film review: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Speaking of naval fiction and screen adaptations of naval fiction, like so many youthful fans of this genre I eventually ran out of Hornblower novels to read and moved on to other writers. Writers like Patrick O’Brian. I think most people would concede that C.S. Forester and O’Brian are the two giants of this genre. My admiration for O’Brian’s novels has caused me to avoid seeing the 2003 movie adaptation  of his work, on the assumption that a 21st century movie version would almost certainly be riddled with political correctness and would almost certainly miss the subtleties of the novels.

Now that I’ve finally seen Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World I have to confess that my fears were not really justified. It’s actually pretty good.

The problem with historical fiction, and historical movies, is that they almost always say more about the era in which they are produced than about the era in which they are set. This problem has always existed but has become steadily worse. Contemporary historical fiction and movies are populated entirely by 21st century characters wearing period costume. The beliefs, values, attitudes, opinions and prejudices of the characters reflect today’s world and appear so hopelessly anachronistic in historical films that such books and films become merely absurd. It is very difficult to avoid this trap.

Watching Master and Commander it’s obvious that screenwriters John Collee and Peter Weir have at least tried to avoid this pitfall. The characters do to a certain extent reflect the very different outlook and the very different values of the early 19th century. Captain Jack Aubrey is motivated by a sense of duty that would seem absurd in a character in a modern movie but it feels reasonably right for the period. His views are roughly what you expect from a British frigate captain in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars.

He is even allowed to give a little speech on the subject, and (even more surprisingly) on the subject of patriotism. Most surprising of all is that he is permitted to deliver the speech in a refreshingly non-ironic manner.

The great temptation would have been to make his friend naturalist/physician friend  Stephen Maturin into a proto-SJW. Mercifully this does not happen. Jack and Stephen disagree strongly on countless subjects but both men remain fairly plausible as men of their time. Stephen might be a religious sceptic but he deplores the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. He believes in social hierarchies.  Stephen likes to give the impression that he sees the Navy mostly as a way to pursue his interest in natural history but when push comes to shove and the survival of the ship is at stake he is more than willing to grab pistol and cutlass and indulge (with considerable enthusiasm) in hand-to-hand fighting.

This is certainly a magnificent looking film. It’s grungy enough to be convincing without overdoing it. The action scenes are great. As far as entertainment is concerned it scores very highly.

The biggest plus is Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey. I’ve never had much time for Crowe as an actor but he’s superb here. Most crucially he plays Aubrey as a genuine hero. He’s not an anti-hero. He’s not a flawed and tortured hero. He’s the real deal.

There’s also a welcome lack of political correctness. It’s not that the film is politically incorrect – it simply ignores the existence of PC and gets on with the story. Of course you have to remember that it was made fifteen years ago and you probably wouldn’t get away with such a film today.

All in all Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is much much better than I’d expected.

It’s also interesting to compare it to the roughly contemporary Hornblower TV series.

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The never-ending Cold War

In Orwell’s 1984 Oceania is in a permanent state of war, either with Eurasia or Eastasia. The advantages of permanent war are obvious – it distracts people from the realities of economic stagnation and it’s a perfect justification for more and more political repression. In actual fact the endless wars are largely illusory. People see newsreels of epic battles but in reality these wars are mostly small-scale border skirmishes.

In other words it’s much like the Cold War – lots of fear-mongering but mostly fairly small-scale proxy wars.

In fact it’s pretty much like the world today. It seems like we can look forward to never-ending Cold Wars. It certainly seems that those who shape U.S. foreign policy are determined that there must always be a Cold War. It’s not just for the reasons outlined above. There are other even more compelling reasons to maintain a permanent state of Cold War. War is very profitable. It’s not profitable for everybody of course, but it’s profitable for the people who count. As far as those people are concerned the business of America is war.

