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VINE VOICEon June 30, 2002
This film is described as an adaptation of Dava Sobel's book of the same name. It is far more than an adaptation, however. Charles Sturridge took a somewhat threadbare tale and turned it into a stirring, dramatic account of the life, tribulations, and ultimate achievement of the 18th century English horologist, John Harrison. It's not that Sobel's book is poorly written. It is in fact entertaining and engrossing as far as it goes. The trouble is that she doesn't go into enough detail and leaves a lot of questions unanswered for the reader. Sturridge takes up her story and fleshes it out, providing the sort of background and character development that the book lacks. Providing the audience with a parallel storyline involving the WWI veteran, Rupert Gould (briefly noted in Sobel's book) also is a stroke of genius on the writer/director's part. The parallels between the lives of the earlier inventor and the shell-shocked vet are striking and poignant.
It does nothing to hurt Sturridge's cause to have assembled such a sterling British cast. Irons and Gambon have great roles to their credit, but they surpass themselves in this production. Sturridge has demonstrated that he can squeeze good acting out of a virtual lemon (Ted Danson in Sturridge's adaptation of "Gulliver's Travels"). He has far more to work with here, and the results are remarkable. Gambon, perhaps best known to American audiences for his lead role in "The Singing Detective," and the recent "Gosford Park," again delivers the goods in this masterful performance. He captures perfectly his character's idiosyncrasies, vicissitudes and ultimate triumph.
Much of the series of course focuses on the "chase" for a solution to the longitude problem that plagued seamen from time immemorial. Methods for determining longitude before the chronometer was invented ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Heavenly charts were sometimes supplanted by such ludicrous schemes as "the wounded dog method". The following is a transcription of a dialogue delivered by the method`s inventor:
" Now, it is vital to my process, Sir Edmund, that each dog be wounded with the *same knife*, as these three animals have been, under my instructions, some three days ago. Now, the animals are then to be conveyed aboard one of His Majesty's ships, uh, under the supervision of a designated officer, whose task it is to *prevent the wound from healing*. Now the knife, however, would remain here, in London, and at *precisely noon*, each day, is to be plunged into the Powder of Sympathy, which would immediately aggravate the wound, so that each dog, no matter how many thousands of miles away he may be on his particular vessel, would begin to howl... thus."
Clearly, there was a need for a practical solution to this age-old problem, as thousands of sailors were placed in constant peril, owing to the fact that, without a reliable method, they really couldn't get their bearings. This is one area where Sobel does a very good job in her book describing the difficulty in determining longitude, versus the rather simple methods for calculating latitude. That a rather simple man of humble origins could work out the method was disconcerting to several members of the vaunted Board of Longitude, which was composed of members of the ruling class. Harrison's chief detractor and a rival for his claim of the longitude prize (20,000 pounds, equivalent to almost a million dollars by today's standards) was Sir Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne comes across in the film and in Sobel's book as a rather arrogant, self-inflated snob, who engages in actual subterfuge of Harrison's claims. Viewers/readers may be interested to note that Maskelyne also appears as a character in Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon," also in an unflattering light.
In terms of a recommendation, I would have to give Sobel's book between three and four stars. While it is highly readable and engaging, it leaves way too many avenues and dramatic possibilities unexplored. Sturridge fills in all the gaps, and then some. It is not often that I recommend a film over a book, but in this instance, the film is a far richer and satisfying experience.
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on August 6, 2000
I first watched this story on A&E network, but only saw the last few minutes of it. The second time I caught it was the same, but I saw even less of it, frustratingly broken up with the inevitable commercials. However, since celestial navigation at sea is one of my skills and interests, I ordered the VHS tapes (there are four of them.)

One of my Bowditches (American Practical Navigator), attests to the accuracy of the research involved in the story. John Harrison, the son of an English carpenter, was born in Yorkshire in 1693. He followed his father's trade but soon became interested in the repair and construction of clocks. In 1714 the British Parliament offered a reward of 20,000 pounds sterling for an accurate method of finding longitude at sea, which can be found using spherical trigonometry with an accurate time piece set to and kept at the time of the place of departure. (For practical purposes, all such chronometers are set to the time of the so-called Greenwich meridian--the Prime Meridian, which traverses Greenwich, England.) Since it requires approximately 24 hours for a complete rotation of the earth (360 degrees), each hour of time the earth rotates 15 degrees regardless of the latitude (At the equator, the surface spin is faster.

