A Great Film That Wasn’t

Estimated read time 9 min read

A Great Film That Wasn’t

Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is slavish to reality in trivialities, and pure fantasy in much greater, more complicated matters.

Author Patrick O'Brian


Credit: Julio Nayan

How I long for a good new movie. I can only watch the good old ones so many times. Rather than wear them out in my mind, I must leave longer and longer gaps between viewings. I have had this yearning for many years now, and it is not often fulfilled. How I hoped, 20 years ago, that the attempt to film Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic War novels would fill the chasm. But oh, how it did not do so.  

Somebody the other day described the British Empire as an irritating appendage to the Royal Navy, and this is very much how I view the history of my country. Having been introduced, at an early age, to what was then Her Majesty’s Navy, I have seen every other human institution in the world as its inferior. A certain kind of quiet and unassuming courage was involved, exemplified in 1940 by Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee, horribly maimed by a German shell on the open bridge of his destroyer in a snowstorm. Asked at this awkward moment for his orders to the rest of his flotilla, he replied briskly “Continue to engage the enemy,” and then unobtrusively died. 

This goes with a certain kind of profound but understated humor, and all takes place aboard ships of great power, romance, and beauty—now mainly vanished—which I count myself very lucky to have seen at all. This I owe to my late father, a schoolteacher’s son who more or less ran away to sea to escape a comfortable but constrained life of suburban Strict Baptist piety and sabbath silence. The Navy was his life for more than 30 years, much of it at sea very far from home. We had his sword in the house—made by Messrs Wilkinson, who later turned to the more profitable manufacture of razor blades—with its gritty sharkskin hilt, designed to stop it slipping in the hand even when covered in the enemy’s blood. It takes hold of you, that sort of thing. 

I am still puzzled but delighted by an experience I had during a visit to a Royal Navy frigate at sea, perhaps 30 years ago. I had been winched down from a helicopter onto the heaving deck, and entertained kindly but not excessively by the officers in the wardroom before taking to my bunk. In the small hours I woke to the gentle, busy sounds of a warship at sea. The watch was changing and I heard, very softly over the public address loudspeakers, the words “Call to hands!”—a phrase I knew I had never heard before in my life but which I also somehow knew I had heard a thousand times. Why should we not inherit memory?  

So when my late brother Christopher (who I think shared with me a reverence for the Navy) urged me to read Patrick O’Brian’s books about Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin, I was immediately drawn into what became a sort of modern Odyssey.  

Jack Aubrey is a genius afloat and a fool on land. He is repeatedly saved from his landward folly by Stephen, a part Irish, part Catalan Catholic, brilliant thinker, scornful of Bonaparte’s despotism, and an intrepid spy. Stephen, endearingly, remains permanently baffled and exasperated by the Navy’s mad language of futtocks and clews, grog and duff—and a particular kind of splice too rude to mention. (They still use this peculiar tongue. I have an outdated smattering of it to this day.) He is also an adventurous medical man quite uninhibited by normal rules of propriety—on one occasion he greets an old acquaintance loudly and in public with the words “How is your penis?” Alas, the news is not good. 

I know, absolutely, what they both look like, and how their voices sound. I can without difficulty picture Jack Aubrey’s face, though it is some time since I have read the books. It is not the face of Russell Crowe, who played him 20 years ago in Peter Weir’s peculiar and unsatisfactory film, which was I think meant to be the first of several.

Why do I not like it? 

It is partly that, for the reader, the imaginary Jack Aubrey is too well drawn to be played by any living man. That is not just his smile, nor his laugh, nor his way of command, nor his majestic power of thought when in peril or battle.  

