Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman tackles ADMIRAL -- and the epic Dutch naval warrior Michiel de Ruyter

"Our enemies think 
we are too rich and too free" 

Naval hero Michiel de Ruyter (1607-1676) is the subject of an unusually big film (for the comparatively small Dutch film industry), ADMIRAL, now streaming on Netflix. Made in 2015 by Roel Reiné, L.A.-based Dutch director (Death Race 2, The Condemned 2), it was second only in cost to Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, although modern CGI helped make it more epic. The largeness is not misplaced, as de Ruyter was, according to one writer, "one of the most amazing seaborne murder machines to ever pound his enemies to death," with seven wars, 40 engagements, and 15 massive full-scale battles under his belt in 55-plus years at sea. He waged and won so much that he became as mythic as Braveheart's hero. He went to sea as a child and grew up into a combat genius. He died in battle at 69, cut down by an enemy cannon ball after having been sent on a suicide mission by political enemies -- or so this film tells us. (On the poster above, shown left to right, are William III, de Ruyter and his wife Anna; below, a portrait of de Ruyter.)

A Dutch maritime and political historian, Gijs Rommeise, denounced the many inventions used to bring de Ruyter's story to life but he does conclude "that the viewer is treated to spectacular battle scenes...and a lavish view of the social, economic and religious life of the Dutch Golden Age." Much of the specialness of Admiral is the wide-angle look at the world of little Netherlands out of sight on the North Sea and out of mind of our own Anglo-American history. Since the film hurls you into an ocean filled with great sea warships and cannon fire debris without much historical context, here is some.

While America was covered in forest and populated by Indians, the Netherlands were appended to Spain by Catholic King Phillip ll until the Protestants of the lowlands revolted in 1572; seven Southern provinces declared themselves independent in 1581 under the leadership of William l, Prince of Orange. The period encompassed by the film (mid-to-late 1600's) was during the Dutch Golden Age. The Netherlands was the only republic in the world and possessed an empire that included New Amsterdam in America (Governor Peter Stuyvesant surrendered it to a British naval blockade in 1664 and the city became New York). Holland was the richest and most urban county in the world. It had the first stock exchange (1602), Rembrandt and Vermeer were part of its flourishing art scene, and its merchant class was prosperous and high in status. (Below is shown the Rembrandt painting of wealthy burghers).

The Dutch economy was based on sea trade, its navy tasked with guarding shipping routes and foiling invasion. They were free-traders, transporting goods around the world minus the trade duties imposed by other nations, costing the coffers and insulting the egos of the monarchs -- England's Charles ll, for instance -- of its larger rivals abroad.

Most significant to Americans, the young Republic was a federation of provinces with a representative federal government seated in the Hague (below). It had two major parties -- Orangists and Republicans. The former were conservative loyalists to King William III (played by Egbert Jan Weeber, above), wanting monarchy restored, while the Republicans were patrons of freedom of speech, religion, and legislative autonomy. Our framers were heavily influenced by the constitution of the Republic of the Dutch United Provinces.

The film meets up with Michiel de Ruyter in middle age. He had already served on whaling ships, progressed to command of vessels hunting raiders and aided in war against Spain. He bought his own ship and got rich as a trader before being redrafted into service, protecting merchant traffic from Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean and battling the English.

A series of wars by the English sought to strangle Dutch trade. De Ruyter (Frank Lammers, shown on poster, top, and three photos below) is 46 when the film opens at the battle of Scheveningen in 1653. Republican Johan de Witt (Barry Atsma) has just been elected prime minister; and as he put it, 'Our enemies think we are too rich and too free' (that's de Witt addressing the assembly, two photos above). The film makes it seem the Anglo-Dutch wars were one long battle during which de Ruyter and his family don't age or change, though from 1653 until his death (see funeral sketch below) 23 years had passed. But what does that matter in the making of a movie hero?

During his political and professional maturity, we see his collaboration with de Witt to modernize the navy and infuse military strategy into naval battles, each more effective than the last. His most daring feat in 1667, in which he invented and deployed his newly trained corps of sea soldiers or "marines", was to sail his war ships up the Thames where they torched half the British fleet and stole flagship, HMS Royal Charles, towing it home as a trophy. King Charles ll was humiliated and met Dutch terms for peace. (Charles Dance, shown below, who plays the British monarch, is only half-seriously said to have been cast to leverage some of Dance's Game of Thrones fame.)

Sanne Langelaar (below, left), as Anna de Ruyter, is not a minor figure eclipsed by her husband's fame. To this production's credit, we see Michiel's life through her eyes, as she yearns for him to stay home yet begs him to rejoin the Anglo war being waged off shore. If he doesn't go, she says, there will be no life to come back to.

Anna's character, the political wrangling at the Hague, and the ongoing naval battles are capped by de Ruyter's majestic funeral. And there you have it. The film lacks a suspenseful Braveheart-like story arc, although the horrific murder of the democratic de Witt brothers was a match to William Wallace's demise. Admiral won't be the best epic you've ever seen, but it will be as entertaining, revelatory, and satisfying to join the Netherlanders in opposing our mutual British enemy in the 1600s, as much as we Americans fought them off in the 1700s.

The above post is written by our 
monthly correspondent Lee Liberman

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