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Hollywood does justice to Patrick O’Brian’s naval saga

DEVOTEES OF PATRICK O’BRIAN’S celebrated series of historical novels are likely to be not just relieved but delighted by Peter Weir’s beautiful film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

They had reason to be worried at the prospect of a Hollywood version of the beloved Aubrey-Maturin novels. The twenty-volume series, set during the Napoleonic wars, mostly aboard British naval vessels on the high seas, is too literary and language driven, its humor too subtle and dry, to be promising movie material (although you can just about imagine a “Masterpiece Theater”-style miniseries). Worse, the stories form a fairly tight chronological sequence, and the title of Weir’s film combines the titles of O’Brian’s first and tenth books in a worrisome way.

All of which means that Weir’s “Master and Commander” is a small miracle: a genuine achievement in literary adaptation. For all its beauty and excitement, there isn’t a movie-ish moment in the movie. Every scene demonstrates a restraint and intelligence that accord with the spirit of O’Brian’s work.

Perhaps the most important thing to point out to non-initiates is the Aubrey-Maturin books are not precisely “genre fiction,” the pejorative term of literary snobbery used to damn even the best detective, science-fiction, western, and romance novels. They are not maritime adventures (in England there are whole sections of bookshops devoted to the genre) like the Hornblower stories of C.S. Forester (although these are underrated and inspired a very good British television series), Dudley Pope, and Alexander Kent. Rather, as Richard Snow wrote in the New York Times essay that introduced O’Brian to a wider public, these novels are arguably “the best historical fiction ever written.”

The maritime setting is extremely important, and the books are full of authentic technical detail comprehensible only to the most educated sailor (O’Brian was steeped in eighteenth-century maritime lore and literature). But they are also works of brilliant imagination. (O’Brian’s imagination was so rich, it flowed into his accounts of his own life.) The books are really about the unlikely friendship of two men: a bluff English sea captain named Jack Aubrey, and Dr. Stephen Maturin, a half-Irish, half-Catalan ship’s surgeon who is also a brilliant naturalist, a laudanum addict, and a secret agent for the British admiralty. Three things unite this pair: a love of music, a devotion to the war against Bonaparte, and a mutual admiration. The books are considerably less accessible and more learned than most historical fiction. But soon after Norton reissued the series in 1990–to be championed by such writers as Snow, Mark Horowitz, and John Bayley–they began to win a remarkably large audience.

O’Brian writes in an invented language that sounds like eighteenth-century English–although, as you can tell if you compare it with the language of Smollet and Fielding, it’s really a brilliant pastiche composed of slightly archaic vocabulary and syntax interspersed with genuine expressions of the era. One of O’Brian’s signature techniques is his eccentric, elastic sense of time, accelerating and slowing down in sometimes unpredictable ways. A teasing charm of the books is the way O’Brian takes the reader in great detail to the beginning of a battle–and then cuts to its aftermath, so that you discover how it all worked out in casual remarks at a gunroom dinner.

Perhaps of necessity, this style of storytelling is not mirrored by the film. Nevertheless, that a major movie studio–one every bit as guilty of crassness, greed, and cynicism as its brethren–would risk more than a hundred million dollars on a film like this, with little concession to mass taste or political correctness, is astonishing. Hollywood hasn’t seen as high-minded a gamble in thirty years.

 

THE SUCCESS OF PETER WEIR’S ADAPTATION (he cowrote the screenplay with John Collee) is all the more remarkable given that it is built on enormous excisions, not the least its marvelous dry humor and love of language. Huge aspects of the Aubrey-Maturin series are missing. The Maturin character in particular is simplified and shrunk by the movie: He occupies much less screen time than Aubrey and he is made to seem almost a quasi-pacifist as well as a landsman troubled by the harshness of naval discipline. As a skeptical man of the Enlightenment, the literary Maturin is supposed to represent modern sensibility in the novels, but there are important ways in which O’Brian intends him as very much a man of his time. What modern physician would admit that he cannot wait to feel bone under his saw or has taken part in some thirty duels? (British actor Paul Bettany, the real casting gamble in the movie, turns out to make a surprisingly fine Dr. Maturin–although he is certainly not “small, dark, and ill-favored,” and the film makes him a secondary character rather than co-equal of Jack.)

It’s also a shame that there are no women in the movie. O’Brian’s favorite author was Jane Austen (the second novel in the series, “Post Captain,” includes some brilliant Austen pastiche), and he was much interested in matters of sex, love, jealousy, and marriage. The Diana Villiers character in the novels, a divorced woman who becomes Jack’s lover and at one point Stephen’s wife, is a fascinating creation: Thackeray’s Becky Sharp wandered into a Jane Austen world.

Of course, if you haven’t read the books, you won’t notice her omission. Perhaps a more important flaw in the film is the inadequate and sometimes confusing way it depicts the technical challenges of naval warfare in this period. A sequence that involves disguising Aubrey’s HMS Surprise as a civilian vessel confused even a naval historian in the screening I attended. And it was obvious that non-nautical members of the audience didn’t entirely understand what was going on in one scene when the ship’s boats had to tow it out of danger, or in another why a sailor clinging to wreckage being dragged along behind the ship had to be abandoned to his death.

