Loosely based on the Famed Mutiny on the Bounty, Damn the Defiant is a strong Napoleonic era period piece, and also an above average naval drama. But above all it is a study of two very different men and their contest of wills. Alec Guinness's Captain Crawford is a humane, fair officer who knows the value of discipline and efficiency but also understands the importance of a crew's morale and well being. His opposite in nearly every matter is first lieutenant Scott-Padget (Dirk Bogarde). Bright, ambitious, needlessly harsh and often insubordinate, Scott-Padget is a firm believer in the lash who cares only for his own advancement and is used to getting his way. A dangerous combination, and one that drives the Defiant over the edge.
Both leads put on very good performances. Guinness brings Captain Crawford's empathy and resoluteness fully to life. Although he would loathe the comparison, at times he does seem rather like a certain desert hermit in his kindly, aged wisdom. And for his part Bogarde is the epitome of a jerk. With his displays of anger, pettiness, and entitlement he makes himself very easy to hate. The production values are good, with fairly authentic costumes, sets, and other period touches. The naval battles are also quite rousing impressive, with good swordplay and effects that have stood up well considering their age.
The film's main shortcoming is that it never treats the mutiny with any serious depth. It's true that a great deal of time is dedicated to the conditions on the Defiant, and to the build-up of discontent that lead to the mutiny. It's also clear that the men have very real grievances, mostly relating to Lieutenant Scott-Padget. But no time is taken to dwell on whether their actions were justified in a time of war, or any soul searching by the men themselves. The ending leaves me inclined to agree with Captain Crawford's lenient position, yet it stills feels like too easy an answer. But perhaps I'm asking too much from what's intended as a fun war movie.
All in all, Damn the Defiant may not equal the classic Billy Bud or some of the better adaptations of Horatio Hornblower, but with good acting and good action it's a worthwhile voyage for all ages.