Master and Commander

Submitted by on 8 December, 2003 - 12:00

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, said Christopher Hitchens, are set where two worlds meet. The first is the large and political world of "the long struggle between imperial and Georgian Britain and Jacobin and Bonapartist France". This "astonishing global tumult" stretched across the late 18th and early 19th centuries and might be thought of as the real First World War.

The second was the small human world of the "decks, holds and cabins of a seagoing fighting machine". Peter Weir's film Master and Commander (based on the first and tenth of O'Brien's novels) offers only a blurry view of the first and a sanitised version of the second. Nonetheless, from the grey dawn breaking of the opening scene to the joyous chamber music made by Aubrey and Maturin at its end, it is a quite beautiful film.

The lovers and obsessives of the Aubrey-Maturin novels (as they are known) are legion (visit the 'Gunroom' website). The ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin, rather than his great friend, Aubrey, (the 'Master and Commander'), holds the greater interest of many readers, including this one.

Maturin is an Irishman and a Catholic (part Catalan), a trepanner and bonesetter, a polymath and linguist, a naturalist and a cello-player (and a spy), a sympathiser of the rebellion of the United Irishman in 1797 and a former revolutionary and republican. A melancholic, he now detests the tyrant Bonaparte (as did Marx) and fights under a British flag of convenience. Maturin is a man of the Enlightenment.

However Captain Jack Aubrey also cant be resisted. Tory he may be, but he can smell Whig hypocrisy a mile off. He battles with the calculating Lords of the Admiralty who are also shareholders in the East India Company and has a problem with subordinating himself to anyone (except Nelson). And there is not a petty bourgeois or Puritan bone in his body. There is a certain type of aristocrat that is always more attractive than the bourgeois. It is something to do with living life by the pleasure principle rather than the performance principle. And most readers fall for this lover of a life lived "three sheets to the wind" with its joy in sex, music, food, companionship, and a good horse.

Spectacular as the ship and the battle scenes are, perhaps Weir's greatest achievement has been to transfer something of the complexity of the characters of Aubrey and Maturin, and the many layers of their relationship, to the screen, which is captured in subtle and superbly acted exchanges throughout the film. Not just in the set-piece cello and violin duets but in Maturin's slight roll of the eyes and tonguing of his teeth when Aubrey's Nelson-worship is in full flow. We see it in Aubrey's real pain when his friend Maturin protests at a flogging and unleashes his repressed republican spirit ("Oh Stephen, when you speak of the service like this it makes me feel so very low") and in Maturin's anguish when the warring Aubrey mocks his naturalist 'hobby'.

There are some quintessentially 'Maturin moments'. One in particular took my breath away. To the astringent beauty of Bach's first Cello Suite the Surprise approaches the otherworldly exoticism of the Galapagos Islands. The naturalist Maturin scampers to the deck like a child and, barely able to contain himself, we stare out with him at Darwin's future.

But Russell Crowe gives us some real 'Aubrey moments' and avoids ham. Wisely the film does not hide the sheer enjoyment and pleasure this man gets from war. "Do you want to see the Guillotine in Mayfair? Do you want that raggedy arsed Bonaparte for a King? Do you want your children to sing the Marseilles?" he roars, urging on the gun crews before gulping down some wine. The novels deal more subtly but more directly with this male love of violence. O'Brian has Aubrey remembering with "a fullness of being like no other... every detail of blows given and received". The film, perhaps inevitably, strikes a rather more celebratory note.

Weir makes much use of the young aristocrat, Lord Blakeney, in the film. He emerges as a composite of Aubrey and Maturin, a "fighting naturalist" in his own words, equally at home in the world of science, measuring giant turtles with Maturin on the Galapagos Islands, and the world of action, literally staring down the barrel of a gun to save the Surprise from a cannonade.

