Monday, September 21, 2009

Movie Review: Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World

Directed by Peter Weir. 2003.

Rarely can a movie exist in two worlds and succeed in either, let alone both, but in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Peter Weir brilliantly manages the feat. On the surface the film exists in several genres, the seafaring adventure, the period piece, and the war film. We see grand shots of oceans and untouched islands and of the HMS Surprise triumphantly gliding across the globe. We look back into the world of canons and muskets and swords. We glimpse into the world of naval hierarchy and discipline. Yet under the surface Master and Commander has a deeper split, with one foot in our world and one foot in the one that preceded it. The essential split is between the era of Liberal Humanism and the one of faith and mysticism. Alone, this ponderous topic would have made for a weighty, cerebral, Bergmanesque movie, but in Master and Commander Peter Weir handles this philosophical divide deftly, allowing the issue to percolate to the surface during a voyage of the HMS Surprise.

This philosophical conflict is most obviously manifested in the relationship between Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and his friend, the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin. The doctor, a naturalist and surgeon, is a man of the modern world: well educated, skeptical of authority, wary of capital punishment, only grudgingly a soldier. He would prefer to study nature and advance the knowledge of science and only reluctantly admits to being a “fighting naturalist,” as he finds the two do not combine well. Now the obvious contrast to Maturin’s liberal, rational approach is naturally the captain. While I agree that this is so I think the more perfect contrast to Maturin is the rest of the crew. Where Maturin is skeptical of any authority, including Jack’s, to the crew the captain’s authority is practically sacred. Where Maturin reads his science books, the crew refers to the bible and seafaring myths and traditions. What the doctor attributes to simple coincidence the crew attributes to bad luck or ill omens.

Now in contrast to both of these groups we have “Lucky” Jack. Unlike the doctor, who sees authority as inherently corrupting, and the crew, who see it as his sacred right, Aubrey sees the need for an authoritative leader as a necessary evil. The crew follows him unquestioningly, but they do not bear the responsibility of others’ safety or the success of the mission. Stephen is able relentlessly to question the purity of his motives, but he is not responsible for maintaining order on the ship. It is Jack who must govern with wisdom, as he advises one of his lieutenants who is faltering in securing the respect of the men:
Don’t make friends with the foremost jacks, lad. They’ll despise you in the end, think you weak. Nor do you need to be a tyrant. You have the knowledge. . . find the strength within yourself. Without strength, true discipline does by the board.
The captain’s wisdom is not the dogmatic “authority corrupts” script of the doctor or the “follow orders” mantra of the crew. He does the right thing, in the right measure, at the right time, continually balancing and adjusting so the ship does not degenerate into either tyranny or anarchy.

In still more instances the captain is the voice of moderation between the extremes of his liberal friend and the superstitious crew. When the voyage is subjected to a series of incidents including being happened upon by a faster enemy ship, sailing into a squall, and losing both wind and rain, the crew takes to seafaring and biblical myths about “the Jonah,” whom they take to be lieutenant Hollom, who was present at the outset of each unfortunate occurrence. In contrast, the doctor considers the events simple circumstances. When the captain expresses concern to Stephen about the events and the fact that while the crew is obedient, they “cannot abide a Jonah,” he adds to the skeptical doctor, “not everything is in your books, Stephen.” Aubrey has neither resolved himself to Maturin’s philosophy that every thing in our world is knowable and explicable nor turned to any specific mystical explanation of the events. He simply has observed that sometimes events occur which elude explanation.

Now while Aubrey is the wise median between Maturin and the crew, he is also the intermediate figure between two other characters, Hollom and Admiral Nelson. Hollom is one of Aubrey’s lieutenants and hopelessly misunderstands command in war. When the captain offers the above advice about authority to Mr. Hollom and the lieutenant simply reiterates his words, Aubrey replies with disappointment, “unfortunate business, damned unfortunate.” The captain is greatly saddened by the fact that while Hollom has the raw facts he is unable to find the inner confidence and strength with which to assert himself and become an effective officer, despite that he is twice the age of the other lieutenants. When Mr. Hollom tragically takes his own life, the captain speaks a eulogy with his characteristic wisdom:
The simple truth is, not all of us become the men we once hoped we might be. But we are all God's creatures. If there are those among us who thought ill of Mr. Hollom, or spoke ill of him, or failed him in respect of fellowship. . . then we ask for your forgiveness, Lord. And we ask for his. God be praised.
Aubrey chooses not to read the biblical passage about Jonah, which would effectively declare there was indeed something intrinsic about Mr. Hollom that made him a pariah. Nor does he avoid the issue with generic sayings. Rather he chooses to emphasize what keeps men together both on ship and off: fellowship.

In contrast to the tragic story of Mr. Hollom we have Admiral Nelson, who looms like a mythic figure over the whole film. In an early scene when one of his young lieutenants is injured and resting up in bed, Aubrey brings a book about the admiral’s campaigns to the boy for reading. When the boy asks what Nelson was like, Aubrey hesitatingly replies, “You should read the book,” because, of course, you cannot simply or glibly sum up a man like Nelson. He is not just wise or brilliant, but so bound up in the events of Great Britain, naval life, and the war against Napoleon that he is essentially of all these things. Later, when another young officer presses for an anecdote about the admiral and Aubrey tells a funny story about him, the boy is disappointed. The admiral is not a lay person, capable of being in humorous scenarios, he is a hero. Sensing the disappointment, Aubrey then explains that once, when offered a blanket on a cold night, Nelson replied that his zeal for king and country kept him warm. The doctor naturally rolls his eyes and says that Nelson must be, “the exception to the rule that authority corrupts” but the captain asks them to suppress their skepticism and acknowledge that sure the story was corny and were it anyone else you would cry foul. . . but this is Nelson At the same dinner, sailing master Mr. Allen explains that some would say Nelson, with his penchant for disregarding strategy and simply charging at the enemy, was not a good seaman, but a good leader.

