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Master and Commander**

The shock waves from 9/11 continue to manifest themselves in unforeseen ways. Master and Commander, directed by Peter Weir, is a naval adventure saga from the days of the Napoleonic wars, adapted for the screen by Weir and John Collee from a novel by Patrick O'Brian. Starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, the skipper of the British warship HMS Surprise, the film recounts in a relatively straightforward fashion how Aubrey and his men pursue a larger French ship, the Archeron, from the northeastern coast of South America, all the way around Cape Horn, and eventually take it off of Argentina, after making a side trip to the Galapagos Islands. Rather astonishingly, J. Hoberman, in a review of Master and Commander in The Village Voice entitled "Thar He Blows," describes the movie as "fundamentally ahistoric," but no one would have to look hard to see the parallels to contemporary history: the Brits are the Coalition of the Willing and their French adversaries the ersatz representatives of Islamic terrorism.

It was a genuinely odd experience to see this film in a theater in Dubai, in English with Arabic subtitles, at a moment when I was working on a ship of the US Navy attached to the Enterprise Strike Group. Plus ša change....But the strangeness hardly stopped with the historical jeux des miroirs. After making the unusual art house hit The Last Wave (1977), Peter Weir became a big commercial director with Gallipoli (1981), a very teary anti-war epic about two young men who perish in the World War I battle that momentarily brought to a halt Winston Churchill's rise to fame and glory. It is thus a bit surprising to find Weir taking credit for the most blatant glorification of British imperialism likely to have appeared on screen since the days of Sir Alexander Korda and such stiff-upper lip panegyrics to the glories of empire building as The Four Feathers (1939), directed by his brother Zoltan.

According to Gore Vidal in Screening History, Churchill, a close friend of Sir Alexander, provided (uncredited) assistance in the scripting of two Korda epics, Fire Over England (1936) directed by William K. Howard, and That Hamilton Woman (1941). It is not difficult to imagine Tony Blair having played a similar role in the making of Master and Commander. The film endorses the most intransigently reactionary stereotypes beloved of the English public: all foreigners are dangerous subversives that must be prevented at any cost from taking over the world, while only Englishmen really have a sense of honor and duty, etc. Watching Master and Commander has the morbid fascination of seeing a great attack on imperialism like Bertolt Brecht's Mann ist Mann turned completely upside down and made to say the exact opposite of what the author intended.

In this best of all possible worlds, the captain is a stern but impeccably fair man who only uses the lash when necessary. Although Weir does not spare his audience the gruesome details of shipboard life, particularly when the ship's doctor, Dr. Stephen Maturin, Aubrey's friend and sometime antagonist, has to operate on himself, such incidents, like the scenes of battle at the film's conclusion, are little more than passing clouds. Aubrey's men--not to mention a covey of apple-cheeked ephebes who cheerfully meet their doom in the final confrontation between the Surprise and the Acheron--only doubt him when the ship is becalmed in the Encantadas. But, needless to say, Father knows best and brings ship and crew safely through every crisis.

One of the standard cliches of older historical films, starting at least with D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm, was to reduce the French Revolution to the Reign of Terror and shots of barbaric canaille thronging through the streets of Paris in thirst of fresh blood to shed. It is thus worth keeping a few things in mind while cruising through these balmy waters where the sun never sets on the Empire. First of all, at the time in England, even slight infractions upon the sacred precincts of private property were often punished by hanging and public executions were the scenes of orgiastic celebration. France had a politically motivated Reign of Terror, but one that lasted for months; England had a reign of judicially sanctified terror that began in the eighteenth century and endured almost throughout the nineteenth.

I have no doubt that commanders like Aubrey may have existed then, just as they certainly have throughout history. Nor would I argue that any sensible person in Aubrey's position, in those days before radio communication became common, could have afforded to ignore the ever present possibility of mutiny. But never for an instant does the possibility glimmer through the film that the system which made possible the sacrifices Master and Commander glorifies was brutal and authoritarian, rooted in class privilege. To someone who spoke to him of naval tradition, Churchill snarled back, "Rum, buggery, and the lash! That's naval tradition for you." His words were a far more accurate description of life on board British warships, particularly in the early nineteenth century, than anything that shows up in Weir's flag-waving opus.