It is partly that, as with so many films, vast resources have been used to get the buttons of the uniforms, the curl of the whiskers and the rigging exactly as they would have been 200 years ago. But simple matters of language and custom are sloppily ignored. At one point it is necessary for the ship’s company to pray, and the Captain must lead them. And he intones a version of the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who art in heaven”) that modern ignoramuses think is archaic enough to serve for a film about the past. But educated Englishmen know it to be a pestilent modern innovation. If they had to have prayers, they might at least have had him say the majestic 17th-century “Navy Prayer,” which thrillingly begins “O eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens and rulest the raging of the sea; who hast compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end…” If you think it too long or too hard, watch again that great Naval film In Which We Serve (whose title is taken from that same prayer) and watch Noel Coward, as Captain Kinross, recite it to his ship’s company without hesitation or embarrassment in a scene set in 1939. 

But these are, I suppose, quibbles. Had I been asked to sculpt a film from these books, I would have begun it with Jack Aubrey’s stealthy, ruthless, and bloody rescue of Stephen Maturin from his French captors and torturers in Port Mahon, Minorca. This would have made an astonishingly potent opening scene and alerted the audience to the fact that we have, in these stories, much more than just another sea saga of creaking rigging and booming cannons. The rescue occurs in the book HMS Surprise, but it immediately introduces the watcher to Stephen Maturin’s secret life as a spy, and could easily enough be grafted onto many of the other books.   

But my deeper objection is to a grave and mistaken attempt to alter a major element of the books. The title of the 2003 film is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. And The Far Side of the World is the title of a book to which a lot of the film is closely related—except for one thing. It pits Aubrey in a conflict with the United States Navy, which is harrying British whalers. This important moment in British and American Naval History is also dealt with in an earlier book, The Fortune of War, in which Aubrey takes a slight role in the great 1813 duel off Boston between the USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon

These two ships, beautiful, evenly-matched, both with brave and chivalrous captains, fought briefly and savagely and the Americans lost. The War of 1812 might easily have been the first of many between America and Englnd. The soppy view of permanent Anglo-American brotherhood is entirely wrong, ignoring as it does Washington’s stinging fury when Britain built commerce raiders for the Confederacy, and their growing naval rivalry before and after the 1914–18 war. During a voyage to London in December 1918, Woodrow Wilson told his aides that if Britain did not come to terms over sea power, America would “build the biggest Navy in the world, matching theirs and exceeding it…and if they would not limit it, there would come another and more terrible and bloody war and England would be wiped off the face of the map.” 

The historian Adam Tooze revealed recently that growing naval confrontation between these two supposed shoulder-to-shoulder eternal friends was so bitter that “by the end of March 1919 relations between the naval officers of the two sides had degenerated to such an extent that the admirals threatened war and had to be restrained from assaulting each other.” My father’s attitude towards the U.S. Navy was never especially generous (I used to wonder why) and he perhaps recalled the Suez crisis during which the then head of the USN, Admiral Arleigh Burke, discussed open warfare between the two nations with the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. 

Dulles wondered out loud if there was any way to stop Britain’s Fleet from launching its attack on Egypt in 1956. Admiral Burke later recalled (in a recorded conversation which can still be listened to by visitors to his archive at Princeton’s gloriously named Mudd Library): “And I said, “Mr. Secretary, there is only one way to stop them. We can stop them. But we will blast the hell out of them.” He went on to explain, “The only way you can stop them is to shoot. And we can do that. We can defeat them—the British and the French and the Egyptians and the Israelis—the whole goddam works of them we can knock off, if you want. But that’s the only way to do it.”

This was the greatest war that never quite happened, and The Far Side of the World describes its distant origins. But the film-makers foolishly thought that the public, British or American, were not ready for the truth about the relations between the two greatest naval powers that ever existed. And so they invented a skirmish that never existed, in fiction or fact, with France. Again, they ensured authenticity in trivial matters, but avoided it in the important things. 

What a great film they could have made but didn’t. I shall just have to watch In Which We Serve yet again, and cry yet again when Celia Johnson (yet again) makes her great speech about the tribulations of Navy wives, and think of my mother.  

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