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.