Brother Cohen has made some idle threats in the past about attempting a film discussion here on weekends. Having finally gotten to see Master and Commander, I thought perhaps we could have a test run with this superb and profoundly conservative film.
Starting with the movie as a movie, Weir has created a masterpiece. Though mostly scrubbed of gore, the scenes of 19th century war are convincing. Almost as good are the scenes of Surprise rounding the Horn. In this, and in showing the crowding of almost 200 souls aboard a small frigate, the movie succeeds in outdoing O'Brian in showing what life was like on a man-of-war at sea. Though the movie is not at all a slavish adaptation of the novel (among other things, major parts of four of the books find their way into the movie), a number of O'Brian's major themes are sounded and a number of lines and sights are thrown in for no other reason than to please those who have read the novel.
Weir's riskiest choice succeeds brilliantly. Rather than "opening up" the novel, Weir closes in on the Surprise and her crew. This is as non-commercial a choice as could be made. Rather than introducing a Hollywood romance, making the entire war depend upon catching the Acheron, or introducing the 19th century equivalent of a red timer ticking down to zero, Weir tosses out source material that might broaden the movie's appeal. O'Brian's The Far Side Of The World includes an adulterous love triangle on board between Hollum, the gunner's wife (who was one of several women on board) and the gunner, who kills the lovers, Higgens the surgeon's mate (who botches an abortion Stephen refuses to perform) and then goes mad and hangs himself. Instead, Weir focuses claustrophobically on the Surprise, the seamen and her Captain. This focus brings the audience to the final battle as a part of the crew, which is now a coherent unit.
Weir's real triumph is the choreography and filming of the battle scenes, which are done as well as any I've ever seen. Filming a general melee of three hundred men fighting for their lives with one-shot pistols, swords, pikes and knives in a confined space, Weir manages to present three or four themes in such a way that the viewer always can follow the action and tell what is happening to whom. At the same time, the audience feels the confusion and violence that the characters are feeling.
This triumph allows Weir to return to themes he has dealt with before, as early as Gallipoli, when he presented the insanity of World War I trench warfare as seen by Australian troops. This link comes through most clearly during the speech Jack Aubrey gives (most uncharacteristically) before the Surprise surprises the Acheron. Jack says that the Surprise is England and family and that the men will fight bravely for country and family, which of course they do. The Australians, on the other hand, were fighting and dying in an "European" war and, although they fought bravely, were fighting in the end only for each other. Weir presents their deaths as tragic and odd, where the deaths on the Surprise are presented as worthy, though also tragic. This comes through in the choice of identifiable characters who die on the Acheron, Nagle, Allen and Calamy. Nagle and Allen are not sympathetic characters. Calamy we are not allowed to know, though we are meant to like and admire him, but his death (which is Weir's invention, not O'Brian's) is presented as coming during an opportunity he greatly desired and is the most bitterly regretted death in the movie. Soon after, the Surprise moves on and so do we.
Our first approach was to tell the whole story from enlistment in 1914 through to the evacuation of Gallipoli at the end of 1915, but we were not getting at what this thing was, the burning center that had made Gallipoli a legend. I could never find the answers in any books and it certainly wasn't evolving in any of our drafts, so we put the legend to one side and simply made up a story about two young men, really got to know them, where they came from, what happened to them along the way, spent more time getting to the battle and less time on the battlefield.
The draft fell into place. By approaching the subject obliquely, I think we had come as close to touching the source of the myth as we could. I think there's a Chinese proverb - it's not the arriving at one's destination but the journey that matters. Gallipoli is about two young men on the road to adventure, how they crossed continents and great oceans, climbed the pyramids and walked through the ancient sands of Egypt, and the deserts of the outback, to their appointment with destiny at Gallipoli.
The end of the film is really all about that appointment and how they coped with it. I don't think we could have sat down in the early stages and got this - it took years of talking, writing, arguing, to finally get back to something incredibly simple.
The similarities with Master & Commander are clear. The differences are those between a younger man and an older man looking at life. Now the friendship at the heart of the movie is less important to the characters and the audience than the war in which they have chosen to fight.
But still, the theme from O'Brian's novel that comes through most strongly in the film is the conflict between the high Tory Aubrey and the liberal Maturin. Jack believes in the higher discipline; that men must be led both in order to accomplish anything worthwhile and for their own happiness. Stephen rejects this idea of man as a yoked beast, though more because of its effect on the leader than on the men. Stephen believes, that is, that power corrupts, and that's a shame for the powerful. The resolution of this dispute is perhaps the most disappointing part of the movie. Although Jack's idea of discipline wins out in the end, it does so only because he gives up the pursuit of the Acheron to save his friend's life. I think we are meant to see the need to blend the two philosophies in order to succeed (Jack and Stephen complete each other, blah, blah, blah), but we don't, because the Acheron reappears as a deus ex machina, with no connection to Jack's supposed sacrifice.
