2003 TOP 10 — Number 6
MASTER AND COMMANDER (Peter Weir, USA)
That’s what my inner 10-year-old boy kept telling me during this great, rousing adventure story. MASTER AND COMMANDER is exactly what Robert Louis Stevenson might have made if he had been a film-maker. It gets the period details right and in the right way, i.e. by not showing off that it’s getting them right, because the film is too self-confident to need to show off.
We just *see* that early 19th century surgery was done on tables that people had just eaten off of, without the didactic speech that, say, Hawkeye might have given in a purely hypothetical MASH episode about an operating room’s unclean wooden floor. We aren’t given a reason why the crew, when repairing their ship after an unsuccessful early skirmish with the evil French, goes to such trouble to repair the ship’s decorative touches that have no fighting value (although we can figure the subtext out — “this ship is England,” captain Russell Crowe tells his crew. Exactly. Appearances matter for their own sake, and love of country demands that one’s country be lovely).
Some of my favorite “just so” details were those that stand out in greatest contrast to our regnant pruderies. Grog rations are explicitly described as a sine qua non to keeping discipline and getting the men willing to fight. It sounds silly to us, until you remember that the Panama Canal was built by men who, to judge from the ration books, had to have been drunk or hung over the whole time. Mothers Against Drunk Sailing lay 170 years in the future. Even when a period detail *is* lingered over, it’s because there’s a reason for the characters to do so — like when such catch-as-catch-can surgery methods result in a piece of shirt caught in a wound, making it life-threatening. Exactly.
My outer flaming-reactionary adult also thought MASTER AND COMMANDER was pretty good. Characters both wear uniforms and pray without an ocean of rationalization and hand-wringing. In Captain Lucky Jack Aubrey (played by Crowe in another great performance), MASTER AND COMMANDER shows exactly what a modern potrait of military heroism and masculine virtue from a pre-psychoanalytic world should be.
By coincidence, I took a break from writing this to watch VH-1 Classic for a while and I saw the Bangles video “Hero Takes a Fall,” where one of the last images is of a mannequin being tipped over and shattering. Typical of our time but exactly *not* what MASTER AND COMMANDER is. Nobody will be talking about “undermining conventional notions of heroism” in this film.
Capt. Aubrey is in charge and has absolute authority, but is not a petty tyrant and knows how to lead. And when to bend — thanking and congratulating his men for everything (“now wasn’t that fun,” he asks a seaman at one point). He neither shows his doubts nor ducks difficult choices such as … triage. Aubrey loves his crew, but as their leader, not their friend, and thus discipline is possible. The salutes are appropriately awkward after a sailor is whipped for insubordination.
(By the way, for ungrateful niggledy-piggledy, can you beat this review from honor-bound James Bowman, the one film critic who I knew would love this movie. You have to keep reminding yourself as you’re reading it that he’s given it his highest rating). In addition, in the contrast between Crowe and Paul Bettany’s doctor, we get in nascent form, the coming cleavage between scientific man and martial man. But at this point, each still believed he had a duty to the other, and it creates marvelous tension between the two men and their agendas for the trip.
My friend Mike D’Angelo liked GLADIATOR, another Russell Crowe period piece, a bit more than I did, but I had his GLADIATOR reaction to this film. MASTER AND COMMANDER is filled with so many “just-so” moments and hits all the notes for this sort of swashbuckling adventure that I frankly was no longer a pedantic 37-year-old white-collar American professional masquerading as a film critic, but a wannabe-pedantic 10-year-old working-class British boy who just hated the frenchies and the jerries because they were the frenchies and the jerries. Exactly as this material needs me to be. Since the treacherous cheese-eaters are the bad guys in this movie, I was pretty much in clover from start to finish.
My favorite recent example of healthy national chauvinism came from Margaret Thatcher after Germany’s soccer team had eliminated England from the European Championship. She said, close as I can recall: “They may have beaten us at our national pastime, but twice this century, we’ve beaten them at their national pastime.” There is a speech late in MASTER AND COMMANDER that’s very much in that spirit, with frog insults worthy of one of Jonah Goldberg’s lamentably-dead annual Bastille Day columns. But again … exactly. Hatred of the enemy begins with images of the ruination they will bring upon the picture you have of your country. And this is exactly how soldiers are motivated. Short of the spectre of being forced to give up bangers in favor of pate de foie gras, there’s hardly a note of French evil not touched. It’s not quite at the level of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in HENRY V, but my using that speech as the standard of comparison should tell you how rousingly chauvinistic it is and how brilliantly Crowe delivers it.