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The movie opens with a Rutger Hauer death scene.

From his accent, it never occurred to me that Hauer was anything other than raised in America. In fact, for more than a decade before his first role in a English-language production, Hauer made his acting career in Dutch television and film. Probably you knew that.

With the movie Michiel de Ruyter (titled as Admiral in America) Hauer is back to his roots playing, briefly, the role of Admiral Maarten Tromp in a scene that introduces (then) Captain Michiel de Ruyter to the screen. The movie is being removed from Netflix in a few short days, I so I’ve taken the opportunity to watch it before it goes.

The Dutch Republic was formed in 1588 while attempting to gain independence from Spain. While the States General of the Netherlands had declared independence from Phillip of Spain some seven years earlier, attempts to find a new royal head for the confederation were exhausted before the republican government was adopted. It wasn’t until the conclusion of the Eighty Years’ War, in 1648, that Spain recognized Dutch independence.

This movie focuses on some of the national heroes who defended the independence of the Netherlands and the republican structure of government the decades following independence from Spain. The Republic spent several periods without a stadtholder (roughly translated, Steward) – a personage of noble birth who served as head of State for the Netherlands. Absent this office, the Prime Minister (then raadspensionaris, or Grand Pensionary) was the political leader for the nation.

The movie opens with an explanation that the Netherlands, absent a monarchy, drew the negative attention of the Kingdoms of Europe, interested in suppressing Republican success. Furthermore, the Dutch were at the height of economic power. Their East Indian Company had grown to be the largest private company in the history of the world. That wealth, and the domination of world trade that produced it, was also targeted (particularly by the English), resulting in several naval wars.

I didn’t know this movie was available. I’ve always been fascinated with the maritime art of this period, and have wondered why (in the era of modern technology) the industry doesn’t produce epic sea battles like I have the vaguest of memories of enjoying in my childhood. This movie takes on that challenge, and succeeds (uhhh) Admirably. Certainly more than I could hope for from a non-Hollywood produced (and financed) film. The budget for the film, at 8 million euros, was a factor of 20 below Master and Commander. Yet, it creates probably the best representation of Age of Sail warfare I’ve seen in a movie – probably far better than the wooden-models-in-a-bathtub I was probably watching when I was 7 years old.

Let’s take the Four Days’ Battle (as depicted in the film). This parenthetical disclaimer is important because the movie’s battle deviates significantly from the course of the actual battle. For starters, the battle in the movie seems to take maybe four hours, not four days. But let us work with what we’ve got.

As I’ve said, the representation of period sailing and combat is to be commended. The live-action sequences are excellent and don’t over-rely on CGI, as can happen in some lower-budget films. The CGI effects are (mostly) not noticed and the other tricks probably would have slipped by me if I wasn’t looking for them. For example, when portraying a pair of ships side-by-side, repeatedly only the masts and sails of the second ship are visible, probably because of the impossibility of staging a battle with multiple, full-sized period sailing ships.

One effective use of CGI, and its a very realistic looking effect at that, is to occasionally show the proverbial 30,000′ view of the battle. The tactics of the battle can be seen quite clearly in a way that is utterly impossible from the ship level. For the Four Days’ Battle, we are shown several key moments in the fight; the initial deployments into line, the development of a gap in the Dutch line and its exploitation by the English, and then a battle-winning countermove by the Dutch. It is just the stuff you want to capture in an epic strategy game.

The question is how do you do it. By and large*, the depiction of Age of Sail in the gaming world is to give the player control over sails (using wind speed, direction, and the amount of sail) and cannons (through broadsides and reload times). This would seem to capture the essence of commanding a fighting ship, particularly when some management of the crew is tossed in for good measure. The vast majority of Age of Sail PC game designs seem to have been based upon miniatures rules (or, perhaps, cardboard counter games very similarly structure), enhancing for real time or perhaps just additional tracking of resources. This gives you some sense of the thrill of trying to manage the wind, and the waves, and the gunpowder to get an upper-hand on your opposite number, although less so than perhaps I’d always hoped for**. At this level, however, there is an upper limit to the number of ships you can command in battle. Either it gets too frantic to keep track of every ship in a real time game, or in a turn based environment, simply tedious to have to visit dozens of ships each turn.

In theory, there is another level of command that could be modeled.  Developing strategies, maintaining formations, and managing the weather gauge for a fleet as a whole seems it would be full of strategic possibilities. Command issues abound, from the communication difficulties of the time to the need to coordinate between ships, each with their own sailing characteristics and capabilities. Such coverage would open the possibility of reliving the major fleet actions of the time.

Many of these issues are managed well before the battle is underway. For example, the experience of a captain and crew are going make a big difference in ship effectiveness. Most sailing games take into account crew rating, but just saying the crew of The Revenge is a “B,” that seems to miss the point. It means your “die rolls” will need to be a little better to be successful, but usually there isn’t much you can do about that.

In the film, the battle is preceded by a sequence where, as De Ruyter takes command of the navy, he institutes a number of innovations that become the key to his later victory. Some are accurate – it really was at this time that De Witt and De Ruyter formed the Netherlands Marine Corps. Other factors seem to be rather embellished to help the story, and fit directly into the depiction of this particular battle. The movie shows the two of them inventing a new signal flag code, constructing a new set of ships based on modernized design, and instituting additional training regimens. This preparation had as much to do with victory as the implementation of that strategy on the day (ahem) of the battle.

So is it possible to create a “Admiral Simulator” and make an effective game of it? Food for thought.

As to the film itself, it does pretty well, considering it is a big film on a (relatively) small budget. It was filmed on location in the Netherlands and uses style and a color palette to evoke the Dutch art of the 17th century. The story told by the movie is greatly truncated, limiting the (massively expensive) battle scenes other difficulties that might have been required to actually depict dozens of battles over a 25-year period. Observing the characters themselves, and particularly the children, it would appear that no more than 2-3 years pass over the course of the movie. While the film necessarily focuses more on the personal drama that took place between actions, that drama is considerably less insipid than what I’ve seen from similar works. Yes, the film wanders considerably from the historical facts, but stays close enough to succeed as a representation of history, if not true accounting.

I will say that this film has less excuse, compared to those taking place some 200 years before, because the details of history are much more available. And I do have to weigh in on  the scene near the end where de Ruyter is killed, as it pushed me almost to my limit. Contrary to the historical evidence I’ve seen, his on-camera death is directly caused by the betrayal of Prince William (on the advice of the Orangist politicians). De Ruyter is shown fighting his last battle, at a massive disadvantage, apparently set up for such by his opponents. In fact, while he fought his final battle at a numerical disadvantage, it seemed to be fairly slight. For dramatic effect, De Ruyter’s wife and William himself both feel the moment of his death, despite being half a continent away. I guess, artistically, depicting how the “whole nation” felt his death.

Whatever its faults, I’m glad I caught this one before it disappeared.

*The term “by and large” is actually derived from nautical language.

**I don’t know I’ve seen good handling of some of the edge cases of sailing, and it would seem that these are what would make a game come alive the way the classic novels and movies do. For example, one feature of most maritime movies is a chase where ships try to eek out an extra knot out of their ship. Precise alignment with the wind or handling of the sails can make all the difference. Also, few games allow tacking into the wind. Granted, coming about across a wind was risky, and a lesser crew could not only easily find itself “in irons” (without power or steering, facing directly into the wind), but the huge shift in forces could also damage masts and rigging. But all good sailing stores feature masterful handling by the heroic captain. Indeed, Admiral features De Ruyter lulling the French into a wind-and-tide trap, and then bringing his entire line of battle about, to double back and destroy them. In most sailing games I’ve played, this would be impossible.