A stern, charismatic ship’s captain in relentless pursuit of an enemy vessel. His closest friend, a scientist endlessly fascinated by the anomalies of nature. An alien land replete with strange and exotic life forms. An isolated craft, surrounded by hostile void, a self-sufficient world populated with a tireless crew.
I’m not actually talking about Star Trek – I’m talking about Peter Weir’s film of Patrick O’Brien’s seafaring novels, “Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World.” Having recently purchased it on Blu-Ray and rewatched it for the first time in a long while, I’m beginning to suspect that it’s my favorite Star Trek movie, despite not actually being one. In its reflection of Gene Roddenberry’s space epic, it invites us to consider that series’ conceptual debt to the famed Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester (to whom O’Brien must surely also owe a debt), and the larger degree to which popular science fiction (or, more precisely, space opera) has been deeply contaminated not merely by naval tropes but particularly by the “ship of the line” era – with its autocratic commanders, squabbling nations prosecuting their wars in far-flung locales, and majestic vessels scouring the seas in a time before mass communication and aviation seemingly shrank the planet to the size of a pin’s head. The aliens of this era didn’t have ribbed noses or pointed ears, but different skin color and different language; all the same, they were equally mysterious, unpredictable, threatening, “other” – yet also potential friends far from home.
Even the first time I watched Master and Commander, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between its central relationship (the deep friendship between Russell Crowe's Captain Aubrey and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin, played by Paul Bettany) and the famous “trinity” that emotionally anchored the original Star Trek series, comprising Captain Kirk, science officer Spock, and Doctor McCoy.
That relationship was a prism that split the human character into three symmetrical sections – decisiveness, rationalism, and compassion – and much of the best writing in Trek illuminated the interdependency among these three components. In “Master and Commander,” the three are reduced to two – Maturin is given not only Spock’s rationalism and curiosity, but also McCoy’s compassion, his essential humanism, and his deep skepticism of all authority. The Trek connection never feels stronger than in the film’s final scene, in which Aubrey and Maturin exchange a couple of quips about flightless birds before beginning a violin/cello duet that will play us out to the end credits. Russell Crowe, as Aubrey, even channels a shade of Shatner in his final lines of dialogue – whether consciously, or tapping into some universal source of Charismatic Ship Captains, I couldn’t say. You could almost envision the scene ending with the camera pulling out as the words “Produced by Gene Roddenberry” fade up in familiar yellow titles. There is the sense – derived no doubt both from the multi-book source series, and from the sadly unfulfilled hope that there might be many sequels produced – that this is but one of many adventures. We would like to tune in next week, but there is no next week.
There are levels, structurally, on which “Master and Commander” may be frustrating to a devoted or inflexible student of Hollywood 101 Screenwriting. Although the script is cleanly split into three acts, and there’s essentially the same goal throughout (catch the Acheron!), there are not really character arcs for the two leads – Aubrey and Maturin have their quibbles and self-doubts but are essentially carved in stone, arriving in this particular story quite complete (another artifact of the multi-novel source material, presumably). When they argue over Aubrey’s battle plans or disciplinary methods, it’s not a question of the characters changing each other – it’s more a series of philosophical discussions for our benefit. Some minor character arcs exist within the rich secondary supporting cast – particularly Blakeney (Max Pirkis), the young officer who seeks to define himself within the crew and in light of an unexpected amputation in the opening scenes, and Hollum, the junior officer who comes to believe the crew has placed a curse on him.
These subplots are absorbing but somewhat self-contained, as are Maturin’s adventures – his endlessly-thwarted quest to catch a flightless cormorant on the Galapagos, and his teeth-grindingly tense attempt to perform life-saving surgery on himself. (In another Trek echo, this sequence recalls the memorable scene in the otherwise laughable episode “Spock’s Brain,” in which Spock must direct Dr. McCoy in performing brain surgery on him.) The second act isn’t full of narrative urgency or propulsion; its structure feels less like a finely-tooled machine than a grab bag of independent episodes swimming around, marking time until the Acheron obligingly shows up to usher in Act III. If my inner script analyst yearns to poke holes in the structural quirks of “Master and Commander,” I must also acknowledge that the film is infinitely more entertaining than many a more “correct” bit of hackwork – because the scenes in their own right are interesting, because the film contains information that we are likely not to know going in, and because the movie transports us to a place that from time to time our souls yearn to visit.
Of all these scenes, the one I find myself rewatching again and again occurs early in Act II, as the officers enjoy dinner and drinks, and Aubrey recounts an anecdote about the great Lord Nelson. A couple of things about this scene are striking. I like the way the film presumes we know who Nelson is, and doesn’t throw out any clumsy expository dialogue explaining it for us – such dialogue would be nonsensical in a scene in which all the players practically worship the man. (We either know enough history not to get lost, or can quickly figure things out from context -- the movie offers the benefit of the doubt that we have a modicum of intelligence.) I like the way the fictional universe of this movie echoes back into the reality of history, lending it depth and breadth. And I like above all the closeup of a young officer who smiles hopefully as Aubrey explains that “with Nelson, you felt a glow.” In that smile, we see the desperate ideological hunger of men who know their lives are on the line and who therefore crave not merely leaders but heroes, myths, legends, to fortify their spirits.
There’s also a good example of the film editor’s craft in an earlier scene, just after the Surprise has been badly damaged in a sneak attack by Khan – err, the Acheron. Aubrey announces that they are not going to return to England – they are going to refit at sea and pursue the Acheron. There’s a long pause as editor Lee Smith cuts to several reaction shots of the crewmen, absorbing Aubrey’s statement in disbelief. The entire dramatic impact of this moment exists not in Aubrey’s statement, but in how his men react to it. That’s a critical, fundamental component of film editing (and by extension direction, since the director needs to get the shots before the editor can splice them in). An audience can only attain the appropriate catharsis to witnessing an event if they also witness others onscreen witnessing it. Very often the reactions will take up more screentime, and much more, than the event that triggered them. Of this essential editing principle, whose importance cannot be overstated, more in posts to come...
(I apologize, by the way, for the poor quality of the screencaptures. They are the result of an extremely crude process -- taking iPhone pictures of my HDTV screen while it pauses frames from the Blu-Ray disc. 'Master and Commander' looks magnificent on Blu-Ray, and these images don't begin to capture that quality. Before long, I hope, I'll have acquired a BD-ROM drive and the means to capture images directly on my computer. For now, I go ghetto.)