In the course of 24 hours, the people egging on Master and Commander showed me the film at a private screening, took me to dinner at the New York Yacht Club, gave me a book to read which tells about the making of the movie, and mailed me a DVD which includes a trailer of the movie itself and a sparkling 30-minute narrative featuring the two boats central to the film. Yes, sure, there are commercial motives: the people who brought off the heady enterprise sank $135 million into it. But I (and others at the screening and dinner) felt a supra-material desire in our hosts that word be got out about this filming of Patrick O’Brian’s work. The disinterested pleasure is on the order of the pleasure the designers of the Empire State Building got from seeing people come just to ogle at the magnificence of it.
Enthusiasm for the movie is readily communicated, because the two hours of the film are a magical distillate of the author’s accomplishments in describing life at sea, at war, in great storms and long doldrums. There are the vivid satellite characters, but Captain Aubrey is the heliocentric figure, and Russell Crowe, who plays the part, has won, for this performance alone, permanent theatrical standing. He portrays a complex figure embodying the best that might be said of the seafaring commander of a British man of war, master of men and of the elements that men confront.
The entrepreneurs have gone to great pains to tell you how Peter Weir’s movie was made. The literature and DVD take you inside the enterprise, tell you about the complexity of the challenge and how the filmmakers met it. This includes the tale of acquiring a vessel that lent itself to reconfiguration as a 19th-century ship of the line in Newport and sailing it (through 70-mph winds) to Baja California, of its destination in the huge tank built for the movie about the Titanic, of the special training given to the actors, 50 of them stuntmen who danced about in the rigging and ran their swords into French flesh aboard the enemy ship.
Such detail is interesting-on the order of how exactly was the tornado contrived that swept Dorothy up into Oz. There is of course the risk that curiosity at that level gets in the way of the drama effected by all these contrivances. Curiosity about how the draught was compounded that put Juliet to sleep for a day intrudes into the pathos of what happened when she awoke to find Romeo dead.
This vivisection is not a problem for those who read Patrick O’Brian’s novels, great adventures in storytelling and characterization with wonderful ingenuities of plot. O’Brian wrote twenty of these, and there are those who, reaching the twentieth, go back to the first and just start the whole cycle again, as, a generation ago, some readers treated the novels of Anthony Trollope.
The sweep of the film is especially engrossing, one assumes, for those who find the sea alluring, but Master and Commander is studded with enough drama, poignancy, and excitement to overwhelm even the tumultuous oceans. There is a child midshipman, beautifully played, who is an aspirant naturalist. Together with Dr. Maturin, the fabled aide and friend of the captain, the kid is captivated by the sight of the least insect or lizard. These are plentifully there when the ship dallies in the Galapagos Islands. Dr. Maturin is hit by a bullet gone astray and takes over the surgical challenge of removing it, using a mirror to guide him.
From time to time the two men, the captain and the surgeon, meet in the great cabin of the master and commander to play music, a cello and violin. In a final scene of galvanizing charm, Maturin takes his cello athwartwise and strums it like a guitar, bringing to a close a film which everyone must see who has any eye for cinematic art and great adventure.