EVEN MORE IMPORTANT, the film fails to explain effectively the basics of naval gunnery: aiming when the hull is up on a wave or down in a trough or the difference between independent firing and broadsides. Still, Weir’s “Master and Commander” captures the terrifying nature of this period’s naval warfare with more realism than any of the swashbuckling movies of the past. And it does this without compromising the romance of tall ships. Indeed it’s a film of remarkable visual beauty that gives a real sense of the amazing elegant intricacy of square-rigged ships–for centuries the most complicated machines in the world–and their fragility.

Both the largeness of the sea (and its perils, especially in the sequence set near Cape Horn) and the smallness of the wooden world are made to feel wonderfully real. O’Brian was rigorous in his recreation of the social world of the early-nineteenth-century Royal Navy.

This, by the way, was an era when it was still very much a meritocratic service, with seamen rising “through the hawse hole” to become officers, and men of talent but little “interest” in the sense of social rank or political connection rising high based on ability and achievement. In the royal navy, unlike the British army, you could not purchase a commission–perhaps because the navy was so much more important to national security.

And unlike so many of its Hollywood predecessors, “Master and Commander” cuts almost no corners when it comes to period authenticity. It is filled with the kind of period detail and atmosphere that O’Brian reveled in: the songs sung at boozy dinners at the captain’s table, and the jigs danced in the crowded decks below, and the grisly surgeries practiced after battle.

Nor do you ever forget that the sailors in Jack Aubrey’s claustrophobic little ship are constantly at war with nature in the form of storms, calms, and disease, even when they are not engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with axes and cutlasses or enduring the horrors of a broadside.

This helps explain why the mariners live under such harsh discipline–the redcoated marines were on board as much to maintain the captain’s law as to snipe at the enemy. And to its credit the film has a sense of something that O’Brian makes much of: that there was more give and take in the relationship of captain and crew than maritime law would suggest. An unhappy crew had various ways of making its displeasure known short of the capital crime of mutiny, including the communicative practice of rolling shot: letting loose cannon balls roll thunderously and dangerously around on the deck while the officers took their supper below.

Weir has run with O’Brian’s particular interest in leadership and the moral courage required by command. The film begins with two young midshipmen keeping watch in the fog. One of them, the officer of the watch, thinks he sees the shape of a ship in the distance but hesitates when it comes to sounding the alarm. This young man’s lack of natural leadership becomes more and more of an issue until it begins to undermine morale. After it has a fatal result, Weir’s Aubrey makes a wonderful, moving, newly invented speech remarking that “we do not all become the men we hoped to be.”

This brings us to the film’s central performance by Russell Crowe, an actor whose reputation for boorish behavior in his private life has distracted people from his spectacular talents. Aubrey isn’t perhaps a role as complex as his marvelous work in “A Beautiful Mind,” “L.A. Confidential,” or “The Insider,” but Crowe’s performance is again wonderfully quiet and unshowy. He almost effortlessly conveys both Aubrey’s talent for leadership and his very eighteenth-century physical vigor (despite being physically less imposing than his literary model).

O’BRIAN’S AUBREY is very much a “Jack ashore”–clueless about human motivation and generally feckless when not at sea. In his own element on the other hand, he is a supremely competent predator, extremely aggressive in the way of his hero, Nelson, and his model Lord Cochrane. He’s also a Tory Englishman of the ebullient pre-Victorian type with large appetites for food, liquor, women, money–this was both an honor culture and a thoroughly commercial one–and, of course, battle. Though not particularly well educated or literary (his favorite line of verse is penned by one of his sailors: the impervious horror of a leeward shore), by the end of the series he’s revealed to be an accomplished astronomer and mathematician.

It hardly needs to be said that there really were men like Aubrey in those extraordinary days, and they accomplished a great deal, especially when they worked in conjunction with men as clever and curious as Stephen Maturin. And so did the royal navy. Although there are moments in the film when you could be watching almost any submarine movie–or science-fiction spaceship analogue–it’s interesting to remember that it was this form of military community that shaped an empire remarkably compatible with liberty. It’s significant that it was square-rigged ships that gave the Christian West a major advantage over its Ottoman and other Eastern rivals–for while you can win an empire with a navy, you cannot crush your own peasants with one.

THERE ARE OTHER FINE PERFORMANCES in Weir’s “Master and Commander.” Max Pirkis, who plays a midshipman, was apparently eleven years old when the film was shot, although he appears to be a year or two older. Eleven-year-olds really did serve as midshipmen (essentially apprentice officers) and under some conditions took on great responsibility. Pirkis arguably steals the movie, and does so with a character faithful to O’Brian’s vision of a lost but magnificent moral and social world. It’s a world that O’Brian did more to retrieve and reanimate than a host of academic historians.

O’Brian knew that while some of us do not become the men we hoped to be, others do, and in the royal navy of the Napoleonic wars, some did even at the age of eleven. To adapt an immortal phrase of Captain Mahan’s, those men and boys filled the ships on which Napoleon’s Grand Army never looked, but which forever stood between them and the mastery of the world. Because Patrick O’Brian wrote, those men and boys are still not dead history. And because Peter Weir has made his film, they have a chance at living for many more people.

 

 

 

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