But perhaps this is the message, after all. The movie is almost entirely free of post-modern irony (the only exception, in which Jack wonders at this "modern age we're living in", is one of the movie's few clunkers). This earnestness leads to the movie's greatest surprise. Weir's movie is significantly more Christian -- at least, more explicitly Christian -- than O'Brian's novel. We are hit over the head with this at the end, with perhaps the only non-ironic, earnest Christian service I've ever seen in a major motion picture. Weir might think that Jack, as a Christian hero, is rewarded for his works, but actually he was rewarded out of grace.
I was struck even more forcefully than David by the degree to which Maturin and Aubrey are presented as opposites, with Aubrey having faith in the service, his nation, patriotism, order, God, etc., and Maturin openly scoffing at the ship, Lord Nelson, disciplining a mutinous crewman, etc. Especially devastating are the scenes where Aubrey barks out that they don't have time for Maturin's "hobbies" and where he tells Maturin: "You've come to the wrong ship for anarchy, Brother."
It makes the film extraordinarily pertinent to our own times, with Maturin the kind of fey intellectual who barely has a side in the war vs. Aubrey the duty-bound man of action who cares utterly about England (and himself, of course) winning.
In this regard, Christopher Hitchens, for one, seems to have completely missed the point of the adaptation, Empire Falls: How Master and Commander gets Patrick O'Brian wrong. (Christopher Hitchens, Nov. 14, 2003, Slate):
Unlike Forester, O'Brian set himself not just to show broadsides and cutlass work and flogging and the centrality of sea power, but to re-create all of the ambiguities and contradictions of England's long war against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. (This, I argue, was the true and real "First World War," because it extended itself to every ocean and almost every nation, not exempting this one.) The summa of O'Brian's genius was the invention of Dr. Stephen Maturin. He is the ship's gifted surgeon, but he is also a scientist, an espionage agent for the Admiralty, a man of part Irish and part Catalan birth--and a revolutionary. He joins the British side, having earlier fought against it, because of his hatred for Bonaparte's betrayal of the principles of 1789--principles that are perfectly obscure to bluff Capt. Jack Aubrey. Any cinematic adaptation of O'Brian must stand or fall by its success in representing this figure.
On this the film doesn't even fall, let alone stand. It skips the whole project. As played by the admittedly handsome and intriguing Paul Bettany, Maturin is no more than a good doctor with finer feelings and a passion for natural history. At one point he is made to say in an English accent that he is Irish„but that's the only hint we get. In the books, for example, he quarrels badly with Aubrey about Lord Nelson's support for slavery. But here a superficial buddy movie is born out of one of the subtlest and richest and most paradoxical male relationships since Holmes and Watson.
A former pro-Soviet Marxist, Mr. Hitchens is understandably loathe to learn the lesson of modernity and apply it to Maturin and himself, but surely the rest of us can see that the great heroes of our history are the men--Aubrey, Burke, Churchill, Solzhenitsyn, Reagan, etc.--who are not seduced by the Revolution of the day, only to find themselves "betrayed" by its inevitable course. The Maturin's, George Orwell's, Whittaker Chambers's, Christopher Hitchens's are welcome to join the side of the righteous once they come to their senses, but are not to be lightly forgiven their original treason's nor allowed to whitewash their past's. The problem with the French Revolution was not Napoleon taking it over any more than the problem of the Bolshevik Revolution was Stalin taking it over. The Revolutions were themselves evil from their inception.
What Mr. Weir has achieved is to demonstrate the education of Stephen Maturin in just the one film. Were Jack Aubrey--and England--to run the navy and fight the war in the Frenchified manner that Maturin begins by insisting upon they would surely lose. But Aubrey harbors no such delusions and if he does have some doubts is nonetheless faithful to the ideals and traditions that have made him love King, country, and navy in the first place. Maturin is a fine friend and good company--so long as you just want to play the fiddle or discuss a book, but taking his counsel in a time of war would be disastrous. Because the French must be defeated, it is Maturin who bends to Aubrey's will (to the British way), not Aubrey who yields to "Reason".
As David mentions in his review, the movie includes, near its end, one of the most affecting religious scenes ever committed to film. What's so remarkable is that it makes vivid the Lord's Prayer that we've all repeated so many times that we may have stopped listening to what we're saying. It recaptures its power here because we recognize the degree to which it commits us to a faith in Providence and just how antirational it is: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done." The deaths suffered in battle may be tragic, but they are not senseless.
It is no coincidence that America is today being led in war by a President who shares this view of History, a vision which intellectuals think antiquated, Providence and the President: George W. Bush's theory of history. (James W. Ceaser, 03/10/2003, Weekly Standard):
GEORGE W. BUSH is the product, far more than his father, of the modern conservative movement. Like Ronald Reagan, he is a self-described optimist who once went so far as to chastise a conservative intellectual for the sin of pessimism. What Bush has added to the mainstream of conservatism is a religious dimension, which in the case of the question of History includes the theme of Providence.
