Reviews Too Late: Admiral

by wjw on May 16, 2016

The original title of this Dutch film is Michiel de Ruyter, but as this title means nothing to audiences outside the United Provinces, the American release is retitled Admiral.  (Thus prompting confusion with the Korean film Admiral, about the naval hero Yi Sun-sin, or Admiral, the Russian film about the naval hero Alexander Kolchak.  This particular Admiral is about a Dutch naval hero so revered in his own country that he is probably the only person in history to be awarded the rank of Lieutenant-Admiral-General.)

In the States we are accustomed to the English view of naval history, and Pepys’ view of the Anglo-Dutch Wars in particular, so this biography of Michiel de Ruyter provides some valued perspective.

The film points out that the Netherlands was the only republic in Europe, surrounded by hostile monarchs who wanted to crush it lest their own commons be inspired to rebellion.  (To be fair to the monarchs, they mostly wanted to conquer the Netherland not for ideological reasons, but because the Dutch were rich, and they wanted to loot the wealth of the country.  They hadn’t worked out that the Dutch weren’t rich by accident, but because of religious and political tolerance, and also this thing called capitalism, all of which the Dutch had just invented.  Had Louis XIV conquered the place and imposed autocracy and the Catholic Church, he would have found the place soggy, uninspiring, and so poor it wouldn’t have been worth the conquest.)

Not only were the Dutch surrounded by enemies, but they were disunited, being divided between republicans and monarchists who wanted to install Willem III, Prince of Orange, at the head of the government.

De Ruyter, who was born Machgyel Adriensoon, was of humble origins, and worked his way to riches as a merchant, though along the way he acquired the nickname “de Ruyter,” which means something like “the Raider.”  (In those days, capitalist freebooters took the freebooting part of their job very seriously indeed.)

The first thing you notice on viewing the hero is that Frank Lammers, who plays de Ruyter, is not anything like a Hollywood star.  Europeans still dare to have movie stars that look like ordinary people.  Middle-aged, plain-featured, and beefy, Lammers comes roaring into action waving a cutlass and swinging from one ship to another on the end of a rope.  (Which is the sort of thing that never happened, but is expected in this kind of movie.)

As a commoner raised to great prominence, de Ruyter is opposed to the monarchy, and allied with the brothers de Witt, the republicans who ran the state for twenty years.  The film condenses those twenty years’ worth of history into a couple hours of screen time— de Ruyter’s children do not age during the course of the movie— and the result is political maneuverings that can be a little sudden and bewildering.

Not confusing is the grim scene in which Willem III’s henchmen lynch the de Witts, which features explicit scenes of human butchery and Orangists dancing about with bits of human intestine.  It’s about as explicit a lynching scene as I ever care to view, thank you.

Though Willem’s future career is outside the scope of the film, Admiral nevertheless hints at his political realism, sacrificing his boyfriend Bentinck for marriage to Mary Stuart, all of which eventually lead to Willem III of Orange becoming King William III of the United Kingdom.

Charles II is played by the ever-professional Charles Dance, Tywin Lannister himself.  The film does a good job of showing the Merrie Monarch as the whore and stooge that he was, happy to sacrifice English soldiers and sailors in exchange for the French subsidy that made all that Merrie-making possible.  (Plus the occasional bout of fellatio from the slinky French spy Louise de Kerouaille, from whose fertile womb was descended Princess Diana, Sarah Duchess of York, and Camilla Duchess of Cornwall— still sleeping with royalty after all these years!)

This movie is, first of all, spectacular, and features shots of literally hundreds of warships maneuvering and shooting and burning and blowing up, all in the same frame at once.  This, and not space combat, is what CGI was made for.  As what Mr. Churchill might have called a Former Nautical Person, I found all this stuff right in my wheelhouse.

I’m not sure what the film has to offer anyone who isn’t interested in naval history and the political maneuvers of the mid-17th Century.  De Ruyter is kept so busy running from battle to crisis and back again that his character never actually becomes clear, and the action is so condensed that the audience never gets a breather.

If the subject matter is of interest to you, you’ll want to see this movie; and if it isn’t, the film will be meaningless, so don’t bother.  I’ll rate it three and a half cutlasses, and it’s currently streaming on Netflix.

John Appel May 16, 2016 at 2:40 pm

One of my current RPG campaigns sees the player characters fleeing Stockholm for Amsterdam in late summer of 1658 (after altering the timeline by inadvertently delaying the Swedish invasion of Denmark). I’ll definitely have to check this out for inspiration.

Foxessa May 16, 2016 at 6:39 pm

I’ve been sick and thus have saved Admiral for the moment I feel better.

Also, allow me to add there was another reason the Dutch were so rich — their Embarrassment of Riches century — slavery in the new world and their slave trade out of Africa to supply slaves to Caribbean and North American colonies. This is a huge economic resource over which the Dutch and the English are fighting now — control of the slave entrepots on the West African coast, above the Portuguese controlled Kongo. The Dutch first managed to push the Portugese out of the upper coasts pretty much all the way down to the equator by then. Now it was the Dutch and English fighting for control. Charlie II and his cronies had started the Royal African Company specifically to get into the African slave trade and thus Charlie could have some cash to jingle in his always cash-poor privy pockets.

The English ultimately won this one, initiating the gloriously wealthy from the slave trade 18th century for Liverpool, Bristol, London and to a degree some other cities. The slave required so much out of which to get fabulously wealthy, from ships and financing, to insurance, to all those shackles and manacles, supply, etc.

wjw May 17, 2016 at 12:56 am

And de Ruyter commanded a squadron on the Slave Coast, fighting the British over the slave camps. He later crossed the Atlantic to attack Barbados, then almost made an attempt to recapture New Amsterdam.

There is always a tendency within capitalism to commodify human beings, and the Dutch were very good at it. Even after the British dominated the African coast, the Dutch slave entrepôt at Curacao remained very rich.

Foxessa May 18, 2016 at 11:55 am

Admiral was an admirable distraction from my congestion and coughing — watched it last night. O those ships were gorgeous. But it does seem the writers could have done a bit more to identify the causes for these conflicts beyond Charlie 2 being such another feckless Stuart of the fully feckless Stuart dynasty. It would have been nice if the English adversaries at sea, such General Monck (made Duke of Albemarle), had been identified. As you say, this isn’t a film that would much appeal to anyone who isn’t interested in the history of the matter or in pitched naval battles per se.

There was probably another reason why the English — or at least the Lords — were so hot to go to war with the Dutch. So many of the protestants in the time of both James and Charlie 1 were given refuge in the protestant Netherlands, from where they plotted to take down the crown and to escape to the New World — from which they returned in droves to support Cromwell and the execution of Charles I — and, of course, get places in the administrative structure and return of their properties.

Like the slave trade which the Royal African Company was about (though he writes so often about going the Company’s house ‘on the king’s business”, this was something else that Pepys was too discreet to put details down on paper, even in his own most private diaries.

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