Aubrey is both, of course. His naval genius and successes have contributed to the aura of “Lucky Jack,” a persona that makes the men believe his is capable of anything, not just escaping the faster “phantom” French privateer that dogs them, but taking her. In every detail of his actions Aubrey sets the tone for the ship. You may carouse and joke with a little wine over dinner, but you do not so much as slouch on the quarter deck, even under fire. You maintain discipline and punish an insubordinate man, but you reward him too when he goes beyond the call of duty. He studies the formal battle plans in books, but he also makes use of guile and cleverness to outwit the enemy. He rallies the troops by solemnly praising duty and homeland, but also by calling Napoleon a raggedy-ass. Again we see that it is by the careful balance of extremes that Aubrey leads.

We would be remiss, though, not to discuss Aubrey’s friendship with Stephen in more detail. In their conversations he is often Aubrey’s conscience, and his contrasting character makes him an effective one. For example, after Aubrey overextends the ship and loses a man during a storm in an attempt to catch up with and take the Acheron, Stephen reminds him on the one hand that they are only out here because of the war, and thus it is the French that killed the man, but also on the other that the expedition is beginning to reek of pride since he has exceeded his orders of following the ship past Brazil. Later Maturin describes the mission as a “belligerent expedition” and still Aubrey persists. It is not until the doctor is accidentally taken ill and Aubrey must choose between the Acheron and his friend’s life that he relents. What do we make of this? On the one hand, he has put aside his pride once the threat of losing his friend has put matters into perspective, but what of his orders? As was said he had exceeded them and as such, he was indeed acting on pride. . . and he was wrong.

As Aubrey learns about himself and the value of his friend, so Maturin learns about the nature of the service and burdens of command on his friend. After much persisting as to why he thinks Jack should keep his word and allow the doctor to stay at the Galapagos and examine the wildlife, Aubrey is finally frustrated enough to bark, “We do not have time for your goddamn hobbies!” Britain is at war, and all other tasks are subject to the demands of the service. He also sees the toll command takes on Jack, for example when he has to order a seaman to cut loose his friend tethered to the ship (thus condemning him to die) so the ship will not sink, and then later flog that same man for insubordination. What Maturin never really comes around to is the nature of military service, the naval tradition, and the limitations those solidifying structures impose on the liberal pieties he proposes. Surely the captain would wish not to have to flog any man, but he cannot opt to throw the rum overboard instead as the doctor proposes, for several reasons. First, it is a threat that can only be used once. Second, the truth is that the lubrication of rum helps to govern the ship. The simple fact is that the men will put up with much (albeit not a Jonah) but they need their rum, it is as simple as that. Aubrey says, “I’d rather have them three sheets to the wind on occasion rather than have a mutiny on my hands.” Last, the British naval tradition of including rum as part of the sailor’s rations dated back to the mid-to-late 1600s. Such a tradition was not to be cast aside lightly, nor could it be. When Stephen goes on to say how he sympathizes with mutineers because the men are pressed from their homes and jobs and confined on wooden prisons, Aubrey replies rather sadly, “I hate it when you talk of the service in this way, it makes me so very low.” He is saddened that his friend intellectually does not see what holds the ship together, and worse emotionally does not find any joy or beauty in the centuries old tradition of British seamanship. Perhaps seeing the crew’s incredible discipline pay off in the great victory against the Acheron moderated the good doctor’s views.

The very fact that these contrasting forces, philosophies, and characters not only coexist in conditions that could breed anarchy, but also permit the ship to act as one unit with one purpose (defending Britain) is a beautiful thing. Just as the contrasting doctor and captain are able to come together and play beautiful music, so the entire crew is able to come together to produce the beautiful sailing of the ship and the noble deed of defending their country. Yet for all of Nelson’s example, the lieutenants’ enthusiasm, Mr. Allen’s sailing expertise, and the doctor’s liberalism and erudition, it is Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey’s defining characteristic that makes it all possible, his wisdom.


  1. So impressed with how extensive you've been able to peel back and look into this onion.
    I've been watching this movie, master and commander, so frequently since it first debuted. I also find the story, it's characters as interwoven themes to be not only entertaining, but most enlightening.
    What I've found more fascinating than anything else is the Biblical Christian overtones and parallels.
    Thanks for writing this,
    I'm so glad I found it!
    Christopher Petitti

  2. Thanks for your kind comment! I agree M&C hits a rare balance between a rip-roaring yarn and the development of some serious themes. It's been a favorite of mine too since I first saw it in 2003, when I think it got terribly overshadowed by the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Every time I watch I find something new to like. Despite the action, I find it a very gentle movie, in many ways trying wisely to yoke opposite ideas together.

    Thanks again for your comment: this was one of my first essays and reviews and it is very gratifying that you have enjoyed it and shared your thoughts.