Harrison undertook to make such a timepiece, and submitted his first attempt (Harrison No. 1) to the Longitude Board in 1735, at the age of 42. Eventually he submitted a total of four separate instruments, before he was finally awarded the prize money at the age of 80, and then only through the intervention of the Crown and, in the story, the Parliament.

This movie is the story of his struggle against the obstinacy, deceitfulness, arrogance, superciliousness and pomposity of the astronomers on the board, who sought to solve the problem with lunar observations, and to prevent it being won by a "simple carpenter."

The movie is masterfully acted by Michael Gambon, as John Harrison, and a parallel story involving a Royal Navy commander, Rupert Gould (played by Jeremy Irons) is meaningfully incorporated, by flashing from one to the other, which relieves some of the tension and serves almost as well as background narration. As the story explains, at the end, Gould is also a historical person who died in 1948, and who did much to restore John Harrison's timepieces and eventually became director of the British Horological Society and curator of the museum in which Harrison's timepieces are shown.

An excellent movie, well-acted and entertaining as well as educational.

Joseph Pierre
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on January 12, 2004
In the 18th century much had already been achieved in the exploration of the world: In addition to the achievements of Columbus, Cabot , Vespucci, Cartier, da Gama and others in the discovery of the Americas, Portuguese sailors commissioned by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) had sailed along the western African coast; Bartolomeu Dias (1457-1500) had circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope; Vasco da Gama had been the first explorer to reach India by sea (1498); 1518-19 had seen Francisco Magellan's almost-complete global circumnavigation; in the mid-16th century Portuguese merchants and Jesuit missionaries had made contact with Japan; and about 50 years later the Dutch had established their first trading posts in South-East Asia. On their voyages, these early explorers had overcome storms, hunger, scurvy and uncertainty about their exact course and the feasibility of their aim; and they had suffered from a severe navigational handicap: For while it is comparatively easy to determine latitude, the exact determination of longitude requires consideration of the world's fourth dimension - time. Only the knowledge how long the rotation of the earth vis-a-vis the sun takes from one point to another enables a seaman to determine where precisely he is at any given moment; wherefore he needs to know both the time at his departure port and the time aboard ship. The inability to make that determination invariably adds the danger of getting lost at sea to the perils of every naval voyage (and in fact, even da Gama's Indian expedition was almost derailed when the navigator miscalculated his position off the African coast).

Having emerged from the shadow of the continental European powers and become a major seafaring nation in its own right, the England of the Age of Reason was no longer willing to sacrifice thousands of sailors to the inability of determining longitude. After the 1707 death of over 2000 men under the command of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovel, who had mistaken his ships' position for the coast of Brittany while in fact sailing right into the Scilly Islands off the coast of Cornwall, Queen Anne in 1714 signed an act promising a reward of 20,000 pounds (today, approximately $5 million) to the discoverer of a "practicable and useful solution to the problem of finding longitude at sea." Among those taking the bait were proponents of rocket signals, would-be scientists working with injured dogs and a so-called "powder of sympathy" - and a self-taught Yorkshire carpenter named John Harrison (Michael Gambon).

"Longitude," based on Dava Sobel's novel of the same name, tells the story of Harrison's quest; expanding the book's premise, however, and contrasting it with that of Navy Commander Rupert Gould (Jeremy Irons), who - having suffered a nervous breakdown in WWI - unearthed and restored Harrison's by then almost-forgotten chronometers. Originally a TV mini-series, this is in fact one single coherent film; realized with the broad vision of a big-screen approach to filmmaking. Part naval adventure, part historic docudrama, the movie first and foremost explores the two lead characters' hearts and souls: That of the mercurial (yet, with his chronometers infinitely patient) Harrison and that of the fragile Gould; the former a puritan on a scientific mission, the latter searching for his peace of mind, hoping to regain it by giving new life to Harrison's timekeepers. They are united by their infinite respect for all watches and clocks, which to them are living things - dearer, in a way, than their own flesh and blood - and by a screenplay joining their stories into a single rhythm of discovery, setbacks, apparent triumph, despair and fulfillment; seamlessly cutting between the 18th century's candle-lit world and that of the 20th century and its technical advances.