Strategically, the film tries to disguise its intransigently upbeat if retrogressive depiction of imperialism by throwing in Maturin, a naturalist whose fascination with the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands makes him both a precursor of Charles Darwin, and a premature eco-freak. Yet if the movie allows Maturin at some dramatic moments, particularly after Aubrey orders a sailor flogged for insubordination, to challenge the master of the Surprise, no one could doubt who emerges as the winner in the last reel. Superficially, the film would seem to be arguing for a reconciliation of the fighting man and the humanist on the common ground of music, symbolized by the duets the two men play together in their off hours. Nevertheless, if Master and Commander concludes with the two reunited in spite of their differences, it is Maturin who has to concede victory to Aubrey. The tacit moral here is that imperialism is good for furthering culture and the arts--a moral to which I doubt the author of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would have given his assent.

In Weir's production, the French simply figure as the Enemy. The film pointedly avoids the stereotyping of old historical epics about the French Revolution like A Tale of Two Cities (1935), directed by Jack Conway, or W.S. Van Dyke's Marie Antoinette (1937), in which aristocrats were all innocent lambs and the Jacobins proto-Bolsheviks bent upon razing society to its foundations. Still, the not only xenophobic but reactionary political implications of Master and Commander manifest themselves in a far from insignificant detail, a classical allusion--one that appears in Sigmund Freud's epigraph from the Aeneid that prefaces The Interpretation of Dreams--likely to elude the average viewer: the name of the French vessel. Acheron was the name of one of the two rivers the dead had to cross in order to reach the underworld in Greek mythology. And what in the eyes of its foes was the French Revolution, if not an opening of the mouth of hell, throwing the devil's spawn upon an unsuspecting world?

Actually, in its best moments, which mainly take place in fog or at night, Master and Commander succeeds in making of the French ship a supernatural intruder in some effectively atmospheric shots. Echoes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's sublime literary ballad, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, whose composition (1798) was nearly contemporaneous with the events presented in  Weir's movie, automatically spring to mind. And, as if to reward half-way literate spectators, the film confirms their suspicions by subsequently throwing in an albatross shooting episode which precipitates the injury to Maturin. But the touch is abysmally ill-calculated. Coleridge's poem belongs to the world of the French Revolution in a way that lies completely beyond Master and Commander's feeble imaginative powers to envision on celluloid.

Such moments are sadly the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, the cinematography by Russell Boyd and Sandi Sissel is adequate, although not inspired. It may have been the print I saw, but the color in several scenes seemed rather washed out. Perhaps Weir's intention was to recreate the look of old sailing prints, but if so the result does not come across as very convincing. (In his otherwise misbegotten adaptation of Moby-Dick, John Huston quite successfully employed subdued colors to achieve this effect.)  Far more distracting are some really bad special effects shots. Master and Commander is not at all a low-budget movie, so it is astonishing to see shots of what are supposed to be the Galapagos in which the surrounding ocean is as immobile as the surface of a porcelain platter, a visual solecism painfully evident when a scope production is projected on a large screen. 

As Aubrey, Russell Crowe reminded me of the late Trevor Howard, but Howard had a grittiness that Crowe lacks. Nevertheless, I wonder what any actor could do with such a mechanically conceived part. While I am no fan of Gladiator, I would have to admit that Maximus is a far more interesting character than the rock-like Aubrey. In the context, Paul Bettany makes a far more favorable impression than Crowe; however, I think the disparity between the two owes less to a difference in acting ability than it does to all too obvious shortcomings of the script. Oddly enough, just as I had the feeling last year when I watched The Gangs of New York that I should have been seeing Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable in W.S. Van Dyke's San Francisco instead of Leonardo Di Caprio and Daniel Day Lewis, I had the feeling as Master and Commander progressed  that I should be looking at Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone in Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935).

Henry Hathaway was by no means one of the great directors in the history of the American cinema, but Lives of a Bengal Lancer attains a pathos that Master and Commander never achieves--nor could it even were Weir a great director like Martin Scorsese, and not just a reasonably talented one. In all fairness to Weir, I should say I don't think the problem here is reducible to differences in directorial ability. Old movies like Lives of a Bengal Lancer and San Francisco owed a large part of their success to conventions that however artistically dubious  were accepted by film makers and audiences alike. Today, those conventions are rotten props in the cinematic house of fiction, and it is beyond the capability of any director to shore them up. Like Scorsese in Gangs of New York, Weir is attempting to resurrect a kind of historical picture that vanished decades ago, but all he can conjure up is ideological ectoplasm. For people who don't mind turning off their brains for a couple of hours, Master and Commander is reasonably entertaining. Anyone looking for something more satisfying should think about renting Jean Renoir's La Marseillaise, one of the greatest historical films ever made and a useful corrective to the nonsense propagated by Master and Commander

Production data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database


E-mail Dave: davecl@pacbell.net