Okay, so I went to see Michiel de Ruyter tonight. It’s a Dutch movie about one of our best known admirals, back in the 17th century. As a lover of history, I had been intrigued about the movie ever since I saw trailers, so Gert and I decided we had to go see.
I didn’t remember a lot about Michiel de Ruyter himself from my history classes. I recognised some names of characters, and I remembered the brothers De Witt as I’d seen a painting of them last year at the Rijksmuseum.
The movie starts with a sea battle in which fleet admiral Maarten Tromp dies, witnessed by Michiel de Ruyter. After, when Michiel comes home he has been
on the road out on the oceans for the better part of the last fifteen years with only occasional breaks and he’s tired of it. As Michiel gets used to home life again with Anna, his wife, and his three remaining children (an older boy and two young girls) we cut to politics. And from here on out, there be many spoilers. Be forewarned!
Johan de Witt is named the Grand Pensionary of the States of Holland, and as a consequence of that, due to the power of Holland, the de facto leader of the whole of the United Provinces. At this time, the Anglo-Dutch War is going on, and Johan realises they need a strong man to lead their navy. Unfortunately, with the admiral of the fleet dead, he needs a new one.
Cue Michiel de Ruyter. Michiel doesn’t want to, he wants to retire. But Johan is his friend, and Michiel is dedicated to his fatherland so he relents and accepts the commission. We then get shown, in quick succession, a number of sea battles Michiel leads, winning most of them. Taking pointers from The Matrix, every time a cannon ball hits a ship we see sailors and crewmen flying around the decks in slow-motion, accompanied by a blast of sawdust and splinters.
While well-shot battle scenes, using replicas of period ships for the main action and filling it in with CGI for background, this sequence got tiresome as it was very repetitive, and besides on screen titles naming the battles, there were no dates to indicate flow of time.
During one of these battles his second in command Cornelis Tromp snaps and disobeys an order. As the son of the previous admiral, who was a hero to his men, he fully expected to take over the job. He doesn’t like Michiel and doesn’t trust his strategies. So he breaks formation to pursue two straggler ships and as a consequence, the battle is lost. Michiel is furious and fires him on the spot.
On the whole, though, the Dutch are decimating the English, culminating in a sneak attack on the Medway near London where they burn part of the English fleet anchored there, and steal the flagship. This is also the founding of the Dutch Marine Corps. The English are then somewhat willing to sign a peace treaty. Charles II of England (very well played by Charles Dance, aka Tywin Lannister) is pissed of at this, though, and conspires with the French.
At the same time, in the United Provinces, William III of Orange (nephew of Charles) is unhappy because he isn’t Stadtholder yet, and there are continuing clashes between republicans (anti-him) and orangists (pro-him). He is also a bit of a wet blanket. However, the peace treaty also comes with a demand by Charles for a better position for William so he ends up Stadtholder after all.
As time goes on, the unrest grows, the peace is broken, battles keep on happening. Political scheming also increases greatly. Meanwhile, the French are knocking at our doors in the south and Louis XIV‘s armies invade, secretly helped by Charles II. The orangists are getting really sick of Johan de Witt and his brother and conspire to have them killed. This is done in a rather gruesome way, matching the earlier mentioned, and shown here, painting.
Michiel is devastated, Johan was his best friend, but he remains first and foremost loyal to his country. Despite being a republican, William likes De Ruyter and wants to keep him on as Admiral. He reinstates Tromp and orders them to put on their big boy pants, suck it up and work together. Despite no love between them, they shake hands and seal the deal. As strategies are devised and battles planned, Tromp begins to see that Michiel is a really brilliant strategist with an excellent grasp of battle dynamics, and the role the ocean plays.
William is influenced by his power-hungry orangist retinue and starts to distrust Michiel. After a glorious victory, William announces it was thanks to Tromp’s achievements they won and Michiel realises he’s pretty fucked. He tries to retire again, so he and his wife and kids can live out their lives in (relative) peace. William has other ideas, however. After a wee shouting match in the hallways, they part. Only for William to stop him at the last minute. Michiel has declared his continuing loyalty to the land and has reaffirmed he will follow orders during the argument. So William sends him, severely outgunned, to the Mediterranean to fight.
There, Michiel and his men, knowing they will not survive, engage the enemy. When indeed he gets shot down and dies, the French they are fighting stop and give him a gun salute. Michiel is brought back home, and given a state funeral.
Overall I really enjoyed the movie. It is of an un-Dutch style and grandeur and evokes patriotism in an almost American way (think lots of flags flying and grand-standing speeches). I am personally rather allergic to patriotism, but even I could not escape it wholly while watching the film. And I don’t think I would’ve wanted it any other way. Michiel de Ruyter is, after all, one of the heroes of our tiny country. There’s some ruckus about this now, because he also did things that we now see as bad (slavery, whaling) so some people are clamoring we shouldn’t see him as a hero.
But we musts keep in mind that this is centuries ago, in a society, a world, with different morals, different laws, and frankly, a different reality. Within that context, Michiel gave everything for our country and worked tirelessly to keep us free, free to trade, free to live. Looking back on that now, we should realise that, as morality and ethics have changed over the years, so has our reality. We enacted new laws, stopped practices we now deem wrong. So yes, definitely acknowledge our history, good ánd bad, so we can learn from that, but stop overlaying your current moral viewpoint on a time and place where it is not applicable.
The actors are good, with one or two exceptions, and I liked most of the characterisations. I found the dudes playing William III and his boy-toy Hans William Bentinck to be played rather as if they were prissy weaklings, which annoyed me.
Other than that, the movie is rife with historical inaccuracies. The writer(s) played loose and fast with the timeline, both compressing it, and rearranging events as they liked it. Historically speaking, the movie covers a period of about 25 years. In the movie, it can’t be more than about three years. And even that is a stretch. There are never any dates shown, but his children at the beginning of the movie are played by the same actors as at the end, and none of them are aged in any way. Therefore, it can’t be more than just a few years.
Having said that, I recommend you watch the movie, and then spent an hour or two reading up on Actual History. The Wikipedia articles I linked are an excellent starting point.