Both Harrison and Gould are at odds with society's established rules: Harrison, in the eyes of the Board of Longitude created to oversee the 1714 act, is utterly unworthy of receiving the prize; awarding it to him, according to board member Lord Morton, would be letting "the longitude prize [be] stolen by a country toolmaker." Gould on the other hand, by sacrificing his marriage to the work on Harrison's chronometers, risks scandal and social isolation. And the juxtaposition of Harrison's ever-more practical approach (eventually resulting in the creation of a chronometer just a little over 5 inches in diameter, capable to measure longitude within the revolutionary degree of approximately 1 minute or about 1 mile) and the method favored by the astronomers on the Board of Longitude (lunar observation, soon earning them and their darling, Astronomer Royal-to-be Reverend Nevil Maskelyne (Samuel West) the nickname "lunatics" in the Harrison household) is a classic tale of David vs. Goliath, and remains so even after Harrison Sr. is joined by his son William (Ian Hart). Although his benefactor Graham has once suggested that, after having convinced the Admiralty and the Royal Society's initial appointees to the Board, Harrison's real test will be the politicians, it finally falls to Parliament to come to his aid, more than 50 years after he has begun his work; and after the intervention of stout Harrison supporter First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State Lord Sandwich, Australian explorer Captain James Cook, and eventually even King George III, who likewise fancies himself a scientist.

In addition to director Charles Sturridge's vision, "Longitude" benefits from the great sense of authenticity displayed by cinematographer Peter Hannan, production designers Eileen Diss and Chris Lowe and costume designer Shirley Russell - and from a cast list that virtually reads like a "who is who" of contemporary British cinema; featuring inter alia, besides Gambon, Irons, Hart and West, Gemma Jones (Elizabeth Harrison), Anna Chancellor (Muriel Gould) and Brian Cox (Lord Morton), as well as brief appearances by Stephen Fry as "powder of sympathy" proponent Sir Kelnhelm Digby and German actress Heike Makatsch as King George's wife Charlotte. - This is a complex, fascinating movie; one of televisions's finest hours in recent years: Nothing for the mere casual viewer, but truly rewarding to anyone willing to join Harrison and Gould in their voyage of discovery.

Also recommended:
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love
A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks (Nation Books)
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on September 27, 2000
I saw this movie both in its original form as broadcast on A&E and as a VCR tape. The movie is a stunning example of the power of a well written script, a director with vision and actors that can portray real people. The editing of this movie would win an Academy Award if it were eligible. The weaving of two lives, 200 years apart into one cohesive story line is a wonder to behold.
The movie subject is complicated and requires viewer attention. I found the science and the emotion of the time, including class prejudices to be right on. The movie making craft was no better than when the viewer is transported out to sea and witnesses the brutal reality of sailing in the 1700's. A scene when the young Harrison of about 6 or 7 lectures Sir Edmund Haley on the celestal observations of the sun and the accuracy of their own clock is priceless. Some might call the movie predictable at the end, but I think it is fine movie making to remind us that without Harrison, the voyages of James Cook and others after him would never have been successful without his time keepers.
This movie has passion, action, love and devotion. It reminds all of us that to move the human race along to the next plateau requires more than what most of us are willing to risk today.
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on July 11, 2000
I just watched this docudrama this weekend, and while it is too early to see if critics will give this film any latitude, I will.
As a historian, I often long for at least a blend of authenticity when discussing historical events. Often, as in Jean d'Arc films, accuracy is forgotten in leiu of mythology. Longitude give us the story of one of the greatest quests in history, and remains true to Dava Sobel's book on John Harrison and his son William. The two of which have perhaps saved more mariner's lives than life preservers! One mistake of a few minutes cost more than 1,700 men their lives in one incedent.
The drawback to accuracy is length, as this is a four hour film. However, it took the Harrisons 40 years to construct the four clocks/watches, thus an hour per decade seems reasonable.
If you care about maritime travel, history or clocks, this film will keep you interested for the entire four hours.
Exodus I; BA History EWU
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on June 22, 2004

