Englishness in Films – Master and Commander

Released 2003  

Director Peter Weir

Main cast

Captain Jack Aubrey …. Russell Crowe

Dr. Stephen Maturin …. Paul Bettany

First Lt. Thomas Pullings …. James D’Arcy

Second Lt. William Mowett …. Edward Woodall

Midshipman Lord William Blakeney …. Max Pirkis

Barrett Bonden, Captain’s Coxswain…. Billy Boyd

This is a most unusual form of “chase” film.   Adapted from the  Patrick O’Brien novel of the same title,  it is  set  in 1805. (O’Brien’s book  has  the  privateer as American,  but in the post-liberty world of 911 America Hollywood and American bad guys do not go together.)   A  Royal Navy frigate The Surprise with orders to “burn, sink, or take her a prize” is in pursuit of  a French  privateer Acheron  which has been preying on British  shipping on  the  Spanish  Main (the mainland of the American continent enclosing the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico). The Acheron is eventually captured after a chase which includes going round the Horn.

As  a dramatic vehicle,  a  ship  has the same advantages  as the  country-house,   boarding  school,  POW  camp  or  small village: it is a self-contained world with sufficient numbers of  people to be interesting but not too many  to   overwhelm the action or the development of character.  And so it proves here.   

Although it is an action film,  it is about as far from being the mindless if enjoyable mayhem of a Terminator film as  can be  imagined.  The  fight  scenes,  broadsides  and  boarding parties  included,  take perhaps thirty minutes out  of  more than  two  hours.    This  allows  plenty  of  time  for  the development of character,  most notably between  the captain, Jack Aubrey,  and his ship’s surgeon and naturalist,  Stephen  Maturin.  But  there is also space  for  other  subordinate stories such as the friendship between two midshipman,  which        has elements of Tom Brown and Scud East.  

Russell  Crowe as  Aubrey and Paul Bettany   as Maturin,  are both  first  rate.   Crowe does what  he  did  in  Gladiator,  inhabit a role which allows his ability to portray a man with both  natural authority and  humanity full reign,  this  time with bonus of being the nearest thing to an absolute  monarch known to English society,   captain of  a Royal Naval ship at the  beginning of the 19th century.   (His RP English  accent is  almost  perfect – the odd  vowel  sound  goes awry.) 

As  for Bettany,  he showed what he suggested in A  beautiful mind,  that rarest of qualities in an actor: the portrayal of intellect.  Probably only Ralph Fiennes amongst  present  day actors  could  do it as well and he with more  coldness  than Bettany, who made his character here a thoroughly sympathetic one.  There is an exquisite scene when Maturin has to operate on himself to remove a bullet  beneath his ribs.    He  asked          Crowe  whether he is up to assisting him with a steady  hand.  “My  dear doctor,  ”  replies Crowe,  “I have spent  my  life around  blood and wounds.”  A few minutes into the  operation Crowe looks distinctly queasy and Bettany between grimaces of  pain  allows himself a triumphant smile.   Almost  worth  the price of entrance in itself.

The supporting cast are uniformly good,  especially the  very young midshipmen – their age historically correct: Nelson was a captain by the age of 20 – one of whom has an arm amputated early  in the film – no anaesthetic mind –  and then  becomes Bettany’s protege as a naturalist.

The  film  is visually beautiful and  exciting.  With  ninety percent at least of the film set on the Surprise at sea,  the ocean  is seen in all its  states from doldrum calm  to  Cape Horn belligerent.    The small part of the story which is  on  land takes place in  the Galapagos where Maturin indulges his naturalist’s passion.  Those scenes have a cold,  uncluttered beauty about them.

Above all it is also an intensely  English film.    The cast, even where they are technically other than English,  such  as Maturin   (supposedly  an  Irishman),  are  all   played   as Englishmen  and  the entire crew – with the  exception  of  a nervous midshipman who tops himself –  all behave well. It is simply the best advert for Englishness seen on the screen for many a long year.

There  is  a small amount of “England expects”  dialogue  but really  very  little  considering the context  of  the  film. Instead, the  “advert”  for England consists  simply  of Englishmen behaving well.

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One Response to Englishness in Films – Master and Commander

  1. i albion says:

    And didn’t the Captain say at one point ” This ship is England”or something like that stirring stuff indeed!

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