The difficulty lies in justifying vast and completely unnecessary military expenditures for a country that has no actual viable enemies and doesn’t actually need to spend more than a token amount on defence. The solution is simple. If the U.S. doesn’t have enemies, make up some pretend enemies. In order to justify the massive spending they have to appear to be at least vaguely credible enemies. There are only two possible candidates, Russia and China. Therefore Oceania (the U.S. and its satellites) must be constantly at war with either Eurasia (Russia) or Eastasia (China).

But wars are messy things and don’t always turn out the way you’d hoped. Sometimes you even lose, as happened to the U.S. in Vietnam. So the best solution is permanent Cold War. It’s just as profitable but a lot safer.

There’s an even worse downside to fighting an actual war. What if you win and there’s no enemy left to fight? How do you continue to keep the money flowing to the military-industrial complex? That was the nightmare scenario facing the American defence establishment in 1945. With Germany and Japan totally defeated the U.S. no longer needed an enormous military. Fortunately an answer was found. The Cold War was like an answered prayer. Pretty soon the money was flowing again in a very satisfactory manner. The military-industrial complex has no intention of facing such a nightmare again so the new Cold War must never end.

It’s important to understand that it makes no difference who happens to be in government in Russia and China or what policies those nations pursue. The U.S. must have enemies, so therefore Russia and China must be those enemies.

It seems highly probable that the Russians are well aware of all this, and have come to the conclusion that there is absolutely no point in trying to negotiate with the Americans. The Americans will never negotiate in good faith. Therefore the permanent Cold War just has to be accepted.

There are certain advantages to this situation for both Russia and China. The biggest threats they face are the economic and cultural menace from the West, especially the cultural menace. If a Cold War encourages anti-American feeling it might provide some protection from the tidal wave of western degeneracy that threatens to engulf the entire planet. Cultural isolationism may well be the only hope for survival for both Russia and China.

could the British Empire have survived?

Historical might-have-beens are always fun. Of course they seem futile to many people, especially those who subscribe to either the Marxist or Whig views of history. Since I most emphatically do not subscribe to either of these views I can indulge myself in historical hypotheticals.

When you look at the mess we’re in now it seems obvious that at some point we must have reached a fork in the road and we must have taken the wrong fork. Speculating about hypotheticals can be a way to try to identify those forks in the road.

Britain at the start of the 20th century definitely faced a fork in the road. The British had two choices. They could maintain and defend their empire, or they could play the game of European great power politics. But they could not afford to do both. If they chose the empire that meant avoiding, as far as possible, any entanglement in Europe. It meant continuing the policy of Splendid Isolation that had served Britain so well in the past. If the British chose to play at being a European great power then sooner or later the empire would have to be sacrificed.

Faced with this choice between Europe and the Empire Britain chose Europe. With catastrophic consequences, but not just the immediately obvious ones of being dragged into the futile farce of the First World War. There were long-term consequences for the Empire, and especially for relations between Britain and the Dominions.

Australians for example up until 1914 considered themselves to be pretty much British. In theory Australia was semi-independent (it was not a fully independent country since it did not control its own foreign policy). Australians thought of themselves as being part of the British Empire and in general were fiercely loyal to the Empire.

That attitude took a bit of a knock during the First World War. The sheer scale of the bloodletting was a shock and then there was Gallipoli. Gallipoli was seen by many Australians (including my grandfather who was there) as the first great British betrayal.

Then came the Second World War and for Australians Singapore was a British betrayal on an even more spectacular scale than Gallipoli. That was the point at which Australians in general ceased to believe in the British Empire.

These betrayals were not really so much actual betrayals as simply consequences of the choice Britain made in signing the Entente Cordiale in 1904. Britain had chosen Europe and the Empire’s fate was sealed. Britain was utterly unable to defend the Empire due to her involvement in Europe.

If the Empire was ever going to have a future in the latter part of the 20th century it was going to have to be more an equal partnership, especially as far as the Dominions were concerned. The two world wars had made it painfully obvious that Britain had neither the capability nor the will to defend the Empire, so after that the Dominions had zero interest in the Empire.

