It is 1808, and two ships -- an illegal slave trading vessel and part of the British Royal Navy fleet -- clash off the western part of Africa. After a fierce battle, a few survivors wash ashore an unnamed island, including an illegally enslaved African man, a slaver, a conniving British lieutenant and Victoria, a sailor hiding her identity as a woman.
As the group tries to get their bearings and regroup, their loyalties, beliefs and desires clash once again, as Victoria fights not just to survive, but also to remain true to own sense of justice.
Directed by Traci Hays from a script written by Becky Wangberg, this short historical drama focuses on the struggles of a group of survivors of an earlier clash. That conflict -- between the British navy and a ship still seeking to exploit the enslavement of human beings -- carries over to a more intimate scale, where the storytelling focuses on a group that washes ashore on an unnamed island.
There is still plenty of epic grandeur that will please fans of historical dramas, from the sweeping cinematography to the rich orchestral musical score to the heightened dramatic stakes that keep the storytelling gripping and compelling. But the story winnows down to Victoria's struggle. At first, Victoria fights to free the enslaved African man Tue, fueled by outrage as her lieutenant reveals his greed and venality.
But as her opponents assert themselves with brutality and the tension escalates, it becomes a battle to stay alive, as the men around Victoria resort to violence, rendered here with a visceral immediacy. But as Victoria leans on her resilience, actor Johanna Watts emerges as a capable, resourceful heroine with each development in the plot, and just as she faces her lowest point, she can find her mettle and stand her ground.
With its swordplay, shipwrecks and survivalist flourishes, "Lions Among Men" easily falls into the action-adventure side of the historical genre. Unfortunately, this particularly fascinating story can't go deeply into character or context -- we'd love to learn why Victoria disguised herself to go out to sea, or see the vicious naval battle preceding the main action. But it still touches upon the social and economic cross-currents that gave the 19th century its tumult and rapid change. Then it offers up a feisty tale of its most vulnerable people surviving against the odds and finding their own version of freedom.