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December 11, 2017 at 2:01 am

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Peter Weir (screenplay), John Collee (screenplay), Patrick O’Brian (novels)
Stars: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd

 

Original version published in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library
Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2.

 

“New Heroes for New Times”

When I first conceived of this essay on the forging of true male friendship on the high seas in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, I simply thought of the gift of mythic inspiration being offered by the portrayal of a dynamic caring between two splendid men. But then I saw Fog of War in which the inability of two powerful men to speak honestly to one another — a U.S. President and his Secretary of State — resulted in one of the great disasters of the twentieth century. That was when I realized that open communication between men of immense power who know that they must sometimes commit evil in the name of good cannot be judged as ‘gay’ or ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ or ‘irrelevant’. Now, in these modern times, when it’s not just a matter of individual deaths but the death of nations that’s at stake, our mythology of what makes a real man is critical. In Master and Commander, duty is wed to compassion as both friend and opposite, inseparable companions worthy of and dependent upon one another for survival, healing and success.

In Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a deep friendship between men is elevated to the level of heroes. And manliness is given a new strength to face an unknown future. The film reinvigorates the old mythology of what makes a man a real man, showing how consciousness and identity can be forged in intimate relationship as well as in battle. And then it goes one step further. Master and Commanderputs forth a new kind of hero – a boy who finds insects as fascinating as dragons, pencils as necessary as guns and good male role models more compelling than bad. It seems like a good time to be a boy.

A boy’s odyssey to manhood may still be held captive by Homer’s ancient tale of the man who bears its name – Odysseus – but the nature of the journey, once completely singular, has begun to change. Master and Commanderprojects an expanded vision of expectation meeting the boy who is growing to manhood in our society today. It holds friendship with other men and caring for children central to the task of becoming a ‘real man’. This heroic image of manhood calls for self-reflection and listening as well as decisive action and conquest. And decisions, solo as they must remain, are not without context. Individual performance often emerges from intense interaction, be it warm and complementary or antagonistic. And, important to the challenge of today’s complicated conflicts, the expanded myth of manhood taking symbolic form in Master and Commandershows an empathetic understanding of an enemy’s point of view beginning to compete with brute force as a tool for victory. Purposeful expression, honest communication, and a genuine feeling for others gain stature as an integral part of leadership. The consequence is a complex, more complete and more fulfilled image of male identity.

Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World opens fast, sweeping across a wild, vast sea with only a fluttering of sails to suggest that men are present. But present they are. In the creaking hold of a British ship of war, a lone lantern makes its way through the dark. A disembodied hand flips the daily sandglass and shadowy sailors exchange places on the tall masts of HMS Surprise against the dawning light of a new day. Napoleon may represent the enemy in 1805 to British imperialism, threatening to claim the South Seas for France but, in this film – in the hands of master filmmaker, Peter Weir – the French enemy ship, Acheron, represents the threat of a future dominated by technological advancement. The Acheron comes like a phantom from the fog, pinpointing the aging Surprise as if equipped with laser beam radar and sporting an invincibility that will require more wit than gunpowder from its Captain, “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). Aubrey’s orders may be to keep the Southern Atlantic Ocean under English control, but his truer purpose will be to assert the spirit of man over the reach of machine. This is the stuff of mythology, the coming of a new hero for a new time. But Aubrey, unlike Odysseus, brings friendship to an even level with the power of personality as key to a man’s stature. He enters into a creative tension with the ship’s physician, a man his equal and opposite, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Friendship undergoes close examination inMaster and Commander, articulating a modern, yet very manly, vision of caring for others. It is the forging of a fit, compassionate image of leadership from a friendship between two extraordinary men on the far side of the world at the cusp of a new age that lies at the center of this film.

Homer’s famed Odyssey established Odysseus as a new hero for his times, a man with a more enlightened consciousness, one in which a mere mortal possesses heightened god-like mental as well as physical abilities. As the tale goes, when Agamemnon forced Odysseus to join Ithaca’s war against Troy and bring civilization to a primitive world, he dragged Odysseus from his fields as a man who knew how to sow seed, nurture it to fruition and reap the rewards of civility. When war became Odysseus’ only pursuit, he hardened and learned to defend himself with a cleverness and pride that excluded concern for community, honing his mind to the fine art of thought designed for action in battle. If we were to imagine Odysseus’s twenty-year journey home from the Trojan wars as a personal quest to develop a male identity more suitable to society than battle, his extended visit with the goddess Calypso could be seen as necessary to the transition, critical to the development of emotional and spiritual sensitivities. Woman was regarded – borrowing words from Joseph Campbell – as ‘being there’ at the center of a man’s quest for wholeness. Odysseus was a battle weary man in desperate need of getting in touch with feelings that would allow him to re-enter his previous life. He was headed across the great seas of the Mediterranean toward home and Penelope, his devoted, patient and much desired wife who had kept his palace, lands and marriage bond intact during his absence. Odysseus could be seen as a man in great need of integrating emotion into his being. He accomplished this task of learning to love, empathize, and be sensual in the typical way imagined for a hero – with a woman. In the time of Odysseus, a man’s spiritual desire was deemed synonymous with capitulating to the lure of feminine beauty beheld in a woman.