Note: This review has been written from a city with the following position on Earth:

LATITUDE: (43 degrees 2 minutes North)
LONGITUDE: (81 degrees 9 minutes West)

This 3 hour 20 minute movie (based on the 1995 book of the same name by Dava Sobel) that was first on television in 1999 is "a sweeping epic that takes place in two worlds." The two worlds are the eighteenth century of John Harrison (1693 to 1776) and the twentieth century of Lieutenant Commander Rupert Gould (1890 to 1948). This movie chronicles the life of Harrison who builds sea clocks and alternates his story with Gould's who restores Harrison's clocks and at the same time restores his own health. (Note that most of Sobel's book is concerned with Harrison's story while only four pages in the last chapter of her book are devoted to Gould's story.)

The beginning of this movie is narrated and lasts less than three minutes. However, this narration is probably the most important part of this movie because it tells the viewer about latitude and longitude, indirectly how to calculate longitude, how time is related to longitude, and why longitude was so difficult to measure "during most of human history." (How to determine latitude was discovered centuries before this.)

I felt this narration was adequate but it did not mention one simple and important fact:

In 24 hours, the Earth spins 360 degrees on its axis from east to west. (Thus, as the narrator states, four minutes of time equals one degree of longitude east or west.)

The first of two DVDs tells the story of how ships (with their crew and valuable cargo) were being lost at sea because they could not determine their position properly since their navigators were unable to calculate the ship's longitude accurately. As a result, the British parliament offered a reward that's equivalent to many millions of dollars today to anyone who could practically solve "the longitude problem."

Most of the scientists of this time thought that this problem's solution, even at sea, was astronomical. However, a lone genius, simple carpenter, and clockmaker named John Harrison (acted superbly by Michael Gambon) knew the fact stated above, so he reasoned that time was the solution to this problem.

So Harrison began building a clock (eventually called a "chronometer") that would be accurate enough to be used by a ship at sea. (Realize at this time there were only pendulum clocks that were quite bad at keeping time on a swaying ship at sea.) The viewer is shown Harrison constructing his clocks with it's many components. As well, we are shown the final beautiful result -- a clock that was to be used at sea. (Note that this first clock was named "H-1.") We are also shown the maiden voyage of H-1 as it's tested in 1736 on a ship bound for Lisbon (with Harrison, a non-sailor, on board). H-1 worked well during this trial. Because of Harrison's perfectionism, he elected after this trial, to build a better clock called H-2 (which was never tested). H-2 led to H-3 (which was also not tested).

As mentioned above, we are also shown scenes of Rupert Gould's life (very well-acted by Jeremy Irons) that alternate with Harrison's adventure described above. We are made aware that Gould's own life was tragic. As a result, he volunteers as a sort of therapy to restore clocks H-1, H-2, and H-3 that, in his time, were almost two centuries old. The result is that the viewer is shown more of the exterior and interior of Harrison's beautiful and complex "timekeepers" and how they actually work.

The second DVD tells us of Harrison's masterpiece -- H-4 (that was the size of a large pocket watch). As with H-1, H-4 is tested in 1761 on a ship bound for Jamaica with Harrison's grown son (well-acted by Ian Hart) on board. This timepiece worked well.

Also we are shown how Harrison had trouble collecting his monetary prize. In fact, we hear one official on the board (the "Board of Longitude") responsible for bestowing this prize say, "I would not wish to see the longitude prize stolen by a country toolmaker." As fate would have it, an astronomer who favored an astronomical method, Nevil Maskelyne (well-acted by Sam West) became the head of this board, causing further delays. Harrison has to seek the assistance of King George the Third (well-acted by Nick Rowe) to cut through this bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, Gould finishes restoring the clocks and manages at the same time to overcome his own problems.

