' Cinema Romantico: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Friday, October 02, 2009

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Recently I read Richard Zacks' book "The Pirate Hunter" about the true story of the infamous Captain Kidd and doing so got me seriously in the mood for Peter Weir's 2003 high seas epic "Master and Commander". No, it's not a typical swashbuckler, per se, but Zacks' book really focuses on what real life was like aboard those ships and "Master and Commander" went for authenticity. I had already seen it twice - once on the big screen when it was released and once on DVD - but seeing it a third time made me realize something profound - "Master and Commander" has a lot in common with "Serendipity".

Wait! Hold on! Where are you going?! Don't skip over to the next blog! Stay with me! Give me a chance to explain myself!

Based on two novels in Patrick O'Brian's popular series the story centers on the British warship Surprise in 1805, captained by Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe, who gets a lot of gruff for his offscreen antics, but who irregardless of all that is a fantastic actor), with orders to track an enemy French warship off the coast of Brazil and burn her, sink her, or take her as a prize.

I love how the film opens, no backstory, no exposition, straight to the marvelously modern French ship sneaking up on our proud British commander, battle ensuing, the Suprise finding itself wounded and stealing away into the fog. We get up to speed with our characters and with the harsh life aboard this vessel as the movie progresses. Aubrey is one main character, the other is the ship's surgeon Stephen (a wonderful Paul Bettany), a naturalist who has enlisted in the Royal Navy as much to tend to the injured and dying as to further his explorations for rare and interesting animal species.

The two men are opposites and yet they are alike. They discuss matters, ranging from the military to ruminations on life itself, intelligently and in several passages play fiddle and cello together, finding not only common ground but beautiful, if temporary, refuge from the ills of war. These intimate passages between Captain and Surgeon are among the film's best. Aubrey making a difficult, crucial decision midway through solely on the account of his friend is heartbreaking.

The action sequences are striking, filled with cannon and gunfire and swordplay and there is also the obligatory (anymore it seems) scene of a bullet being excavated from the body but my favorites are the ones in which no typical action is taking place. A particular moment finds the French ship sneaking up on the Surprise a second time and Aubrey cooly declaring they will "run like smoke and oakum."

What proceeds is an entire day of the Surprise doing everything in its power to stay ahead and out of range of the faster French ship. Nary a cannonball is fired and yet it is just exhilirating, if a bit short - at least to me. I could have watched for this an hour. Think about it! You're on this ship out in the middle of the ocean with nothing in sight except another ship right behind you whose sole intent is to blow your ship to kingdom come and for the whole day - the whole day! - you're watching that ship directly behind you try and close the gap, peering through your telescope to see the glint off the French Captain's telescope because he is peering right back at you. The tension, my God, the tension! I can't imagine it! God, I love that scene!

There are too many maritime superstitions to list. Things like putting a silver coin under the masthead to ensure a successful voyage and offering a libation to the gods by pouring wine on the deck prior to the voyage and so on and so forth. There are several references to the "gods" in the film and, of course, we have the requisite salty dog who speaks strictly in premonitions, like "The devil's at the wheel of that phantom ship". All this suggests the fates, things beyond their control.

The film is also filled with what appear at first glance to merely be Very Convenient Developments. For example, after this mysterious French ship has attacked and everyone aboard the Surprise is confused how it snuck up on them, how it was so fast, etc. etc., a crew member comes forward and says he just happened to be in the American city where this particular French ship was being built and that he just happens to remember how it was constructed and so another crew member is able to slap together an exact model of the ship to assist Aubrey. A bit of "serendipaciousness", if you ask me.

But that is nothing compared to the Surgeon getting shot. I'd remembered this twist but thought it had taken place in battle. Whoops, I was wrong! An exotic bird is flapping about the ship and the Surgeon wants to get a closer look so he goes after it except another crewmember wants to shoot down the same bird and at the instant the Surgeon reaches the bird the crewmember squeezes the trigger and....there you go. The Surgeon is shot.

You could still argue the Surgeon seals his own fate because of his personal obsessions with rare animals but it seemed awfully tough to buy until I realized precisley what was going on in "Master and Commander".

Let's consider exactly how this all plays out. Okay, so the Surgeon gets shot. No one else on the ship can properly remove the bullet, which must be done to save his life, when you consider the rocky waves of the ocean. They need dry land. Which is why even though when the Surprise finds the French Ship Aubrey refrains from attacking and takes them to the nearby Galapagos Islands so they have dry land on which to operate and save the Surgeon's life and because they are now on the Galapagos Islands the Surgeon is afforded the opporunity he was declined earlier in the movie to investigate and examine the numerous unknown animals all over this stretch of land and because he goes out to invesigate them and traipses all over the place he happens upon the hidden cove where the French ship is anchored which allows the Surprise to stay true to its name and really surprise the heck out of the French ship and finally take her down (so to speak).

So if you rewind all of that what we're essentially saying is that if the Surgeon doesn't get shot, they may never actually get to spring the trap on their enemy.

Remember what Kate Beckinsale says to John Cusack when he asks her how she found that coffee shop? "I first came in because of the name. Serendipity. It's such a nice sounding word for what it means. A fortunate accident."

The Surgeon getting shot was one hell of A Fortunate Accident. And there you go. This is why I'm here, people.

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