Providence is one of the richest and most complex--and therefore one of the most variously interpreted--of all religious ideas. For many, of course, the mere mention of a religious term is sufficient to provoke Pavlovian accusations of political messianism; any idea of religious pedigree (other than the message of peace) is devoid of all sense. Yet those willing to consider the matter more deeply will find that traditionally, Providence has had a reasonably determinate meaning. One of its central themes is that the course of history, from a human standpoint, is unfathomable: "The Almighty has His own purposes." One conviction, however, remains supreme: While the path of events before us can never be fully known, and while there will always be difficulty and pain, Providence offers a basis for hope and a ground for avoiding despair. Yet it disclaims any pretension to know the future and offers no assurance of divine reward for our action in this world. At the practical level of human affairs, the focus remains on human responsibility and choice.
The most sublime evocation of the "providence of God" in political rhetoric appears as the central theme of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural. This speech carries a message of ultimate hope without any guarantee of immediate reward. It keeps the focus in the political realm on duty, on the need to do right "as God gives us to see the right." These aspects of this great speech are well known, but less known, perhaps, are two other things. The first is that Lincoln's recourse to Providence was a response to the nineteenth-century precursor to the Doctrine of History that had circulated before the war and that taught, in the words of the historian George Bancroft, that "everything is in motion for the better. . . . The last political state of the world likewise is ever more excellent than the old." Standing where he did in 1865, after experiencing all of the agony and turns of fortune of the Civil War, Lincoln had come to know the centrality of political choice and to experience pathos. The second thing was that no sooner did Lincoln give the speech than he was widely criticized for not invoking God more directly on his side and for not promising a swift and certain reward. In one of his last letters, Lincoln explained that such a wish was contrary to the idea of Providence and unsuited to the education of a great people.
Although no one at this point can claim to know administration "policy" on Providence, President Bush's comments have followed in the Lincolnian mold. As he observed in his State of the Union address: "We do not know--we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history." Without taking anything away from a practical kind of optimism, the theme of Providence seems to have separated the president from the embrace of anything like a Doctrine of History. The focus has been on duty. Perhaps this language, suitably developed and elaborated, provides the best framework for conservatives both to express and reconcile their hopes and fears about history.
Presidents, it hardly needs to be said, are not philosophers. Yet in their responsibility to act, it happens that their words sometimes open a dimension of theoretical insight that more abstract thought misses. Modern man is growing ever more impressed with his supposed mastery of the physical environment. By contrast, it is obvious that the course of history can never be brought under his complete control. There will always be shocks, surprises, and events. So long as this fact does not lead to skepticism and paralysis, it can serve as a salutary reminder of the intrinsic limits of the human situation. It bids us open our thoughts, in a spirit of wonder and awe, to something much larger than ourselves. And this too is a part of the conservative message.
The movie that Peter Weir made is not the movie that Christopher Hitchens wanted but the world we live in is not the world that Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Maturin dream of. We live in the world and the culture of Jack Aubrey and George W. Bush, President's Remarks at National Prayer Breakfast (Washington Hilton Hotel, Washington, D.C., 2/07/02):
Faith gives the assurance that our lives and our history have a moral design. As individuals, we know that suffering is temporary, and hope is eternal. As a nation, we know that the ruthless will not inherit the Earth. Faith teaches humility, and with it, tolerance. Once we have recognized God's image in ourselves, we must recognize it in every human being.
Respect for the dignity of others can be found outside of religion, just as intolerance is sometimes found within it. Yet for millions of Americans, the practice of tolerance is a command of faith. When our country was attacked, Americans did not respond with bigotry. People from other countries and cultures have been treated with respect. And this is one victory in the war against terror.
At the same time, faith shows us the reality of good, and the reality of evil. Some acts and choices in this world have eternal consequences. It is always, and everywhere, wrong to target and kill the innocent. It is always, and everywhere, wrong to be cruel and hateful, to enslave and oppress. It is always, and everywhere, right to be kind and just, to protect the lives of others, and to lay down your life for a friend.
The men and women who charged into burning buildings to save others, those who fought the hijackers, were not confused about the difference between right and wrong. They knew the difference. They knew their duty. And we know their sacrifice was not in vain.
Faith shows us the way to self-giving, to love our neighbor as we would want to be loved ourselves. In service to others, we find deep human fulfillment. And as acts of service are multiplied, our nation becomes a more welcoming place for the weak, and a better place for those who suffer and grieve.
For half a century now, the National Prayer Breakfast has been a symbol of the vital place of faith in the life of our nation. You've reminded generations of leaders of a purpose and a power greater than their own. In times of calm, and in times of crisis, you've called us to prayer.
In this time of testing for our nation, my family and I have been blessed by the prayers of countless of Americans. We have felt their sustaining power and we're incredibly grateful. Tremendous challenges await this nation, and there will be hardships ahead. Faith will not make our path easy, but it will give us strength for the journey.
The promise of faith is not the absence of suffering, it is the presence of grace. And at ever step we are secure in knowing that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope -- and hope does not disappoint.
-ESSAY: A High-Risk Film on the High Seas: Every once in a while a Hollywood studio throws out the hit-formula playbook and bets that smart moviegoers will go along for the ride. "Master and Commander" is that rarecase. (ANNE THOMPSON, 11/13/03, NY Times)