A Century On: Rescreening Maurice Elvey's Nelson Film

Lucie Dutton's picture
On Saturday 29 September 2018, a very exciting film screening is taking place at the No.6 Cinema in Portsmouth - a rare showing of Maurice Elvey's 1918 film biography of Nelson. The screening is taking place on an auspicious date: the 260th anniversary of the birth of Admiral Lord Nelson; and is being shown in an appropriate venue: just around the corner from HMS Victory.
If he is remembered at all today, Maurice Elvey tends to be simply thought of as Britain's most prolific director. He started making films in 1913, in the silent days, and successfully made the transition to sound, finally retiring in 1957. His films were diverse in style, genre and quality, which makes it challenging to assess his career overall, but in his early filmmaking days, he was recognised as a leading figure in the British film industry, and one of his most important films - and probably his most personal project - was Nelson.
Elvey first came up with the idea of making a film biography of Nelson in 1913, but none of the many film companies he approached were tempted by his enthusiasm. Undeterred, he worked on other films and carried on thinking of Nelson for 5 years until, finally, in 1918, a firm called International Exclusives backed his idea. With the screenwriter Eliot Stannard, Elvey developed a wide-ranging scenario that both covered Nelson's life and also explored the continued importance of Nelson to the Navy of the First World War. The production was planned on a large scale - huge numbers of extras were recruited, numerous locations were chosen, lavish sets were built, and a fine cast assembled, notably Donald Calthrop and Eric Barker as Nelson, man and boy, Ivy Close as Lady Nelson, and Malvina Longfellow as Lady Hamilton. Most importantly, Elvey was granted rare permission by the Admiralty to film on HMS Victory, where, with his favoured camera operator Alfonso Frenguelli, he recreated key scenes from Nelson's naval career. Filming was challenging, but Elvey was delighted to be working on such a large scale to achieve his ambition. He was well on the way to delivering a finished project, when, on the night of Tuesday 18 June, a fire at the printing works of the London Film Company, destroyed key sequences of Nelson. So Elvey, the actors, and the crew rushed back to Portsmouth, and then to the studios, and retook the lost scenes, under considerable pressure - many of the people involved were committed to other projects, and time was very short.
Unusually for a British film of this period, Nelson survives in what appears to be a complete form, so it is still possible to watch it a century on. It's a fascinating watch. It is flawed, and the fire left its mark on the quality of some of the scenes, but it is still a remarkable achievement - and a significant piece of British film history. Many reviewers of a century ago thought highly of the film, it seems to have done very well at the box office, and there is evidence that its original audiences enjoyed it. We will have to wait to see what the audience of 2018 makes of it, but it will certainly provoke discussion!
The History Project holds an interview with Maurice Elvey, which was carried out in October 1963 when he talked to Ralph Bond about his early career. In this interview, Elvey talks briefly about Nelson and working on the Victory. He told Bond, "That's the most moving thing I've ever done, to reproduce the death of Nelson. This was something that frightened me - I'd never do such a thing again".
The September 2018 screening is being organised by South West Silents, with live music from Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne, and an introduction from the History Project's Dr Lucie Dutton.