Which was a problem for Britain because in the post-WW2 world Britain’s only hope of remaining an independent power lay in transforming the Empire into a geopolitical bloc that could rival the Soviet and American empires. The United States was of course, for that very reason, absolutely determined to destroy the British Empire. But there might still have been a chance for the Empire if the Dominions had still believed in it. But their trust and their confidence in the Empire had vanished. Which left only one alternative for Britain, being an American vassal. The choice made in 1904 was perhaps the most spectacularly wrong foreign policy decision in British history.

revolutions and democracy

Rebellions were not uncommon during the Middle Ages. There were quite a few. They all had one thing in common. They all failed. Peasants with pitch-forks don’t do very well against well-armed disciplined soldiers (and even medieval soldiers were well disciplined compared to a mob of peasants with pitch-forks).

The ruling class wasn’t too worried. There was no real threat to the social order. They made sure they always had those well-armed disciplined soldiers on their side.

Then things started to change. In the late 18th century a peasant’s revolt actually succeeded. OK, the French Revolution was much more complicated than just a peasant’s revolt but the important thing is that the social order really was overturned. The ruling classes started to get nervous.

From then until the mid-19th century (1848 being the celebrated Year of Revolutions) there were more revolutions. They met with mixed success but the fact that any of them enjoyed any success at all was enough to send a chill up the spines of the ruling classes.

Some way needed to be found to nip this revolution business in the bud. The answer was democracy. Parliaments and congresses already existed but they were not the slightest bit democratic. Now they would be made democratic. Now the peasants wouldn’t be tempted to resort to pitch-forks. They would have a say in the government.

Of course it goes without saying that the ruling classes did not have the slightest intention of allowing those nasty smelly peasants (or those nasty smelly and increasingly numerous workers) to have an actual say in the government. It was all a game of make believe. Representative democracy was in fact a system set up to ensure that the people would never actually be asked for their opinions. The people would be passive observers but they would think they were active participants. Instead of manning the barricades and cutting off aristocrats’ heads they would vote. Their votes would be meaningless. That was the whole point of the exercise.

It worked very well indeed in countries like the US, Britain and Australia. The masses became docile and compliant. They believed the lies about democracy. They kept away from pitch-forks.

This has turned out to be very unfortunate. Sometimes the only way to persuade the ruling class that the people are seriously angry and discontented is to man the barricades. But we now have a population so drugged by the illusion of democracy that they will never man those barricades, even when their ruling class has declared war on them and intends to destroy them. Instead they dutifully show up at the polling booths, filled with the touching belief that if only they can throw out that nasty Mr Tweedledee and his Liberal Conservative Party (or his Democratic Republican Party) and vote in that nice Mr Tweedledum and his Conservative Liberal Party (or his Republican Democrat Party) then everything will be fine.

In the latter part of the 20th century the ruling class really did declare war on us. And we did not take to the streets. We did not man the barricades. We voted. We are now paying the price for our naïvete.

is evil a useful concept?

A recent post at A Political Refugee From the Global Village asks the question

“…is evil a word it is very useful for historians to use?”

The post is mostly concerned with political leaders to whom the word evil is routinely attached, which basically means Hitler and (much more rarely) Stalin. The point does however have a wider relevance. It has become increasingly common for people to regard those with whom they have a political disagreement as evil. Even more disturbingly perhaps it has become common to dismiss those who voted for those “evil” politicians as evil as well.

This practice is not confined to one end of the political spectrum. The most spectacular example at the moment is liberals regarding Donald Trump as some kind of comic-book super-villain. But there are plenty of conservatives who see Hillary Clinton in the same light. I’ve even encountered British conservatives who seem to think Jeremy Corbyn is some kind of Bond villain.

And of course anyone perceived as being an enemy of American foreign policy (like Vladimir Putin) is considered to be evil incarnate.

The trouble is that once you dismiss someone whose political views you dislike as evil you give up any chance of understanding what makes that person tick, of understanding why they hold those views, and you give up any realistic chance of comprehending the reasons that so many people support (or supported) that leader.