The notion of a Greek hero developing or emanating empathy in context of another man was a contradiction in terms. So, when Peter Weir’s Master and Commandershows the brave, cunning and charismatic Captain Jack Aubrey of the HMS Surprise expressing private worries, seeking out frank opinion and playing impassioned string duets with Dr. Stephen Maturin, his stature as a traditional hero is either in question or under revision. And the same could be said of Maturin, a man of no small heroic stature even though he serves in a secondary position as ship’s surgeon. He not only performs brain surgery in a makeshift open air amphi-theatre of the ship’s hold while the patient’s shipmates look on but he digs the remnants of an errant bullet from his own belly, with little or no anesthetic, backwards through the reflected image of a mirror! These are men whose manhood should not be in question. But, of course, that is what’s at stake. Aside from the intensely emotional confrontations that stretch anyone’s notion of male bonding, there will be two crucial moments when each of these men must choose between his egoistic goals and friendship. Their decisions challenge the self-contained image of stoicism traditionally thought critical to the definition of a real man. The oceanic forces of the collective unconscious are at work once again. Under the pressures of war and weather in Master and Commander, they set male identity in motion — and demand from audiences a greater appreciation of the breadth of male heroism than previous myth would have it.

The two men of Master and Commanderare strong individualists – and worthy adversaries in conversation and vision. Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin are about as contrary in temperament and calling as two men can get. But the differences that lie between them are not there to be mollified, lessening either man’s stature by negotiation or compromise. Having a friend not like himself proves useful, making each man feel unique, strong and true to his nature. At the center of this story lies a choice point for each man, a moment when each must look deep within and choose what marks himself as a man – honoring friendship or pursuing ambition. They shift and ponder and groan, determined to integrate the feelings they have for one another into their larger sense of purpose in the world.

“Lucky” Jack Aubrey is a man of action, Master and Commanderof what it takes to keep men, ship, and country together under siege. As he dares to round the Horn of South America in his creaking brig against great and dangerous odds, he yields to Maturin’s pressure to be self-reflective. Not easily, but he does. He finally admits to his friend that his pursuit of the more advanced Acheron into treacherous seas is, indeed, no longer dictated by orders from England. It is his own will, his own interpretation of duty that sends him forward. Only in the privacy of intimate conversation does he admit such hubris. Aubrey feels he must prove that an experienced man of skill and intelligence will be relevant to a future that promises to be dominated by advancements in technology. As he casts his eyes upon a small model two of his men have constructed of the Acheron, he declares, “That is the future”. But he also comments, “it is still vulnerable at the star, like the rest of us”. Subtly, he refers not simply to the construction of a ship but to the ego of his enemy, the man behind the weapon. This is a leader who values empathy as an advantage in war not to be forgotten.

Dr. Stephen Maturin is a quieter man of science, observant, thoughtful and sardonic, preoccupied by a curiosity for nature. He may be aboard a ship but he is not a man of the sea. With nerves as steely as Aubrey, he holds his own and inspires high regard from seasoned sailors. ‘He’s a physician, not just a bloody surgeon’, snaps a seaman who knows most naval doctors simply cut off limbs after a battle. In spite of his ignorance of sailing, Maturin is not a man to be taken lightly. He may not understand nautical terms but that doesn’t stop him from grasping intention and expressing strong opinions about the direction Aubrey chooses. He also operates upon wounded men with a cold confidence that denies his awareness of the limitations of medical treatment at sea and leaves him optimistic about the future of a boy who loses an arm from the nasty consequences of war. It was common practice for boy children to be sent into naval service by their parents in 1805, but uncommon for them to be regarded with such respect as they receive aboard the HMS Surprise.

Together, Maturin and Aubrey set a tone of mentoring and convey a vision beyond war. Maturin is as intent upon using the Royal Navy to further his scientific investigation of the unknown world as Aubrey is intent upon extending Britain’s power into it. He bristles with anger when Aubrey dismisses his scientific investigation as a hobby, not of worldly consequence. Maturin takes Aubrey equally to task when he refuses to turn back toward England when both men and ship are stressed past the breaking point. “Can you really claim that there is nothing personal in this call to duty?” The two seem to thrive on being honest to the sticking point with one another. Intensely competitive, their exchanges reveal the workings of a friendship, showing an interplay between passion, honesty, and respect that feeds achievement. Each man sees himself in line for legend and, with a little mythic imagination, can be seen as using the navy for higher purpose – to further the reach of mankind beyond the known.

Even when they’re having fun, an exchange between the two carries mythic significance. As all the officers are having a meal together, Aubrey mocks Stephen’s serious nature with a joke. He asks Stephen to make a choice between two bread weevils. And then, with a twinkle in his eye, he takes advantage of Stephen’s gullibility. ‘Don’t you know, Stephen, that there is no better of two-weevils?” Might it be the two natures of these men that pose the choice? Or perhaps something even more profound? Later, when Jack and Stephen are discussing the responsibility they both feel for the deaths of young men aboard ship, the joke comes back to haunt them. Stephen owns to Jack that guilt weighs heavy on him when he operates. He must remind himself that when a man dies under his knife, it has been the enemy and not himself who has caused the man’s death. Then, in somber tone, he returns Jack’s joke to its source. “It’s service to war, Jack, that requires a choice between two evils.” Aubrey’s casual joke is brought full circle, revealing the emotional complexity required of responsible men.