Master and Commander has sparked another round of debate about the identity of the English. David Aaronovitch in the Observer has observed that: "To be English seems to mean owning as much as you can of your own heritage". The awkward truth is that to be English is more often to suffer a chronic amnesia about your own heritage. Master and Commander, despite its many virtues as a piece of filmmaking, does not escape that amnesia as a piece of history making.

For one thing, the action has been shifted from 1812 to 1805 and the enemy that is chased around the Horn is no longer an American Frigate attacking the British whaling fleet but a French privateer intent on carrying Napoleon's war (I can almost hear Maturin railing against the petty tyranny of Hollywood and the oppression of 'the market'). Revolutionary France has been replaced by the 'old Boney' of the counter-revolutionary English press, the same press that denounced Tom Paine, Richard Price, and the radical London Corresponding Societies. While the film invites us to fall in with Aubrey's adulation of Lord Nelson, O'Brian's novels also remind us of his role in the slave trade and in putting down the republican revolt in Naples.

David Aaronovitch expressed his "hope that Master and Commander will supersede Braveheart, Rob Roy and all those other movies where the English are seen as effete sadists who cannot pleasure their spouses". Well, we English could certainly do with a self-image other than that so crudely ladled out in Mel Gibson films.

But David Aaronovitch should remember that, for all the heroics of Aubrey and the cosmopolitan appeal of Maturin, they are serving a counter-revolutionary war of intervention against the French Revolution. When remembering our heritage, we might be better guided by the spirit of Coleridge's poem, France: An Ode on the French Invasion of Switzerland, written before he lost his nerve. That ended with the lines "But blessed the paeans of delivered France / And hung my head and wept at Britain's name".

Worst of all, the film portrays the crew as superstitious dullards, albeit also loyal and doughty fighters for 'lucky Jack'. Interested only in grog and 'the prize' and filled with fear and loathing for a hapless lieutenant they suspect is a 'Jonah', these men are the mere cardboard stereotypes of the middle class mind.

In contrast, in O'Brian's novels the crew could resemble the cast from E P Thompson's Making of the English Working Class.

In the novel The Wine-Dark Sea O'Brian describes the Surprise as crammed with "Brownists, Sethians, Arminians, Muggleto-nians, and several others, generally united in a seamanlike tolerance when afloat and always in a determined hatred of tithes when ashore". In the novels one can find a crew deliberately allowing a radical French officer to escape. Sadly all the film can offer is a moaning cook who is less Tom Paine than Victor Meldrew.

And though the film has the rum and the lash it does not have the sodomy. O'Brian's novels show as a simple matter of fact that Jack Tar was often gay.

If David Aaronovitch wants a heritage on which to base a modern English identity, he should perhaps look to great naval mutinies that broke out in 1797, only eight years before the heroics of Master and Commander, rather than Aubrey's set-piece Churchillian nationalism. The grievances of the mutineers were expressed in The Manifesto of the Delegates To Their Countrymen, handed to Lord Northesk on 6 June 1797. In defeat the leader of the mutiny, Richard Parker, was hanged from the yardarm of his ship. At a meeting of the delegates of the different ships, the mutineers expressed themselves in these terms:

"Shall we who have endured the toils of a tedious, disgraceful war, be the victims of tyranny and oppression which vile, gilded, pampered knaves, wallowing in the lap of luxury, choose to load us with? Shall we, who amid the rage of the tempest and the war of jarring elements, undaunted climb the unsteady cordage and totter on the topmast's dreadful height, suffer ourselves to be treated worse that the dogs of London streets?

Shall we who in the battles sanguinary rage, confound, terrify and subdue your proudest foe, guard your coasts from invasion, your children from slaughter and your lands from pillage - be the footballs and shuttlecocks of a set of tyrants who derive from us alone their honours, their titles and their fortunes?

No, the Age of Reason has at length revolved. Long have we been endeavouring to find ourselves men. We now find ourselves so. We will be treated as such."

Reviewer: Alan Johnson

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