Saturday, November 22, 2003

Master and Commander


Last night I saw the film "Master and Commander. Russell Crowe was well-cast as the obsessive captain, and most of the cast acquits itself well in bringing to life the sights and sounds (but fortunately not the smells) of a 19th century naval vessel.

Engrafted upon its lessons of loyalty, duty, and even fealty of crew to commander, we have a ship's doctor whose convenient frienship with the captain permits some rather anachronistic exchanges about authority. (On screen, it's almost reminiscent of Star Trek, with the captain entertaining and simultaneously dismissing the doctor's comments.) In the context of the period, the ship's mission, and the captain's personality, that dismissal is not surprising - particularly when the doctor's suggestions are absurd, such as dumping the ship's rum overboard such that the crew will be sober.

It is interesting to observe some of the reactions to this film in political quarters. In "Happily Seduced", William F. Buckley, Jr. takes a very romantic, almost yearning approach to the film, which to me suggests that Mr. Buckley spent a great many years of his childhood reading and daydreaming of nautical adventure. (The most salient criticism one might make of this film was that it was more about bringing that fantasy to life than it was about telling a story.)

In contrast, in "Success On the High Seas", Charles Krauthammer seems more enamored with the film's depiction of a military hierarchy, with blind allegiance owed to the commander (in chief), who is free to reward his men with double rations of rum or to order them tied to a mast and lashed in order to maintain order and discipline.
We are at war, and this is a film not just about the conduct of war but about virtue in war. Its depiction of the more ancient notions of duty, honor, patriotism and devotion is reminiscent of what we glimpsed during live coverage of the dash to Baghdad back in April but is now slipping from memory.

The film was first planned a decade ago, long before Sept. 11, long before Afghanistan, long before Iraq. But it arrives at a time of war. And combat on the high seas -- ships under unified command meeting in duelistic engagement in open waters -- represents a distilled essence of warfare that, in the hands of a morally serious man such as Weir, is deeply clarifying.

A fair observation at this point would be that, with only slight modification, this film could have been transformed into "Moby Dick" - the obsessive captain chasing his elusive prey to the furthest corners of the earth, to the ultimate doom of himself, his ship, and most of his crew.

Krauthammer can't help taking some of his usual, ill-considered potshots:
Even better is the fact that the hero in his little British frigate is up against a larger, more powerful French warship. That allows U.S. audiences the particular satisfaction of seeing Anglo-Saxon cannonballs puncturing the Tricolor. My favorite part was Aubrey rallying the troops with a Henry V, St. Crispin's Day speech featuring: "Do you want your children growing up and singing the Marseillaise?" It was met by a chorus of deafening "No's." Maybe they should have put that in the trailer too.

Perhaps Krauthammer has no sense of history, and is unaware of the fact that this film is set a mere generation after the French helped the U.S. achieve independence from England. Perhaps Krauthammer has never seen Casablanca, and its poignant use of the Marseillaise to drown out the singing of "Die Wacht am Rhein" by German (Nazi) officers.

But Krauthammer was simply reflecting his larger attitude - which appears to be that everybody (himself, presumably excluded) should engage in mindless deference to the commander (in chief), and that anybody is either the enemy or deserving of a lashing.

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