The acting of those indicated above and the supporting cast is exquisite. The cinematography is breath-taking with the scenes at sea very realistic. All costumes that represented the two alternating time periods transport the viewer back to those periods. The movie itself has it all: intrigue, science, history, geography, astronomy, navigation, clockmaking, ambition, and greed.

A minor complaint is that a simple calculation for determining longitude was not shown. As well, the DVD only has one extra feature called "Behind the Scenes."

Finally, although not absolutely necessary, I recommend reading Sobel's book before viewing this movie. Doing this will enhance your enjoyment and understanding of the movie.

In conclusion, this movie was an A&E production. As a result, viewing this movie is definitely "time well spent."

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on July 16, 2000
I suspect the reason I was drawn to this film was my love of gadgets. What I found was a story of a man with a passion and his decades-long battle with a prejudiced bureaucracy. Michael Gambon gives a wonderful performance as John Harrison, whose 18th century quest for an accurate timepiece that would work at sea is continuously met by a review board with a fixed agenda. Their agenda is not that of Harrison, as they steadfastly believe that a gadget is not a "scientific" solution to the problem of maritime navigation.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to include Rupert Gould (played by Jeremy Irons) in their story who, two centuries later, worked to reconstruct the neglected machines of Harrison. We are led to believe that, due to a lack of credentials, Gould and Harrison are a lot alike. But Gould is presented as a pathetic creature whose personal problems ruin his life, while Harrison is given as a strong-willed man who will devote his life to attaining his goal. The insight we are allowed about the workings and history of the devices, as told by Gould, would have fit nicely in the historical account. I found Gould's interruptions an irritating detraction from an otherwise compelling drama. (Without Gould's character, I could have given this 5 stars.)
I didn't find the film's length to be a problem. Gambon's portrayal of Harrison has enough to hold my interest, as is the storyline. And, while I understand this is an historically accurate story, this is more drama than docudrama. However, I don't feel that Longitude is worthy of being priced so high. This knocks off one more star for me.
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on December 3, 2002
I initially purchased this work for use with a 5th grade class doing an exploration of the problems surrounding the need for calculating longitude in early exploration and seagoing. My 5th grade class was riveted by excerpts from the story and always disappointed when we had to shut off the VCR to attend to the hands-on aspect of the project! They weren't alone as I have easily watched this work three times with pleasure. Based on the book by Dava Sobel, Longitude shows the typical A&E high quality stamp (particularly the network's talent for authentic sea and period pieces) by juxtaposing Rupert Gould's early 20th century restoration of the Harrison clocks with the actual story of Harrison's lifetime struggle for perfection and recognition. Both stories are compelling and the acting of high quality. A highly recommended series for private and academic collections.
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I have watched this story a few times and a couple of times with my children. Always I find new things in this telling of the tale of how Harrison gave us our first ability to find our way across the oceans by knowing longitude with confidence through the accuracy of his timekeepers.
The performances by Gambon and Irons are powerful. Just as powerful is the way the story of the builder and the the restorer of 200 years later are intertwined. Their individual stuggles, both personal and technical, are seen more clearly by telling the story this way. This is a skillful crafted movie.
But more than that it is just a wonderful story that is fun to watch. And then there is the payoff of having so many wonderful lessons to teach.
The set also contains a featurette on the making of the movie that is also entertaining and informative. The best part is that my eight year old asked me to get out our copy of Dava Sobel's book (the illustrated version) so we could read it together.
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on July 21, 2000
This is an amazing story about one of the most important discoveries of mankind. The topic is so monumental in the development of our civilized world, yet so rarely featured. To see the amazing dedication of these 2 men from such different generations, one with a passion to discover and the other a passion to restore life to the inventors masterpieces. The actors draw you into the double-edged story line, causing you to eagerly await the changing of every scene. Many books have been written about the search for the timepiece to enable sailors to plot longitude, but every collection should contain this visual feast. It is a sea lovers must.
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