Thursday, 15 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Napoleonic Era)

The life of a sailor is a challenging one, and the navy can be a difficult place. Naval warfare is very different from combat on land or by air, and arguably in some ways more challenging. In the old days, it was a team effort, requiring hundreds of people to co-ordinate together. One would have to first locate and identify the enemy, provide a suitable means of approach, and then organize the crew when attacking; a goal made even harder by the introduction of U-boats during World War I. But as long as there have been boats, they have been used for war.

Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World offers a look into the everyday life of men in the navy. The film opens with a title card identifying the year as 1805, with Napoleon Bonaparte's empire was quickly expanding. He had already conquered most of Europe, and not unsurprisingly there would have been a strong desire to see that he didn't get any further. Napoleon himself does not appear in the film, and the story focuses instead on one engagement which will ultimately be a small part of the overall war. Most of the film is set entirely on one ship, a member of the British fleet trying to stop an enemy vessel from entering the Pacific.

As the title card notes "oceans are now battlefields." It is true that this is not the first time naval warfare has been used. The Roman Empire had their share of warships, as did the Greeks and Egyptians. In the dark ages the Vikings would rely heavily on nautical strategies when attacking settlements. The Renaissance also saw its share of ship-based combat. But the title card is referring to naval combat never being on a scale as large as what  it was by Napoleon's day. It goes with the old idea that war is constantly and relentlessly evolving, a theme that becomes an important part of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

The enemy ship, the Arhceron, functions as the primary illustration of war's never-ending evolution. By the start of the film, only two years have passed and already Napoleon's campaign has been intense, but things get much worse when they realize what they are dealing with. Archeron turns out to be a new type of warship, one which is built to move faster, hold more guns, and take more damage. Presumably, this was not accidental, but likely an intentional design made to give the French a greater advantage because of the resistance put up by the English so far.  This is itself one of the main reasons why war has changed so much. As the conflict progresses, both sides become determined to gain an advantage over the each other.

One of the best ways to do that is to come up with new weapons more powerful than those of the enemy. This of course often leads to the opposing side trying to find ways to counter those new weapons. This becomes a major part of the film. The crew becomes worried about Archeron reaching the Pacific because they are concerned about the implications of more ships like it being mass-produced. Likewise, it is also through new strategies that Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is finally able to capture it. He acknowledges this idea towards the end of the film, when he comments on the military advantages that can come with studying nature.

But this is only on one of many themes explored in the movie. Much of the film revolves around everyday life aboard the ship. The battles are more or less routine (it's likely that there would have been drills to ensure the crew got to the right places) but also chaotic and unpredictable. From a distance, the Surprise takes a huge amount of damage and a large portion of the crew is lost, something made more difficult by the inability to predict exactly where enemy fire will strike. They barely have any time to react (the only warning they even get is a brief flash in the middle of a dense fog). It presents a very stressful situation for the Dr. Steven Maturin (Paul Bettany), who is struggling to look after the various wounded sailors.

Still, the battles only make up small portions of the film, with a lot of the story dealing with what happens in between. These men have been at sea likely for months on end, presumably far away from home and cut off from any real governing body, the rival crew being the only other people around, and conditions are not exactly the greatest. In those days, ships would have been extremely crowded especially in the lower decks, and offered next to no privacy. Not only was it very easy for disease to spread, but long periods at sea required conservation of fresh water, meaning that there could be long stretches of time before anyone had a chance to take a bath. And as if that wasn't enough, this was also before any workplace safety laws were in effect, meaning it was very easy for accidents to occur.

Understandably, this can have some particular psychological ramifications on people forced to live in these conditions for long periods of time, especially when many of them are likely uneducated and lack a clear understanding of what they are dealing with. Many of the issues that are dealt with are more or less general workplace frustrations. On several occasions we see the cooks in the galley struggling to prepare food while getting increasingly annoyed with impatient crewmen. There is also a brief sub-plot where some of the superstitious crew begin to think that one of the officers is the reason for a string of bad luck (eventually driving him to suicide).

One of the most prominent moments of this stress is with Aubrey himself. Early on, he is established to be a well-respected commander with a fairly successful career, but the crew starts to worry when he becomes too determined in his mission. Aubrey is a confident man, and even after being defeated twice by Archeron, still tries to pursue it. This determination gradually begins to impact his judgement. He intentionally refuses to stop and resupply (and denies a promise he made to Maturin) because he thinks he can still catch the ship. Aubrey is almost starting to turn into a Captain Ahab-like character. Like Ahab in Moby Dick, Aubrey is slowly becoming more obsessed with catching his opponent, the enemy ship in place of a white whale, and he is dangerously close to dragging the crew to their doom.

During this portion, Maturin acts as a moral center and the voice of reason. He repeatedly tries to plead with Aubrey to no avail. Maturin himself shows little interest in the military aspects of the mission, being more interested in observing the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands and the well-being of the crew. This shown in one scene where he displays amazement upon seeing an albatross, trying to observe it, an act which is contrasted by another crewman who only sees it as food and attempts to shoot it. This act gets Maturin injured, and it is only this accident that finally manages to snap Aubrey out of his Ahab-like state. Unlike Captain Ahab, Aubrey is eventually able to recognize his stubbornness upon watching an old friend face a life-threatening injury.

This leads to a portion of the film where Aubrey begins to change for the better. He shows genuine concern for Maturin and even assists in his surgery. Although he initially denies it (he tells Maturin "I needed to stretch my legs"), Maturin is shocked when he is not immediately trying to pursue Archeron. Instead, he gives the crew a break and plans to go home after a few days. This is an important detail, as the chance to improve morale allows him to think more clearly. In fact, the only reason they continue to pursue Archeron at all is because Maturin accidentally finds it docked on the other side of the same island.

Until now, Aubrey has only focused on military matters, but his decision to let Maturin explore ends up being rewarded; it is after being shown a stick insect and learning how it camouflages itself that a new strategy presents itself. In the first act of the film, Aubrey has relied primarily on a brute force approach, namely one that involves attempting to locate the ship and fire everything they have. It is only after observing camouflage in nature that he is able to find an alternative; one that involves outwitting the enemy ship rather than attacking directly. They do this by disguising themselves as a whaling crew, and making the ship appear damaged and vulnerable before striking at the enemy.

Still, the final battle ultimately proves to be a costly one. A large portion of the crew is killed in the process, with the French suffering heavy casualties, and in the end, this is only one battle of a much larger war. The final scene emphasizes this, and that what we are seeing is only a temporary victory. It turns out that the enemy Doctor was an impostor, leaving open the possibility that the "captain" was just a corpse dressed in his clothes and that there is a trap involved. In short, they may have won the battle, but that does not mean they will win the war. All we are seeing here is a small victory in a war that will continue for ten years.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard lots of good things about this movie, even before this review, but still never sat down and watched it. It's certainly on my list. Hope I can get to it, soon.