Empire Falls

How Master and Commander gets Patrick O’Brian wrong.

Antiseptic view of a sailor’s life

After his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was taken by Her Majesty’s Ship Bellerophon to his exile on the island of St. Helena, on the far side of the world. He was allowed by custom and courtesy to take his exercise on the quarterdeck every day (there is a famous painting of this somewhere in the National Gallery in London) and, having observed the iron discipline and nautical skill of the officers and crew, is said to have told the Bellerophon’s captain at dinner that he now at last understood why his attempt at the Empire had been brought low.

This review is brought to you by a navy brat whose father is buried in the grounds of the modest little chapel, overlooking Portsmouth Harbor in England, where Eisenhower held the service on the night before D-Day. The stained-glass windows record this, as they do many other gallant episodes. I was reading C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books when I was 8, and though I can’t really tell a mizzen from a capstan I am steeped in the lore of the Royal Navy, and I devoured Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume masterpiece as if it had been so many tots of Jamaica grog. (If you care to know what I made of them, you may consult the March 9, 2000, New York Review of Books.)

So for me, the movie was over almost before it began. Unlike Forester, O’Brian set himself not just to show broadsides and cutlass work and flogging and the centrality of sea power, but to re-create all of the ambiguities and contradictions of England’s long war against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. (This, I argue, was the true and real “First World War,” because it extended itself to every ocean and almost every nation, not exempting this one.) The summa of O’Brian’s genius was the invention of Dr. Stephen Maturin. He is the ship’s gifted surgeon, but he is also a scientist, an espionage agent for the Admiralty, a man of part Irish and part Catalan birth—and a revolutionary. He joins the British side, having earlier fought against it, because of his hatred for Bonaparte’s betrayal of the principles of 1789—principles that are perfectly obscure to bluff Capt. Jack Aubrey. Any cinematic adaptation of O’Brian must stand or fall by its success in representing this figure.

On this the film doesn’t even fall, let alone stand. It skips the whole project. As played by the admittedly handsome and intriguing Paul Bettany, Maturin is no more than a good doctor with finer feelings and a passion for natural history. At one point he is made to say in an English accent that he is Irish—but that’s the only hint we get. In the books, for example, he quarrels badly with Aubrey about Lord Nelson’s support for slavery. But here a superficial buddy movie is born out of one of the subtlest and richest and most paradoxical male relationships since Holmes and Watson.

Patrick O’Brian was also very stern, as he had to be, about the facts of life aboard ship. There is buggery at sea and rampant heterosexual carnality on land. None of that in this PG-13 version, which has one glance exchanged between Aubrey and a dusky maiden, and not so much as a sight gag about the vulnerable presence of preteen midshipmen among the scrotum-ike swinging hammocks. Instead, there’s a scene stealer from young Max Pirkis as the boy sailor Lord Blakeney, which could have been a non-sinister off-cut from Lord of the Flies. The kid, evidently, stays in the picture so that parents can bring small boys to watch sea battles that occur with only one rude word uttered. (The British euphemism for obscenity is, and has been for some time, “lower-deck language.”)

I used to scramble upon the decks of HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship, as it sat as a floating museum in Portsmouth. The old-salt guides would relish showing me the cat o’ nine tails and the amputation room in the even lower deck, painted bright red so as to dull the shock of so much blood. The whipping and hacking and surgery in this movie is as airbrushed and painless as the attention to secondary detail—rigging, weevils, cannon—is faithful.

In one respect the action lives up to its fictional and actual inspiration. This was the age of Bligh and Cook and of voyages of discovery as well as conquest, and when HMS Surprise makes landfall in the Galapagos Islands we get a beautifully filmed sequence about how the dawn of scientific enlightenment might have felt. It wasn’t that long a stretch between the Bounty and the Beagle, and Peter Weir conveys the idea while abolishing Maturin’s interest in the enlightenment as a human rather than naturalistic project. The whiskers may sometimes look ferocious, and the role of Killick the manservant as rendered by David Threlfall was so splendid that I thought at first it was Eric Idle under another coating of whiskers, but the point is lost.

Repairing to Chadwick’s saloon after the screening to see that I could safely decipher the notes I had taken in the dark, I was sent a drink down the bar by an unknown admirer (male) for no better reason than my English accent. I have seen numerous half-baked articles, saying that Master and Commander is perfectly timed for our current moment of military fortitude and challenge, with strength and honor and selflessness (and perhaps a hint of Francophobia) proudly to the fore. As far as I know, Weir began the movie well before this was likely to be any part of its screen-test or focus-group exposure. And in any case he doesn’t match the hour, where we need Stephen Maturins with their skepticism and cynicism and their determined enmity to tyranny, and not just Jack Aubreys who will discharge blasts of cannon at whoever is nominated by His Majesty as the enemy.