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When we read fiction that truly engages us, we enter a world that also has, for the time we are in it, a simultaneity, and where we apprehend eternal moments captured first by the writer and now by the reader.
A Review of the film Master and Commander>
Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume collection of seafaring tales, usually referred to as the “Aubrey/Maturin” series (after the names of the two principal characters), has developed a large and fiercely loyal fan base over the years. His remarkable combination of Horatio Hornblower + humor and Jane Austen + testosterone has attracted both men and women in virtually equal proportions. Since the books read essentially as one roughly 8,000 page novel, I can imagine how difficult it would be to translate it (or in this case, parts of it) into a satisfying big-budget movie. After having read all the books several times and having seen the movie both in the theater and at home, I think most fans (and the late O’Brian himself) would be both quite pleased and somewhat disappointed (perhaps even disgusted on occasion) with the film.
Peter Weir (Mosquito Coast) proves himself more than capable of the job, creating hauntingly beautiful cinematography and paying homage to the novels with tiny but important details in almost every shot. The casting (with one notable exception that I will return to) is excellent. Russell Crowe (though not quite funny enough) is up to the task as Lucky Jack Aubrey, the larger-than-life frigate captain. Paul Bettany, given the limited role as Stephen Maturin, Jack’s best friend and the surgeon of the ship (his dual role as a secret agent not revealed yet in the volume the film is based on), does, as always, a fine job. The vast majority of the supporting cast is excellent as well.
The main flaw in the making of this movie is that the director couldn’t pony up the $100-plus million for the film and have his way with it. The looming presence of Hollywood executives permeates the film and comes close at times to ruining it completely. One can actually SEE the difference in the parts they left alone and the parts they bullied their way into. For instance, the part of Barrett Bonden, the captain’s big, sturdy, tough-as-nails coxswain who beat all comers in ship-to-ship boxing matches was played by Billy Boyd. Yes, the same Billy Boyd who played a hobbit last year without needing special camera work to make him look the part. Thank god he was only on camera for about 30 seconds. I can imagine Weir conceding this only after fighting them off from casting Jackie Chan as the rival French captain, Chris Rock as the wisecracking sidekick, and then having Tom Cruise appear as the ghost of Horatio Nelson.
Another example: The harrowing scene where Stephen surgically removes a musket ball from his own chest occurred in a book as the result of a duel. To re-create it here, they actually expected the audience to believe that it was the result of a marine sergeant aiming his musket at a bird flying over the top of the ship and accidentally shooting Stephen, who was standing on deck five feet in front of him and off to the side, in the chest. Granted, muskets of that era weren’t particularly accurate by today’s standards, but the main purpose of carrying marines on board was for their marksmanship in picking off Frenchman from a distance during action. If this was a true example of a hand-picked marine’s marksmanship during the Napoleonic wars, I believe the movie would have been in French and we wouldn’t need English subtitles to understand it.
Another problem was the length of the film itself. There is no way a film like this should have been shorter than 2:30 hours, and it being squeezed into 1:45 makes it look like it was edited by a cuisinart. Since some of the scenes (especially early on) are grand, slow, beautiful and obviously designed for a longer movie, I can almost see some Maserati-driving executive saying into his cell phone, “But Peter, if we make it that long, we can only show it eight times a day in the theater instead of ten! You don’t want us to have to come up with an abbreviated ending that hints at a sequel for you, do you?” And, much to my chagrin, and the chagrin of all but the ones who just came to see Russell Crowe in a blouse, they did. The man who started this movie under his own power certainly didn’t finish it that way.
The final flaw I will point out is perhaps the only one that can be reasonably attributed to the director. The hand-to-hand action scenes during boarding were choppy and confusing. I believe the intent was to put the viewer directly in the middle of the action, but I’m an avid action movie buff and I couldn’t tell who was British, who was French, who was winning, who was losing, whether I was getting kicked in the head or someone else. That may very well be what it was like, but it didn’t work here.
All the negatives I pointed out (and whatever I may have missed) still don’t cancel out a wonderful attempt at translation. In addition to the positives I listed at first, the musical score (so important in the books) was wonderful. The chemistry between Jack and Stephen was about as good as could be expected. The “Heart of Oak” spirit of the British Navy was well represented. The scope of the relatively unexplored ocean vs. the close-packed, tiny, smelly but highly efficient man-o’-war was overwhelmingly accurate. The trek across the Galapagos gathering nondescript flora and fauna was a visual treat.
Dozens of tiny details tailored just for the die-hard reader (the names of the big guns painted on the carriages, Killick making toasted cheese in a special silver dish that was a wedding present to Jack, the “lesser of two weevils” joke pulled off at the dinner table) made me believe the director was really trying to do the best with what he had. Hollywood did spring for a nearly full-scale model of the ship to be built (the actors all actually had to learn how to sail), and they used the same monstrous water tank designed for Titanic to bring out a realistic scope. The overall effect was impressive.
Studio interference kept this from being an Oscar nominee, but it’s still definitely worth renting (whether you’ve read the novels or not), especially if you have a decent home theater system. If nothing else, you’ll be glad you’re warm and dry.
Review by Jonathan Knott
Excerpts from Reviews of the O'Brian Novels
"Patrick O'Brian presents the lost arcana of that hard-pressed, cruel, courageous world with an immediacy that makes its workings both comprehensible and fascinating. All the marine hardware is in place and functioning; the battles are stirring without being romanticised (this author never romanticises); the portrayal of life aboard a sailing ship is vivid and authoratitive. But in the end it is the serious exploration of human character that gives the books their greatest power: the fretful play of mood that can irrationally darken the edges of the brightest triumph, and can feed a trickle of merriment into the midst of terror and tragedy. Mr. O'Brian manages to express, with the grace and economy of poetry, familiar things that somehow never get written down, as when he carefully details the rueful steps by which Stephen Maturin falls out of love. . . .begin with the first of them, Master and Commander, and there's a good chance you'll find yourself at the final installment all too soon. You will have read what I continue to believe are the best historical novels ever written. Along the way you'll not only have witnessed the unfolding of a tremendous story, but the very beginnings of the world we now inhabit. In one of the books Maturin nearly propounds a theory of Freudian psychology; in another he falls just shy of the immense implications of evolution. His is the kind of questing mind that made the late 18th century such an age of revelation; his counterpart Jack Aubrey personifies the raw energy that fueled the epoch. On every page Mr. O'Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don't, that griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives."
—Richard Snow, New York Times Book Review, 1991
"Six months ago I came across the novels of Patrick O'Brian. Since then I have been scouring libraries in search of anything bearing his signature. The flavor of his writing is unique and addictive. It is a pleasure to observe the skill with which O'Brian handles the development of his characters. His erudition is phenomenal, as is his capacity for creating another completely believable world. He convinces with his total accuracy even in tiny details. Mr. O'Brian is a master of the English language, and I believe I might have given a better idea of this book if I had simply written 600 times the word 'superb'." —Helen Lucy Burke, Irish Press
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