I went into the movie theater with high hopes. Mander and Commaster (as Beth and I have been calling it since seeing a funny Letterman sketch) has been getting great reviews, and the trailers looked great. “They’ve got twice our numbahs, and twice our guns!” Russell Crowe should be the Captain in every one of the many swashbuckling epics we’re likely to see in the near future.
But nothing I’ve seen about the movie quite prepared me for what I saw. The sea battles were filmed with an amazingly violent energy. It’s unbelievable to see two ships circling each other while shooting dozens of iron balls through each others’ hulls. Wood splinters, men go flying, the doctor is cutting men open while mere boys dump sand at his feet so he doesn’t slip in the pool of blood. I didn’t think about just how close these ships would be to each other during a battle; they’re only two hundred yards apart, everyone on each ship can see precisely the destruction they’re inflicting on their foe.
But the movie isn’t just fast paced action, war was a much slower and more deliberate thing back then. Most of the time the crew of the Surprise could see their pursuer when it was miles and hours away, and that’s considered a sneak attack. The captain can issue orders to avoid the attack at his leisure and then have time to look at the opposing captain through his telescope. The amazing thing to me is that this kind of warfare was ever successful… the ships were out of contact with their land based superiors for months at a time, they didn’t have radar, very accurate maps, or even mechanical clocks (they were constantly using egg timers to judge their speed). How did they ever find anything to attack, and how does a navy function without any chain of command? The captain of a ship is a complete dictator as long as the ship is at sea, what happens if he goes insane or proves incompetent in some respect? Most of the crew besides the officers was drafted, and many of those are carpenters, or cooks, or from other professions that have nothing to do with water. Many can’t even swim, yet there they are, furling the sails while balancing on a rope one hundred feet above the water during a gale. It boggles the mind that empires like Britain’s could have been based almost entirely on their naval prowess.
There were also several subplots about sailing, cursed crew members, and the surgeon’s interest in naturalism and biology. The movie seemed a bit long and dragged at times, but I’m not sure which of these threads I’d cut, they were all very interesting and seemed to humanize the characters. Perhaps the director meant for us to be bored for minutes at a time, it’s a realistic depiction of sea warfare in the 18th century: hours and days of boredom puncuated by short periods of sheer terror and destruction.
Master and Commander is well worth the eight bucks to see it on the big screen, and I can’t wait to try it out on my Dolby 5.1 system at home. I also can’t wait to start reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels.
Update: I meant to point out the extremely refreshing anti-French bent of this film. Of course it’s about the naval battles between England and Napoleon, so I found myself yelling, “Take that, Frenchy!”, throughout the movie. That really amused Beth.