Master and Commander

Peter Weir's Master and Commander

That war is hell must always be a profounder fact than war is romance; nevertheless, war goes on being romance. Combine this with the further facts that the sea is romance, that the past is romance, and that the British imperial past holds peculiar romantic appeal for a large sector of the American middle class, and you can understand the opportunity Peter Weir seized when he undertook the adaptation of two volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey sea saga. To say that Weir has made the most of his opportunity is an understatement. The movie’s portmanteau title, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, may be clumsy, but the film itself is sinewy and graceful. Like most romances, it sings an ode to heroism and etherealizes brutal facts without ever quite overlooking those facts. It has a conscience about what war does to frail humanity, but that conscience never punctures the hero worship that’s the heartbeat of this entertainment.

Curiously, in this tale of Aubrey and crew pursuing a deadly French man-of-war to the equator, there are two heroes being worshiped, yet one of them never appears on screen. Lord Horatio Nelson looms over the action as a sort of patron saint of the British navy battling Napoleon in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Since the movie’s other (visible) hero, Captain Jack Aubrey, had contact with Nelson, Aubrey’s barely pubescent midshipmen beg to be told what the fabled commander said, did, looked like. They might as well be religious pilgrims longing to touch the hem of a pope’s alb. Aubrey doesn’t disappoint them: “With Nelson, you felt your heart glow.” This is said quietly, reverentially, during dinner at the captain’s table and is followed by a moment of hallowed silence. It’s as if modern irony had been strangled at birth, as if the collected works of Robert Altman, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks, hero deflators to a man, had been deposited in one furnace and burned to cinders.

And when one of those midshipmen loses an arm in battle, the captain brings to the ship’s infirmary a book about Nelson’s exploits. When the maimed boy turns to the first illustration and beholds the even more maimed Nelson, one-armed and one-eyed, we understand that Aubrey is not only consoling the boy but also showing him a high-water mark to sail toward. Aubrey himself has already achieved that mark. In a sense, he is Nelson, or at least Nelson’s avatar. Aubrey and his crew hero-worship Nelson from afar while we in the audience hero-worship Aubrey. (Of course, C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books work the same way, but in a blunter style. “Just a bunch of guys swinging swords around,” sneered an O’Brian fan.)

But how can we, after Vietnam and amid the current Iraq squalor, get wide-eyed and mushy before the shrine of arms and the man? The answer is a tribute to the seductiveness of moviemaking and, beyond that, the seductiveness of all art. Through the skillful alternation of realistic detail with dreamy visuals; through good casting and acting; through being tactful about when emotion can be fully expressed and when it must be buttoned up in British stoicism; and-perhaps most of all-by subtly tinting Aubrey’s basically macho persona with the colors of a kindly schoolmaster, this superlatively filmed romance entrances us if we have even the slightest desire to be entranced.

Like James Cagney, who ignited his stardom by playing gangsters and spent his maturity playing authority figures such as Admiral “Bull” Halsey, Crowe has gone from the insolent street toughs of Proof and Romper Stomper to making insolence look foolish, even uncool, next to company men like Aubrey. Perhaps Crowe is able to bring this off so well because, while keeping his spine straight and his voice masterful, he preserves a glint of mischief in his eyes. After floating a twelve-year-old midshipman out alone into a fog to guide a miniature decoy-ship drawing the fire of French cannon (the miniature can’t bear the weight of a man), Aubrey greets the returning boy with, “Now tell me that wasn’t fun!” He might as well be a fifth-form schoolmaster coaching rugby who’s just sent a pupil out into a rough bit of scrimmage. Crowe can make following dangerous orders look like fun.

Peter Weir could not have been completely blithe about what Aubrey does and represents, for he takes the co-hero of O’Brian’s series, the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin, divests him of his espionage activities (to be resumed in sequels?), and makes him primarily Aubrey’s conscience, reproaching the captain for exceeding his orders in chasing the French ship to the equator, and for dragging his crew into danger to satisfy his own pride.

