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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Joss Whedon, feminism and the politics of enforced obedience

I can’t help being incredibly entertained by the feminist furore over Joss Whedon’s new movie Avengers: Age of Ultron. Radical feminists are foaming at the mouth, apparently because one of the female characters expresses regret that she can’t have children.
What makes it hysterically funny is that the oh so politically correct Whedon should find himself the target of the feminist harpies. Whedon has discovered what many of us have suspected for quite a while. The leftist ideological terror campaign is not directed against conservatives. There are too few conservatives left to matter. The real targets are liberals. The objective is to ensure that liberals understand that henceforth they will live in a constant state of fear – a fear that they’re not liberal enough. Every minor deviation from the party line will be punished relentlessly. Those deemed to be insufficiently zealous social justice warriors will be subjected to show trials by social media. Liberals will be running scared, and that’s the whole point – make people frightened enough and they’ll be easy to control. They’ll be docile and obedient.

politically incorrect movies – The Green Berets (1968)

The Green Berets, released in 1968, is one of those movies that had liberals frothing at the mouth back in the 60s. Co-produced and co-directed by John Wayne (who also starred) it dared to be a Vietnam War movie that didn’t take the standard knee-jerk liberal anti-war line. It upset liberals even more by being a major box-office hit. And it’s a pretty good movie.

It’s also worth pointing out that it’s more realistic than most of the later anti-Vietnam War movies.

Here’s the link to my full review of The Green Berets.

politically incorrect movies – Death Wish

Movies don’t come much more politically incorrect than Michael Winner’s 1974 vigilante flick Death Wish. You won’t find any sympathy for criminals in this movie. And you won’t find any nonsense about crime being caused by poverty or by the wickedness of capitalism. The movie’s prescription for dealing with crime may be a little extreme but its real crime (in the eyes of liberals) is that it suggests that extreme solutions might actually work, and that they might prove to be the only solutions that do work.

Death Wish is the story of a self-confessed bleeding heart liberal who comes face to face with the reality of crime. He doesn’t remain a bleeding heart liberal for very long when that happens. Like most liberals he wasn’t worried by violent crime when it happened to other people, and to other people’s families. When it happens to him it’s a whole different story.

Death Wish ignited a firestorm of controversy when it was released in 1974. Not surprisingly critics hated it and audiences loved it.

I have more to say about this important movie on my film blog. Here’s the link to my review.

Dirty Harry revisited

Dirty Harry was one of the more controversial Hollywood movies of the 1970s, and four decades later it can still provoke very heated responses. What made it controversial was not so much the subject matter, or even the stance taken by the movie, but the fact that the movie was clearly intended to be deliberately provocative.
I hardly think it’s necessary to spend too much time on a plot synopsis. This is a movie that is well and truly, for better or worse, part of our cultural fabric. But for those who may somehow have contrived to miss this movie, here goes. Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Homicide Squad is no stranger to unpleasant cases but he is about to face a case that will take him to the edge. A serial killer who calls himself Scorpio, has demanded $100,000 or he will kill a random victim every day. There are no obvious leads and all the police can do is to increase surveillance – the killer favours shooting his victims from the rooftops of tall buildings so the police are trying to cover as many rooftops as they can and are putting considerable reliance on helicopter patrols.
These routine precautions are very nearly successful, but this killer seems to have uncanny luck in being able to slip away from neatly impossible situations. After almost being killed by the police Scorpio decides to up the ante. He kidnaps a 14-year-old girl and doubles his demand for money. Callahan gets the very unpleasant, and very dangerous, job of acting as the bagman when the City decides to pay over the money. Callahan and his partner are almost killed, Callahan is viciously beaten, but Harry gets his man. Or at least he thinks he’s got his man, until the DA informs him that he infringed the suspect’s civil rights and that Scorpio will walk free. Harry knows that this is not the end of the case, that guys like Scorpio go on killing because they enjoy it, and that sooner or later he will get his chance to nail the killer. The question is, will more innocent lives be lost because the DA allowed Scorpio to walk free?
Dirty Harry was greeted by howls of outrage from liberals in general and from liberal film critics in particular. What really fueled the outrage was that the movie was a very deliberate and calculated assault on certain cherished liberal beliefs. Harry Callahan does not see criminals as victims and if he has to choose between the rights of a suspect and the rights of a victim he has no hesitation in ignoring the rights of the suspect. He is quite unapologetic about it, and the movie is equally unapologetic about it. It’s important to note however that the movie doesn’t suggest that the rights of suspects should be ignored; it merely suggests that it’s a delicate balance and that the balance may have shifted too far. The movie also points out the unpalatable truth that the rights of suspects and the rights of victims of crime are in some cases absolutely irreconcilable. Whether you agree or disagree with the movie’s stance there’s no doubt that it’s an effective statement of that stance.