This might sound like I’m arguing for moral relativism but I don’t think I am. Some political views have produced great evil in practice and some political leaders have led their nations (and sometimes the world) down paths that have been so catastrophic that evil does seem like a reasonable way to describe the results. But the fact remains that once the evil label is applied it is no longer possible to understand the motivations.

Politicians are by nature corrupt and vicious but the frightening thing is that at the same time many really are True Believers. It is necessary to understand what it is that they believe in. It is also necessary to understand what motivates those who vote for them.

It might be comforting and emotionally satisfying to think that our enemies are simply evil but that doesn’t help us to oppose them effectively. If you can’t get inside your enemy’s head you cannot predict his actions.

It’s also somewhat dismaying to see the evil label bandied about in reference to entire groups of people, whether they be Brexit supporters or Remainers or white people or Muslims or Christians or Russians or any other group. It’s useful to understand the motivations of our friends. It’s absolutely vital to understand the motivations of our enemies, or those we see as potential threats. From our perspective it is possible that our enemies really are doing evil but they certainly don’t see it that way. Very few people wake up each morning asking themselves what evil they can do today. In a frightening number of cases they actually wake up asking themselves what virtuous things they can do today. Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people with a burning desire to do good. Liberals have all but destroyed civilisation through an excessive desire to do good.

a better monarchy

I can understand the appeal of the idea of ethnostates. I can understand the appeal of nations bound together by a common culture, history and religion.

The only problem with the idea is that very few of the currently existing nations qualify as ethnostates.

Britain doesn’t qualify, unless you regard Scots and Welsh and English as interchangeable. Italy doesn’t qualify – northern Italians and southern Italians are certainly not ethnically interchangeable. Spain definitely doesn’t qualify. Belgium is most certainly not an ethnostate.

I’m not talking about these nations as they are today – even fifty years ago before the beginnings of mass immigration they were not ethnostates. Germany maybe, but it was divided on religious lines.

As for countries like Australia, maybe up until the 1940s there might have been a chance for a kind of ethnostate except for the fact of the Irish Catholics. Canada never had a chance, unless they were prepared to sacrifice Quebec. There was never the slightest chance in the US.

So the big problem is that the creation of European ethnostates would have required the dissolution of most of the major nation states. That would not necessarily have been a bad thing had the EU been conceived as a loose federation rather a centralised bureaucratic super-state.

It’s understandable that those who dislike globalism tend to lean towards nationalism since nationalism seems like the only viable alternative. But is it? Perhaps we should be looking at other alternatives. Perhaps we should look to the Holy Roman Empire as an alternative. The reputation of the Holy Roman Empire never really recovered from Voltaire’s characterisation of it as neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But in fact its weakness (or its apparent weakness) was the very thing that was so great about the Holy Roman Empire.

It was also the great strength of the empire of the Habsburgs which overlapped with but was by no means identical with the Holy Roman Empire. There was a strong enough central authority to keep it intact and provide a strong army but it was not string enough or bureaucratic enough to enforce conformity. As a result the Habsburg Empire had lots of diversity. Cultural diversity, ethnic diversity, linguistic diversity, even religious diversity.

How could this have worked? Very simple. It was a monarchy. Unity was maintained by a common loyalty to the House of Habsburg. If you want to maintain a unity based on a concept like shared values you need the apparatus of totalitarianism in order to do it. Unity based on loyalty to the crown does not require totalitarianism.

That’s one of the key weaknesses of the United States. The one thing that might have made America workable was a monarchy.

On paper Australia is lucky. We are a monarchy. But it doesn’t work and we are sliding towards the horrors of the proposition nation nonsense as a result. It doesn’t work partly because the House of Windsor is not our monarchy. An English queen cannot provide a focus for unity and loyalty. What we needed, right from the beginning, was our own monarchy. Our own king. The other reason it doesn’t work is that the Windsors are a truly awful family. They’re basically celebrity trash. They’d provide a great basis for a daytime soap opera but as a force for Australian unity they’re pretty useless.

