Just got back from seeing Master and Commander. The theatre was jam-packed; mind you it was Saturday night, but still, the movie’s been out for ages. I’m pleased it’s doing well because it’s very good indeed. Herewith a few notes on the movie, and more on the books behind it; if there are any book-lovers reading this who haven’t yet discovered Patrick O’Brian, do yourself a big favor and read on. Plus I close with the obligatory geek-interest side-notes. [Update: The Gunroom lives!]
Oh, yes, the title; in the movie, and in the O’Brian books, the ship most often sailed by Our Heroes is H.M.S. Surprise, so the books (and the movie too) have three lead characters, not just two; one of them is a light, behind-the-times, but very fast-sailing frigate built ca. 1780.
The Movie · There’s just nothing at all wrong with it. The story is good, the acting is good, the cinematography is jaw-dropping brilliant, the effects are wonderful—especially in that not once in the whole movie do you think “Nice effect!”
Oh yes, the music. Wow. The long slow Galapagos scene perfectly timed to the opening Gigue from Bach’s first cello suite may be the finest melding of music and visual narrative I’ve encountered.
If you don’t know about the O’Brian books, just go see the movie, and read the next section about why you should check them out. If you do know the books, you might want to skip the next section which evangelizes them, to where I talk about the movie from the O’Brian-aficionado viewpoint.
Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin Novels · There are twenty books in this series, O’Brian was writing furiously up to his death in 2000. I am a serious reader and a serious student of history, and I think these are the best historical novels ever written. I have read each of the twenty books at least twice (except Reverse of the Medal, too sad); and I anticipate another tour or two through them before I shuffle off.
I find I lack the vocabulary to communicate the excellence of the books, but I’ll try. They have vivid landscapes, beautiful language, page-turning momentum, stirring battles, and an endless layered wealth of detail to make you feel like You Are There. But all those are secondary; great stories are all about the people in them, and anyone who’s been through O’Brian (and I bet most fans have been through more than once) knows that it’s all about Jack and Stephen and Diana and Sophie and Bonden and Pullings and Padeen and, well, the list goes on and on. I suspect that there were times in my life when I worried more about the problems in some of these fictional marriages than those of real people I know.
If you like reading, and you haven’t discovered O’Brian, take a chance: trust me on this one and go give one of the books a try. I don’t think that it matters that much which one, but on the (significant) chance that you get addicted, it might be smart to start with the first, Master and Commander, because then you’ll have nineteen more excellent reads to look forward to.
Because They Are Cur-Tailed! · If this title is a mystery to you, and you’re still reading, skip to the final obligatory-geek-note section; this bit goes deep on the movie from the POV of the heavy O’Brian fan.
The Surprise · The movie gives you a feeling of below-decks on the Surprise that is frighteningly like I imagined it, only the gang that made the movie are much more visually sophisticated and imaginative than I am, so more so. While not a professional, I’m moderately erudite on the history of the period, and any errors, omissions or goofs flew in well under my radar.
In particular, there’s a chase/fight scene in heavy weather in high Southern Latitudes that captures more of O’Brian’s narrative grip than I would have thought any movie could. You want to know what it might have felt like to sail a fragile wooden ship through waves twice as big as it is, while dealing with an enemy making a sincere effort to kill you with hot high-velocity iron? Check this out.
Russell and Jack · First of all, Russell Crowe totally nails Jack Aubrey; if I dig really deep, all I can think of is that Jack should be perhaps a bit more country-squire pink in his skin-tones. Mind you, O’Brian pretty well lays it out in words of one syllable for the actor, and unlike certain other movies I could name, the cast had obviously read the books and thought about them. Nothing is missing: the general bluff heartiness, the laugh-a-minute party animal, the music, the great (while sometimes uncomfortable about it) leader of men, the effortless competence, and—this is tough I think—making it believable that Jack is a ruthless and lethally dangerous enemy.
Paul and Stephen · Stephen Maturin is a tougher row to hoe than Jack Aubrey, and while Paul Bettany doesn’t hit it out of the park like Russell Crowe does, he’s just fine. He doesn’t look at at all like my mental image of Dr. Maturin, but he’s managed to shift that image in just a couple of hours of screen time, he’s totally believable. He overacts quite a bit in some of the set-piece verbal brawls with Jack—Stephen was more a part of the system than Bettany lets himself be—but does a fine job on the obsessiveness, the intensity, and the otherworldliness.
The Supporting Cast · It’s a pity I saw Lord of the Rings before this; because casting Pippin Took as Barrett Bonden had me thinking “Get that damn hobbit off the quarterdeck!” Anyhow, Bonden’s supposed to be this huge guy who can pick up Jack in a pinch. Hrumph; actually Billy Boyd does a good job of projecting competence at the helm and fury in a fight.
Two more home runs: John DeSantis as Padeen—a crucial character in the books—and David Threlfall as Preserved Killick. The producers of this movie should be ashamed of themselves for leaving DeSantis off the web-site cast listings, I had to go to the IMDB to find out who he was.
No Women · These books are in general awfully large and they did a wonderful job of pruning one (The Far Side of the World, “Master and Commander” is there only in the title, beats me why) down to movie size without losing the essentials, but I sure missed meeting Diana and Sophie. Diana is obviously a plum catch for an established actress, a potential career-launcher for one less known, and Sophie may be a bit of cipher but could be made into something special by someone who’s a master of the subtle under-acted art of the face.
Obligatory Geek Notes · The movie’s Web Site (check out that URI) isn’t bad, but fans of the books will want to skip straight to the Production Notes (I’d give a URI but it’s all-flashturbation), which tell the remarkable story of the logistics behind the film. Amazing in parts.
I’ll close with a tip of the hat to the best Internet Mailing List I’ve ever been on; it was called The Gun Room and was run by O’Brian’s publisher, and populated by a coterie of fanatically assiduous readers who just had a blast. There was a recipe book of all the shipboard meals, many floridly-overwritten imaginary out-takes from the books, gleeful pointing-out of O’Brian’s rare errors (I caught him mixing up latitude and longitude once) and just generally a continuous all-around good time. One day, I noticed I wasn’t getting any emails and the list just vanished in a puff of smoke; so sad.