What gives the issue particular bite is the fact that the bad guy, Scorpio, is very much aware that the legal system is stacked in his favour. He knows how to play the system and he does so ruthlessly. He uses this to taunt the police.

Some critics at the time took their opposition to the movie to remarkably silly extremes. When people (as Pauline Kael did) start throwing the word fascist around it’s always a bad sign. 
I usually try to avoid becoming bogged down in overtly political interpretations of movies but in the case of Dirty Harry there’s really no way of dodging the issue. 
There’s also a sense in which Dirty Harry can be read as film noir. The Scorpio case will plunge Harry Callahan into a nightmare world in which he scarcely knows which way to turn. He is both physically and psychologically beaten to a pulp. He tries his best but he always seems to be too late to save anyone. Whether his descent into the noir nightmare world is the result of his own character flaws is something that can be debated. Maybe he could have handled some situations more effectively, but the fact is that any police officer faced with a case such as this one would come up against the same problem, a criminal who knows how to use the system. Harry becomes increasingly obsessed and perhaps his sanity is even threatened. Harry has never questioned his own moral code but now it seems that knowing what’s right isn’t enough. By the end of the movie he’s an embittered man, his faith in the system hopelessly shaken.
This is an exceptionally well-crafted and stylish movie. Don Siegel was a great action director and he is in top form. The first half hour of the movie takes place mostly in bright California sunshine but then it all starts to get very dark, with lots of night shooting with absolutely minimal lighting. 

This is the movie that made Clint Eastwood a true cultural icon. The role had been offered to various other actors, including Steve McQueen and Robert Mitchum. Frank Sinatra was actually signed to do it at one stage but had to back out. 
Mention must be made of Andy Robinson as the psycho killer – it remains one of the most disturbing performances of its type.
Dirty Harry has lost little of its edge. It can still push people’s buttons and it’s still a stylish and effective crime thriller. And it’s one of those movies you just have to have seen. Highly recommended.

keeping one’s sanity as a conservative

Being a conservative in today’s world can be at times a very stressful and draining, not to say depressing, experience. The greatest danger is burn-out. One has to find ways to stay sane without compromising one’s beliefs.

I find that the best way to do this is to have other, essentially non-political, interests.

In my case there are three main interests that help to keep me sane and help  to keep me going. They are my interests in old movies, in the genre literature of the past, and the art of the 19th century.

The one thing that all these interests have in common is that they are focused on the past. Deliberately so. I consciously avoid having anything to do with either the pop culture or the high culture of today. That’s another of my strategies for staying sane. Modern culture is so deeply permeated with political correctness that it’s simply not worth bothering with. And since there are so many wonderful movies from the past, so many terrific books from the past, and so much great art from the past that I need never worry that I’m missing out.

My interest in old movies is more or less self-explanatory. My interest in the fiction of the past focuses mainly on genre fiction, everything from detective stories to spy stories, science fiction and horror. I have an especial enthusiasm for pulp fiction from the 1920s and 1930s and for novels and stories of adventure and of the supernatural from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As far as art is concerned I confine myself to pre-modernist art. I’m particularly find of Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist art, and the much despised academic art of the 19th century. It’s despised by the politically motivated drones of the modern art establishment although it’s slowly but surely gaining more and more of a  following among people who believe that art can concern itself with truth and beauty. In other words it’s popular with people who actually love art rather than those who see art as political propaganda.

I blog about all these things. If I confined myself to political blogging then there’s a danger that blogging would become something of an ordeal, that it would be something that was always emotionally draining. Blogging about other things means that blogging remains fun.

On my non-political blogs I mostly avoid overt political content although I do slip in political points from time to time.

For those who might be interested my old movies blog is Classic Movie Ramblings, my book blog is Vintage Pop Fictions and my art blog is Strange Tears.