looked, or could look fine above the water, but below they were open-bottomed, not boats at all. Even with engines installed, there was no way they could be manoeuvred at sea. I forcibly expressed my feelings and after numerous arguments with Liedecker i was told in simple terms to take care of the photography and leave the models to the experts.

Some weeks later, I was called in to see photographs and a chart of the place picked by Liedecker for the model shooting. It was on the Costa Blanca, at a little town called Villajoyosa, which boasted a large, artificial harbour with a long breakwater. the area chosen for filming was outside the breakwater, with a fairly wide arc of open sea. Work was under way on building a tubular jetty for the models to be moored on the seaward side of the breakwater. i found it impossible to curb my tongue and pointed out the significance of the breakwater, hich if it followed the normal convention had to face the prevailing weather! Six weeks later, I arrived in Spain to start 16 weeks of model shooting, to be greeted by the news that a storm had demolished the tubular jetty and most of the models.

A local boatbuilder was approached, a very bright and shrewd chap, who quickly understood what was needed and equally quickly appreciated that he was dealing with a wealthy film company in dire need of boats yesterday.

Of course what he produced was built in wood in a conventional way, but at least they floated - and the right way up, too!

Model-filming on water has its own particular problems, the chief being scale. if the model is one-eighth scale. then the height of the camera lens above the water has to be an eighth of normal. this makes the water in the foreground a matter of inches from the lens,so the waves must be reduced to ripples for it to look right.

A special raft was built for the camera, with a sunken well and glass panel extending below water level so that we could get the lens within inches of the water. large outriggers were added, onto which were lashed empty oildrums to improve stability and an awning erected to keep the crew from 'frying'.

He goes on to describe the difficulties of arranging the unreliable aircraft engined wind machine barges and the boredom of long hours waiting for everything to be in the right place to shoot.

He then had to leave the model unit with 22 more model shots to do to photograph the live action main unit portion of the film. He later admits;
The model work turned out well, and the decision to do it at sea was right but, who knows it might all have been easier. There is always a first time for everything, and it is easy to be wise after the event.

This is one of those rare films with a good story very well cast, acted and directed combined with some of the very best Royal Navy ship model battles depicted. For me at least, anything with the Lydecker name attached usually represents some of the best model action committed to film.

The title was changed for the US release as apparently in America it was not commonly known what HMS meant.



  1. Really enjoyed this website, but the title of the movie in America was actually "Damn the Defiant."

    "HMS Defiant" was the British title: probably because "HMS" is a British prefix.

    Great screen captures. Do you happen to know if any full-scale ship was involved?

  2. Thanks for the correction, I have no idea how I got it totally backwards. In Christopher Challis' autobiography he says;
    "HMS Defiant involved large scale model shooting of the battle scenes because we only had two 'real' ships to play with."
    He goes on to mention that the two ships converted into Royal navy frigates were used on an earlier film "John Paul Jones". He does not however, furnish their names.
    There is at least one publicity photo showing a full size ship in the ocean with the actors in costume about the lower rigging.

  3. Hi, there. Enjoying the website immensely--on behalf of all the grown-up "big kids" out there, thanks for the "labour of love."

    Always had a fascination with this stuff. Incidentally, some nice footage of Atlantis the Lost Continent" on youtube and elsewhere, showing the destruction of the island. Shouldn't be too much of a problem pulling material of it. As is typical, stuff culled from other movies--In this case, Quo Vadis, that was cleverly inserted by budget-driven producer, Geo. Pal.

    On Defiant. I give it my vote as best "modern" (within the last 50 years or so) ship model work. Sure; updated rear screen projection, but so nicely staged and shot, with more sophisticated post WW II-era technicals.

    Simply outstanding...happily, wonderful movie overall, with top-notch script and performances by two magnificent actors: Guinness and Bogarde.

  4. '“HMS Defiant” was the British title: probably because “HMS” is a British prefix.'

    For ships of 'the' Royal Navy 'HMS' is the prefix - and it also applies (with an additional letter) to British Commonwealth nation navy ships:

    Thank goodness 'Her' and 'His' both start with 'H'!

    Just like "USS" is the prefix for United States navy ships:

    And of course there are lots of other examples.

    But then when one thinks about it "HMS Defiant" could be a boring documentary while "Damn the Defiant" sounds exciting and wicked - even if 'damn' didn't carry the same weight as when Clark Gable said it back in 1939:,_my_dear,_I_don%27t_give_a_damn

  5. number1 on May 3, 2013 at 9:41 pm said:

    "He goes on to mention that the two ships converted into Royal navy frigates were used on an earlier film “John Paul Jones”. He does not however, furnish their names."


    And the winners are!:

    "The "Marcel B. Surdo" and the "Angiolina H.", both built in Viareggio (Italy). The "Marcel B. Surdo" was a 280-ton Brigantine, built 1915 and larger, with clearer decks than the "Angiolina H." (built 1904)."

    "A third ship came from Barcelona to Denia and the filming of "John Paul Jones" begun"


    The "Marcel B. Surdo" had a long and glorious career as a movie wooden sailing ship including playing "HMS Defiant".


    Another web page at the same site about the movie history of the Spanish port of "Denia" with more info on "John Paul Jones" and "HMS Defiant" among others:

    Further down the page it shows that Denia also doubled for Singapore in "Krakatoa, East of Java".


    By the way it is a very interesting web site overall with lots (if not all) the major Spanish filming locations and details on films shot there.

  6. "The model work turned out well, and the decision to do it at sea was right but, who knows it might all have been easier."

    "Turned out well" is one hell of an understatement lol. IMO this is the most convincing miniature naval battle of the entire pre-motion control era. Painted backings can be awesome but they rarely can match a blue sky with real clouds. Also the bay allowed for sweeping pans that wouldn't have been possible in a tank (except maybe a horizon tank), which help establish the spatial relations between the Defiant, the fireship and it's target and create a scope rarely seen in model ship battles.

    Thanks for sharing that book. I couldn't agree more bout Howard Lydecker. I had to continually rewind and pause it to determine if we're still looking at models or the full scale frigates. What a timeless masterpiece.


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