Sunday, October 21, 2012

Trafalgar Day Meets Me and the First Filmed James Bond

Lord Horatio Nelson and the first screen appearance of
James Bond share a particular detail with me: October 21. It was the date Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; the date the Climax! anthology series on CBS brought Ian Flemming's Casino Royal to the small screen with Barry Nelson as James Bond in 1954, eight years before Dr. No; and the date I landed on earth (and never you mind what year that was).

The date of your birth is a defining detail of your life, even if you share it with about 300,000 others, the most consistent stat I could find for the daily worldwide birth rate.  (And side note, Apple has now surpassed that number, as Luke Wroblewski tweeted "There are more iPhones sold per day (402k) than people born in the World per day (300k)" More on that here.)

Your birth calendar date is distinct because it's one of your life's defining dates that you get to know, but don't get to choose. Weddings, important employment dates, moving dates you pretty much get to chose. The other defining date—of your death—you don't even get to know. So for me at least, I have always felt a connection to the people and events of 21 October.

The Greatest Hero of the British Navy
My path has crossed Lord Nelson's in various ways. First was That Hamilton Women which I saw as a kid and haven't seen since. I later learned that while Nelson lost his sight in his right eye, he never wore an eye patch! Hollywood strikes again.

I visited the Nelson Dockyards in Antigua when the BFF was working at Carlisle Bay, a Campbell Gray resort in St. Mary's. It's the only continuously working Georgian dockyard in the world, build in English Harbour in the sixteenth century. Nelson was there from 1784 to 1787 as captain of the HMS Boreas, sent to Angtigua to enforce British law in the colonies. I looked at the restored buildings and tried to imagine Olivier/Nelson under that sparkling Caribbean blue sky, which would later be outdone by the sun of Naples.

I have sung the Lord Nelson Mass, the nickname for Haydn's Missa in Angustiis, Mass in Troubled Times, because its first performances came just as Nelson trounced Napoleon in Egypt, the great Battle of the Nile. In 1800 Nelson visited Palais Esterhazy with Lady Hamilton, and may have heard it performed.

But it's Susan Sontag's sweeping historical novel, The Volcano Lover, that brought me the closest to the admiral. I read it when I visited Pompeii with Cadfael and we visited Vesuvius.

Her description at the Battle of Tenerife, where his arm had to be amputated:

'The boat he had stepped out of a right-handed hero, drawing his sword to lead a nighttime amphibious assault on a Spanish fort; the boat that received his senseless body as he fell backward, his right elbow shattered by grape. He had regained consciousness, clawing at the tourniquet near his shoulder. . . he insisted on stopping to pick up survivors. Raging at those who would have helped him, Let me alone! I have my legs left, and one arm! he twisted a rope around his left arm and hauled himself on board, called for a surgeon to come and cut the right one, high up, and a half hour later was on his feet, giving orders to his flag captain in a severe, calm voice.

Now his was a left-handed hero.'

Sontag is mocking her hero a bit, as she follows this paragraph with a made-up, almost Monty Python feat of a physical bravery of some other captain, but that doesn't detract from the physical pain Horatio endured. Beyond the loss of his sight and his arm, he lost all of his teeth in battle, and suffered severe head wounds.

The novel captures the menage a trois between the British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma Hamilton, and Nelson, who went to Naples on his way to the Egypt campaign, and then returned, injured, when he was taken in to be nursed by Emma and they fell passionately in love.

It does not follow Admiral Lord Nelson to the deck of the HMS Victory at Trafalgar on October 21, but we hear the news and devastating effect on Lady Hamilton from her mother:

Everyone deserted her, even the one she loved most, though he did not mean to die, but why go about the boat in his admiral's frock coat and his stars so a French sharpshooter could find him easy and kill him, if he wanted to stay alive and come back to her.  Men are so foolish.

A personal loss was a country's glory: it was the most decisive British navel victory of the Napoleonic Wars and confirmed Britain's naval supremacy.

Trafalgar Day was a very big deal in 2005 on the two hundredth anniversary.  This year, according to  The Nelson Society site: "It is fitting that at  midday on Sunday 21st October STS Lord Nelson will slip her moorings in Southampton to start an epic world  circumnavigation including a leg around Cape Horn in the spirit of the old clippers." And so the memory and honors live on.

Bond. Jimmy Bond.

On October 21, 1954, the very first moving image depiction of James Bond hit the small screen on the CBS anthology drama series, Climax!. Surprised, aren't you?

Climax brought together a lot of talented people at the dawn of commercial programming, including John Frankenheimer, and composers Jerry Goldsmith & Bernard Herrmann, and producer Martin Manulis.

I don't know why/how Barry Nelson got cast and made the role an American, Jimmy Bond, while Peter Lorre was an inspired Le Chiffre.  More about the production is at this Bond site.

So it was a historic moment, not a successful one.

Just like birthdays.