Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (5/10)

 Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley

 This could just as easily been entitled Moby Ship. It’s about the same story as Melville’s ponderous work, except the obsessed Captain, “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), in Master and Commander is chasing a bigger and more powerful ship that attacked his ship (HMS Sunrise) instead of the whale that attacked Captain Ahab.

 The good parts of this film are the realistic ambience and special effects, which are spectacular. The ship and the storms and the action sequences are compelling and seem true to life.

 But there are a lot of things in this film that could happen Only In Hollywood. It opens with HMS Sunrise navigating through a fog bank. From out of nowhere it’s attacked by a ship it can’t see. Making it ludicrous beyond belief is that the ship fires and scores direct hit after direct hit on HMS Sunrise. As late as World War II, one of the ways artillery zeroed in on a target was to  “bracket” it. That is, if their first shots fell short, they’d then recalibrate their guns and shoot long. Then with those coordinates they’d get their target bracketed and would try to hit it.  In Master and Commander, which takes place more than 125 years before WWII, HMS Sunrise is instantly zeroed by its opponent, even though it’s virtually unseen! I’m assuming here that if HMS Sunrise can’t see its opponent through the fog, its opponent is equally unable to see HMS Sunrise. Regardless, the first shot strikes home, as do all subsequent shots. Lucky Jack makes a comment about “remarkable marksmanship.” He’s not kidding about that. In fact, it’s marksmanship that could only occur in a Hollywood backlot, not in the Atlantic Ocean, which is where HMS Sunrise was when it found itself under attack.

 This attack out of nowhere irritates Lucky Jack, so he vows to go after the attacker (the French ship Acheron), even though The Acheron is bigger, faster, and more powerful. The result is that the mouse is chasing the elephant.

 The film shows how wonderful it is to be a Hollywood Captain instead of a real captain.  Poor Captain Bligh was born too soon and in the wrong place.  Bligh, as I’m sure you recall, was the captain of the ill-fated HMS Bounty.  When he set sail for Tahiti, circa 1787 (18 years before the events in Master and Commander, which take place in 1805 in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars between England and France), his course took him around Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America, the shortest route to Tahiti from England.  Alas, The Bounty couldn’t get through the prevailing winds.  After fighting them unsuccessfully for a month, Bligh turned around and sailed east to Tahiti, or all the way around the world.

 If only Bligh had been a Hollywood Captain he could have saved himself all that trouble!  Captain Jack is chasing the Acheron. Somehow, undoubtedly through his Hollywood Knowledge, he knows that it’s going to the Pacific Ocean, so he finds himself fighting the winds Rounding the Horn.  After battling them unsuccessfully, he gives up and says, “Go south!” implying that all they had to do was sail a few miles south to avoid the winds.  If only Bligh had this wisdom!  But, then, Bligh was just a guy who could be set adrift in the middle of a desolate ocean in an overcrowded life raft with a few days’ food and water and navigate 3,600 miles to safety without losing one life.  What would a bloke like that know about “going south” to avoid the winds Rounding the Horn?

 While “go south” is the silliest line in the movie, there is more silliness elsewhere. Lucky Jack is a captain “popular” with the crew. I submit there was never a captain in the British Fleet at the time who was “popular” with the crew. Why? In those times crews were “recruited” by press gangs, which is a congenial way of saying they were kidnapped (with the exception of the crew of HMS Bounty, all of whom were volunteers). This is why harsh discipline, like whipping, was a way of life in the British fleet. You think a man who was forcibly kidnapped from a pub and put on a ship in enforced servitude for several years would like anybody connected with his kidnapping? I don’t.

 Wait; there’s more. A guy gets shot in the gut. Surgery is necessary and it’s grisly.  But with little more than a couple of days’ recuperation he’s gallivanting all over the Galapagos Islands (30 years before Charles Darwin visited them on The Beagle), hiking more than 20 miles in one day. Either men were really men in those days, or this is as absurd as it can get.

 Lucky Jack is shown as kind and caring about his crew. But when one of his officers is bumped by a crewman and doesn’t do anything about it, Lucky Jack orders 12 lashes for the offender and severely criticizes the officer for not demanding respect. Throughout the movie Lucky Jack doesn’t do anything else to display that he imposes even a modicum of discipline on the crew or his officers except for this incident.

 The special effects are very well done.  The storms and the battles are graphic and realistic, although it’s difficult to understand how anyone could come out of the hand-to-hand combat we see unscathed. In fact Lucky Jack gets wounded twice in the movie with absolutely no ill effects. Superman has nothing on Lucky Jack.

 There’s an awful lot of talk. Like Moby Dick (1956), this movie is far too long, at approximately 2-1/2 hours. The film is probably worth seeing because of the special effects, but certainly not for the story. It’s hard to imagine why Russell Crowe, one of the truly great actors of his generation, would waste his time on a script like this unless the money was just too much to turn down.

 November 7, 2003

 The End