"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"


posted to www.marxmail.org on November 17, 2004


Encompassing elements of Patrick O'Brian's first and final novels, Peter Weir's exciting but reactionary "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" might strike one as the dialectical opposite of Herman Melville's sea-going tales. Melville's anti-authoritarianism and sympathy for workers and indigenous peoples is turned on its head. In Weir's film, the sailors and the native peoples recede into the background, while the officers and their reactionary values are basked in a kind of halo. This is all the more surprising given Weir's history as a critic of the military-imperial ethos in "Gallipoli."

Starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, "Master and Commander" takes place mostly on the waters and islands of the Atlantic and Pacific as he pursues a much larger and better armed French warship in 1805 during the Napoleonic wars. The film begins with a surprise attack on Aubrey's ship and concludes with his revenge. Since this period is so remote from 20th century WWII and Cold War semiotics, it by no means can serve as a facile propaganda piece for Anglo-American imperialism. Indeed, O'Brian's "The Far Side of the World" pitted Aubrey against American warships during the war of 1812. By substituting the French for the Yankees, Weir makes the film more commercially viable although by no means more relevant to a modern audience's thirst for easily recognizable villains. Indeed, after Aubrey's ship is nearly blown to bits in the opening scene, he confides to his fellow officers that the French were more skillful than they were, as if discussing a football match on the following Monday morning.

In the climax of the film, Aubrey rouses his men with the cry, "Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? Do you want your children to grow up singing the 'Marseillaise'?" Oddly enough, this evokes the climactic scene in Shakespeare's "Henry V," when the British monarch also leads his troops into battle against a far larger French army:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

You might recall that military historian and plagiarist Stephen Ambrose wrote a book titled "Band of Brothers" that like all his books puts forward an old-fashioned defense of martial values. Ambrose served as a consultant for Stephen Spielberg on "Saving Private Ryan." In addition, Spielberg directed a TV movie based on "Band of Brothers." The affinity between O'Brian, Ambrose and Spielberg should be obvious. In contrast to Melville in the 19th century, who lashed out at military injustice in "Billy Budd," and Joseph Heller, whose "Catch 22" made WWII look like the hellish madness that it was, they seek to restore war-making to the glory it once enjoyed.

War-making of course requires blind obedience. In "Master and Commander," the midshipman Hollum (Lee Ingleby) has lost the respect of his men, who view his youthful sensitivity as a weakness. When one of the crew jostles Hollum as he passes by him on deck, Aubrey has the man whipped in full view of the rest of the crew. Aubrey correctly observes that it is necessary to use corporal punishment as a way of maintaining discipline since the rank-and-file have little sense of Britain's imperial calling. What brought them into battle during the reign of Henry V and the Napoleonic wars was cold cash, just as is the case in Iraq today.

A character like Hollum showed up in "Saving Private Ryan." Corporal Upham, a translator, is not like the rest of the soldiers. He is a not a killing-machine, but a hesitant intellectual. When he is swept up in a hand-to-hand battle between a fellow soldier and a Nazi, he is reduced to a fearful puddle of tears and an object of contempt in the audience's eyes. Clearly, he is not made of the same mettle as those who took snapshots at Abu Ghraib or who put a bullet into a helpless, wounded Iraqi insurgent.

In contrast to Aubrey, the ship's doctor is a man of breeding and sensitivity, but far more useful in the scheme of things than the feckless Hollum. Whatever his reservations about Aubrey's crusade, he knows how to stitch a wound (the film includes gruesome but realistic scenes of on-board surgery.) Played by Paul Bettany, Dr. Stephen Maturin is not afraid to raise criticisms of his friend and commanding officer's relentless, Ahab-like drive to track down and destroy the French warship. Ultimately, however, it is Aubrey's bullheadedness that prevails.

Of some interest is Maturin's avocation for collecting plants and animals during stopovers on the remote Pacific islands, where indigenous peoples are depicted as grinning, gift-bearing bumpkins out of 1950s National Geographic magazine.

His passion appears totally intellectual in nature, but the real record of such naval officers in the rise of the British Empire was far more mercenary. Richard Drayton's "Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the 'Improvement' of the World" tells the story of how science served as a handmaiden to mammon during the voyages of a notorious captain not unlike Jack Aubrey:

"The voyages of Bligh on the Bounty in 1787 and on the Providence and Assistant of 1791-3 aimed at bringing new food and economic crops to the botanic gardens of St. Vincent and Jamaica. According to Banks, this project had been planned by Pitt himself. Its particular target, breadfruit, long the object of planters' requests and Society of Arts premiums, was meant to provide food for the slaves, supplementing plaintains and cassava, and replacing the flour which American independence now made foreign."

Drayton explains that the British were in a race with the French over who would succeed in mass producing breadfruit. In February 1787, the British Secretary of War wrote:

"it seems past a doubt that the Rima or Breadfruit tree is arrived in the French West Indies. Indeed the cargo of South Sea & Oriental plants must be very considerable…It must therefore be acknowledged the French are beforehand with us, Monsieur Céré seems to have been the immediate active Instrument on this occasion, having I presume authority from the French government to use his discretion.."

This rivalry over slaves and the means of keeping them fed had much more to do with the naval wars depicted in O'Brian's novels than whether children grew up singing the 'Marseillaise.'