Master and Commander

I may have inadvertently given the impression that I thought that Pirates of the Caribbean was the best movie ever. I did, of course, intend to award this distinction to Master and Commander.

The film is based on an extremely clever conceit. It takes basic tropes familiar to us from Star Trek and re-imagines them in the 'age of sail' navy. Russell Crowe is basically in the Picard role, loved by his crew, agonizing, but coming to the right decision. Dr Maturin never actually says 'He's dead, Jack' or 'Dammit, Jack I'm a botanist, not a doctor', but you feel at any moment that he might. Where Picard stands by the view-screen trying to spot Klingons through their cloaking device, Aubrey looks down his telescope and tries to spot Frenchmen in the fog. Like Picard, he is faced with a terrible moment where he has to decide whether to sacrifice one crewman to save the ship. The idea of dilithium crystals that run dry at dramatic moments is turned into adverse winds that be-calm the good ship Surprise when the plot requires it. Carpenters, rather than engineers, say that the ship can't possibly be repaired in less than a month, to which the Captain says 'Then there's not a moment to lose.' Although they are not literally seeking out new life and new civilization, Maturin is also a scientist whose primary interest is in collecting new species on the planets, sorry, islands they visit. And of course, one of his discoveries—an insect that disguises itself as a leaf to avoid predators—gives the Captain the clue as to how to defeat the French who (of course) out-man and out-gun them. (They disguise themselves as a harmless whaler, a sort of low-tech version of the corbonite maneuver.)

Star Trek on the open seas. It's such a cool idea that I wonder no-one has thought of it before.


I have only read one Patrick O'Brien book. It was the one where Aubrey wins a battle against the French by a combination of skill, courage, leadership and sheer bloody daring. It was okay, I guess. I felt that the people who say he writes better than Jane Austen might have been over stating the case, slightly. I see why wannabee sea-dogs like them, but I was rather cut adrift by the total absence of anything I could recognize as a plot.

Although I'm sure that O'Brien enthusiasts (Paddies?) feel about Master and Commander the way I do about Two Towers, to my non-fan eye, the film felt very like the book. There's lots and lots of incident, but no actual narrative, almost as if you were watching a working simulation of the Nelsonic navy. Being a film rather than a book, all the exposition about when precisely you would want to settle away your topsail fore lines is omitted, for which we mortals are very thankful. Poor Dr  Maturin has to ask what the 'weather gauge' means at one point, but never gets a straight answer.

I found the film absorbing from beginning to end. Rather like X-Men 2, it felt as if I had been dropped more or less at random into an ongoing sequence of events, and then kicked out again at an arbitrary stopping point. I would happily have stayed the voyage for another several hours. I particularly like the way in which, without much back-story or exposition, almost every crewmember was individualized. You didn't know their names ('the cute kid, the other cute kid, the old man, the fat officer, the  hobbit') but you did know which was which. The scene after the battle, where the camera scans along the dead bodies as they are sewn up into their hammocks for burial was genuinely affecting—and quite unsentimental. How many movies have you seen recently where half the cast are killed off pointlessly without getting to do a big significant death scenes?

It was a deeply brave film for Hollywood to have made. It starts on ship in the middle of the ocean, and, discounting a brief sojourn on the Galapagos Islands where Dr Maturin narrowly fails to become Charles Darwin, it stays on the ship. There is not one single female character. The plot consists of 'They chase a French ship. In the end, they catch it. The end'. There are no concessions, in short, to be any other than a blood and testosterone soaked sea story. No-one says 'follow your heart' or 'you can do anything if you try'. The battles are brutal and bloody. Hardly any swashes are buckled. No elves turn up at the last minute and no one gets their ear licked by a horse.

From my brief encounter with the book, I felt that Aubrey had been liberalized, somewhat. This character does have a fellow flogged for failing to salute an officer, but he agonizes about it first. I seem to recall that the guy in the book flogs routinely and has a crewman hanged for buggery. If I remembered that wrong, I will get hate mail from the Paddies.

The trailers screened along with Master and Commander warned us of impending films about American soldiers becoming Samurai and CGI re-staging of Homer. Oh, and something about a hobbit. Could it be that the net result of Fellowship of the Ring has been, not a flood of crap fantasy but an influx of good, honest, violent epics of the kind that they don't make any more?

Egad. I may have to stop being cynical about the cinema.


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