While writing the script (in collaboration with John Collee), Weir must have considered that balancing Aubrey’s martial daring with Maturin’s moral scruples would give his film weight and complexity. But the writers overshot the mark when they made Maturin evoke the name of Nero while warning the captain against hubris and tyranny. What sense does “Nero” and “tyranny” make when we see Aubrey hero-worshiped by the entire crew (“My God, that’s seamanship!” exclaims an officer as Aubrey brings off another coup), when we see him treat the ship’s boys with the tenderness of a father (when he isn’t tossing them into harm’s way, of course, which they also love), when, on the single occasion he orders flogging, we understand he’s doing it strictly to keep discipline and to preserve a mentally infirm midshipman from being turned into a scapegoat? Perhaps Master and Commander would have been a more important film (though not necessarily a more enjoyable one) if Aubrey had been given a genuine flaw and had “become much more the better/ for being a little bad”? In any event, dialogue can be packed with virtue, yet all virtue is undone when the enemy draws near and the music swells. We want to see Aubrey with his sword unsheathed; we want to see him win.

Whether at war or peace, below or above deck, the world of the HMS Surprise has been captured by Weir and his longtime collaborator, the cinematographer Russell Boyd, in wonderful detail and with exhilarating grace. Yes, there are the obligatory cliché shots with the helicopter-borne camera whirling around the masts like a seagull, but there are many visual surprises as well, some of them sheer poetry: the sailors’ kits suspended near their cots and, in the dark, looking weirdly like giant incisors; the orange light that issues from the enemy’s canon an alarming five seconds before the report is heard and the Surprise is hit; the sails being lowered against the red of evening with the grace of a well-executed minuet while Aubrey and the doctor play Boccherini on fiddle and cello; the continual contrast between the broiling red of the sailors’ below-deck quarters and the chill, blue world of sea and sky through which the Surprise sails. This visual delicacy abuts salty, sometimes brutal realism: the way sailors can collide during a battle precisely because they are at their proper posts but the tempo of the battle heeds not the tempo of their jobs; the sand sprinkled under an about-to-be-amputee’s pallet; a sailor suddenly realizing he must scream into his captain’s ear because Aubrey has been temporarily deafened by the cannon; the bracing flavor of some of the dialogue (“What’s the butcher’s bill?” the captain asks the surgeon when he wants to learn of casualties).

But none of this is realism for the sake of realism, much less realism as an indictment of how brutally common people were treated in bygone days. Rather, it’s closer to the “realism” of the more spectacular amusement parks that implicitly portray the past as better than the present precisely because, to us in the present, the past seems free of the complications and frustrations and sterilities of modern life with its taxes and mortgages and political correctness and media heraldings that all is not well abroad or at home. The bracing, nostalgic otherness of the early nineteenth-century seafaring world of Master and Commander reaches its climax in the final battle between the Surprise and the French ship Acheron (literally “River of Woe” in Hades-boo! hiss!), an action set piece that is a model for all action moviemakers in the way it produces excitement through clarity, always letting you know where death and danger are coming from, where the characters we know best are situated within the combat, why swords work better in certain quarters while guns effect more damage in another, and exactly when and why and how the tide of battle turns. After the slapdash, blurry, computer-combat scenes of Gladiator, The Matrix, and everything Arnold Schwarzenegger has made in the last dozen years, Weir’s craftsmanship braces.

If you ever find a way to expunge hero worship of the martial man from the makeup of humankind and to make de trop all those narrative works that satisfied the need-from The Iliad and Beowulf through Star Wars and Lord of the Rings-by all means do so. Earth would become, if not a better place, at least a tidier, milder, more sterile, less vainglorious one. But before you expunge and purify, do me a favor. Kill me. For I don’t want to be alive in a world in which Master and Commander couldn’t be made and enjoyed. end

Published in the 2003-12-19 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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