Our problem is that the failings of the present monarchy are likely to result in a renewed push for a republic and that would be much much worse. We need a monarchy, but we need a better monarchy.

the cruel illusion of romantic love

The idea of romantic love as the basis for marriage, and the basis for personal happiness, is so deeply entrenched that it is easy to imagine that it is both universal and eternal. It is neither. It’s a purely western idea and it didn’t get off the ground until around about the twelfth century. That was when the European upper classes discovered courtly love.

Courtly love seems to have been to a considerable extent a literary invention (this proving once again that writers are in general a foolish and empty-headed lot) although the increasing feminisation of the Church and the rise and rise of the cult of Mary may have played a part. In any case courtly love spread like wildfire through the upper classes. Or to be more precise, it spread like wildfire among the women of the upper classes.

At the time it was perhaps not entirely a bad idea, or it didn’t seem like such a terrible idea. Life was still somewhat brutal and the upper classes were still to a large degree a warrior aristocracy and they were a little unpolished (although it needs to be emphasised that the Middle Ages were never as barbarous or uncivilised as hostile propaganda has led us to believe). Still, life wasn’t as much fun for the ladies as they would have liked. Courtly love sounded wonderfully exciting to them.

Marriage at the time was basically an economic contract. Your parents selected a prospective spouse for you (and this applied to young men as much as to young women) on the basis of the degree of advantage it would bring to the family. As long as you didn’t find the person repulsive the marriage would go ahead (actual forced marriages were always forbidden by the Church). It was a sensible system that worked but it was also a system that put the interests of family and society ahead of the interests of the individual. Marriage was about responsibility and duty. That’s not to say that marriages were loveless. If both parties accepted the situation and made the most of it strong bonds of affection could and did develop. And if those bonds of affection failed to develop and either party decided to seek emotional or sexual solace outside the marriage it was not considered to be the end of the world as long as it was done discreetly.

The new concept of love changed all this. Now the idea was that you would fall in love with someone before you married them. There was also a very strong emphasis on sex, and especially on women’s sexual pleasure. There was a simple way to know if you had found True Love or not. If your emotions were not coupled with sexual lust it wan’t True Love.

The writers of romances who promoted courtly love, writers like Chretien de Troyes, were not unaware of the dangers and Chretien certainly seems to have nourished the fond hope that couples would satisfy their emotional and sexual appetites within the safety and sanctity of the marriage bed. Of course in the real world that was never going to happen, and it didn’t always happen in the romances either (adultery makes for more exciting literature than faithful marriage).

For a long time the old and the new concepts of marriage co-existed and balanced each other out. The quest for True Love was important but responsibility and duty still mattered. You could choose your spouse, but you were expected to choose sensibly and to consider family and economic interests.

It all started to go wrong after the First World War. Responsibility and duty were now very old-fashioned notions. They were positively Victorian. And in the 1920s everything Victorian was of course assumed to be hopelessly bad, stupid, oppressive and worst of all old-fashioned.

And at around this time Hollywood came along. Romantic love was made to order for Hollywood. It provided exciting plots that women loved and it proved to be an ideal weapon with which to undermine marriage (Hollywood was fanatically devoted to sabotaging our civilisation right from the start). Romantic love was soon to reign supreme.

There are several major problems with the romantic love ideal. The biggest problem is that it implies that marriage is only really valid as long as True Love still flourishes. If True Love starts to fade, or if the sexual passion that is the unfailing indicator of True Love starts to falter, then marriage becomes oppressive. And surely it’s wicked to expect people to stay married if there’s no True Love any more? Romantic love therefore, in practice, implies that marriage is temporary and that it should be approached from a purely selfish perspective. It’s all about feelings. It’s all about me!

Romantic love is also quite useful from the point of view of social control. Our lives might be empty and meaningless and we might be just nameless faceless consumers but that’s OK because one day True Love will come along and then everything will be hunky dory. We won’t even notice the atomisation and alienation of modern society, or the crassness of our culture, or the way we’re lied to and manipulated. Because Love Conquers All.