Come Sail Your Ship Around Me: ‘Master and Commander’ re-creates the harrowing world of life on the high seas.
Historian Dean King on Patrick O’Brian and the new film ‘Master and Commander’
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
I love the way the movie opens,” says author and ship-lit authority Dean King. He’s talking about the new epic film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian. The film is directed by Peter Weir and stars Russell Crowe as the swashbuckling Captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as the bug-collecting surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin.
“It’s a kind of a surreal and eerie beginning,” notes King, “with those long shots of the men sleeping below decks, tightly packed in close quarters, every man in a hammock swaying back and forth. . . . And then, just a few minutes later in that first battle with the French ship, I really liked the way the cannon balls were shown being fired into the ship. It was amazing! To see the incredible damage those cannon balls could do to a wooden ship, to see it up close–it was very exciting and really was superbly done.”
Dean King knows his way around ships and cannon balls, and knows quite a bit, too, about Patrick O’Brian and the Aubrey/Maturin seafaring adventures, all 20 novels’ worth. King is the author of numerous books including A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian; Harbors and High Seas; and Patrick O’Brian: A Life. He is also the mastermind behind the Heart of Oak Sea Classics series, in which King has discovered, restored, and rereleased a number of forgotten books (Joseph Conrad’s The Rover and James Norman Hall’s Doctor Dogbody’s Leg) about the sea and the men and the ships who sailed her in the 18th century.
It is a period that O’Brian made his mark describing in the Aubrey/Maturin novels that first began appearing in 1970. O’Brian, who died in 2000, was a legendarily crusty character who did not much care for movies, so one can only guess what he’d think of the new film. The Far Side of the World, the novel from which most of the film’s events are taken, was the 10th book in the series.
According to King, the old man of the sea might have enjoyed the excitement around the movie and the fresh attention it has brought to his books, but he would probably have mixed feelings about the finished project.
“Patrick O’Brian was never very happy about the ancillary projects to his books,” says King. “He never liked the books-on-tape versions of his novels. Even when his own publishing house persuaded him to participate in a cookbook project–Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels–he did so very reluctantly. O’Brian, I think, had no patience for anything that shone a light on something other than Patrick O’Brian.”
Getting back to King’s own personal views of the film, he admits that it pulls off a difficult trick: it gives you a sense of what it must have been like to be trapped on a sailing ship at sea with a hundred smelly men and a captain fond of rum and bad puns.
“That’s very true to the spirit of the books,” he says. “O’Brian had a way of dropping you right down into the life of the ship.”
The release of Master and Commander comes not long after the unexpectedly popular Pirates of the Caribbean, and coincides with the highly-rated Horatio Hornblower movies on cable TV. It’s ironic that after years and years during which a swashbuckler resurrection has been repeatedly attempted by Hollywood, and during which these attempts have been repeatedly scuttled (remember Mel Gibson’s dreary Bounty? Or Cutthroat Island?), suddenly seafaring movies are back on the horizon. This is good for King, good for fans of the genre, and certainly good for those who will now be anticipating an Aubrey/Maturin sequel.
“At the moment, there is a great enthusiasm and appreciation for these kinds of stories, and for this kind of seafaring literature,” says King. “That’s not going to go away anytime soon.”
‘Master and Commander’ is now playing in the North Bay.
From the November 20-26, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.