I saw an exhibition last Saturday called ‘Nelson and Norfolk’ at Norwich Castle Museum. Everyone in Norfolk knows that Admiral Lord Nelson was born in Norfolk and went to school in Norwich, but this fact may have escaped others not born in or not living in Norfolk. Never mind the Norfolk connection, it is a fascinating exhibition, really about the creation of the Nelson legend.
So, in Nelson’s case, given the choice between fact and legend, do you only print the legend? Not quite: in his case the facts firmly underpinned the legend. It made me think of a Death of Nelson film, on the lines of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, that is to say from the different viewpoints of those involved.
It opens in the midst of the Battle of Trafalgar, all smoke, fire, destruction, dead and dying, above all action from the still living (a bit like the film Dunkirk). The camera in a long crane shot comes to focus on a French soldier preparing his musket and crossing himself. He inserts the little round bullet, he kisses it, he shins aloft the mizzen mast carrying the musket (not easy, surely?), and proceeds to scan the decks of the Victory seeking suitable targets. Then he spies the Admiral himself – or is it the Admiral? Yes, it must be, he’s only got one arm. So he manoeuvres himself to a good position, except Nelson keeps moving about a little, and his officers and midshipmen keep getting in the way, so will he, won’t he get his shot in before he loses his chance. And then the way clears, the Admiral stands in view, the music comes to a crescendo. The Frenchman shoots; Nelson sinks into legend.
After the Long Shot, a Middle Distance view. Rewind. Do the same scene viewed by a British midshipman running messages, clearing a passage and so on. We watch the midshipman watching Nelson and then gasping when he sees him shot. (It’s a ‘Where were you when JFK was assassinated?’ moment.)
Rewind again. This time it’s a close-up view, from Nelson’s close friend, Captain Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s shock: he quickly looks where the bullet came from and sees, from a long way off, a Frenchman exultant in the rigging.
After Nelson is struck, we get the doctor’s view, choosing not to remove the bullet because the case is hopeless. Nelson only has hours to live.
The dying Nelson asks for a progress report on the sea battle. Flashback to him briefing his admirals before the battle. Digital/animated reconstruction of scenes from the battle in the manner of contemporary marine painting. Narrative up to point where Victory tangles with Redoubtable. Scene of French officer ordering sniper aloft with orders to pick out Nelson.
Scene of report given to dying Nelson of victory.
A series of tableaux of the Death of Nelson: was it like a photograph, unglamorous fact? Was it like a catholic apotheosis on the lines of a Deposition from the Cross? Was it on the orlop deck (a public spectacle)? Or in the stern cabin (a private spectacle)? The fact that it is public is important for the legend.
End with news of the victory and of the death of Nelson being brought to the Admiralty in London. After the sound and fury, silence.
Final sequence: the bullet that killed Nelson is extracted by the doctor from the corpse of Nelson – gruesome, Baconian close-up. What to do with the bullet? Hardy takes the bullet and resolves to mount it in a locket and give it to the King. The final image is of this sacred relic on display in an exhibition in the Queen’s Collection.
‘Nelson and Norfolk’ is on at the Castle Museum in Norwich until Sunday, 1 October 2017.