More than the buddy camaraderie seen in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid or in a myriad of movies with the likes of Hope and Crosby, the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin often requires each man to become introspective, look within himself and reconsider what’s important to him. Thus, each man is called upon to develop himself and stretch beyond his own consciousness. The string duets with Aubrey on violin and Maturin on cello are described by the ship’s cook as ‘scrape, scrape and screech, screech’ which is, indeed, an amusing characterization of the insistent nature of their collaboration.

Aubrey, long past his orders and against Maturin’s counsel, pursues theAcheron ’round Cape Horn. It is at this point that Master and Commandertruly lifts into mythic storytelling and opens the way for an alchemical transformation of common friendship into something heroic. The weather gods are not with Lucky Jack this time. Raging storms, freezing winds and bizarre blankets of snow are not relieved but aggravated by a blistering hot dead spell. A stream of fear passes from man to man. Rumors of the Acheron as a supernatural enemy, one meant to sink them into the deep, replaces reason. As tensions escalate, Jack comes down hard on his men to keep order but it’s clear that things are out of his hands. It will take a sacrifice of human life – a young officer committing suicide – to get the winds moving. It’s as if HMS Surprise has entered another world, where life and death choices scrape against one another.

When the Surprise comes upon the strange and never explored Galapagos Islands, rare wildlife comes into view. Flightless cormorants and swimming iguanas can be sighted from aboard ship. Maturin feels they should be his to examine up close. Aubrey, believing the Acheron is long gone, grants Maturin his wish. But then Jack learns from a couple pirates that theAcheron is nearby and can be caught with small effort. He breaks his promise to Stephen, favoring the opportunity to chase after the Acheron. Maturin is furious, confronting Aubrey with the meaning of breaking one’s word. Tempers fly but Aubrey is resolute. And then an uncanny accident occurs that will force a character defining choice from Aubrey. Maturin is shot by mistake; a shipboard marine, attempting to shoot an albatross flying in and out the ship’s sails, misses and hits Stephen. He is not killed but the bullet wound contains a scrap of cloth that will fester and take his life. Removal is tricky, not a task to be performed by a skilled surgeon on board a rolling ship much less by Maturin’s inexperienced assistant. Aubrey must decide. Friendship or duty. Saving Stephen’s life or catching the Acheron.

Aubrey faces the crux of the matter in a world beneath and below; is he Maturin’s friend or, solely, his captain? Scrape, scrape. Duty is no longer a defense he can throw at Stephen in anger. He must ask himself. Is he on this journey alone or is Maturin an integral part of it. To Aubrey’s mind in the moment, it is his friend’s life or his dream, the chance to prevail in English history with singular ego. England’s praises await him. And he’s capable of heartless action to achieve his goals. But, to chase after the Acheron will mean certain death for Maturin. The doctor’s survival requires a steady hand on steady land. In a pensive set of cinematic reflections, Aubrey walks amongst his men, looks at the Acheron so tempting within his scope and ponders Maturin’s cello without a hand on its bow. He makes up his mind. Aubrey aborts his chase and escorts Maturin ashore for the surgery.

Aubrey’s decision to be in service to his friend, however, calls for a bit more of him than captain’s orders. It requires a reversal of roles, casting him in the role of a nursing assistant. For a few moments, he is handmaiden to Maturin who must take the scalpel to save his own life. Seeing Stephen operate on his own body exposes Jack to a queasiness he never feels in battle, a feeling he could’ve avoided for a lifetime but now has an opportunity to integrate. Then Aubrey, who believes the Acheron is long gone, grants Stephen a week to explore the island. Of course, because they are in the land of the gods, Stephen is miraculously up and about the next day, taking a five-mile hike to the far side of the Galapagos Island.

Then, the weevil joke turns again. Maturin faces Aubrey’s choice between ego and friendship. While hiking to the edge of a cliff to get a close look at a flightless cormorant, he sights the Acheron just setting sail from a hidden inlet. Screech meets scrape. Friendship makes another call. Maturin could ignore his duty to the Royal Navy, sure in his own mind that he’s fulfilling a higher duty by bringing home to England an unprecedented treasure. But he can’t deny his emotional commitment to Jack. He must match him. Maturin stares with longing eyes across an island as rare as the moon. He must abandon his investigation, releasing his exotic specimens from their cages, and rush back across the island to alert Aubrey. Now, friendship drives this man away from his chance to go before god and country as a singular hero. In Maturin’s case, there is even more at stake since Aubrey is intent upon taking them into battle with the Acheron, a battle that could take his life as well as his goal into the deep dark sea.

But their friendship yields an unexpected gift.

Later, under sail with Maturin back to work making notes and drawings, Aubrey pays him a visit. Jack commends Stephen for, what in his mind, was the right choice. But he also commiserates with Stephen’s loss. “Nothing saved? All lost?” Then, as they screech and scratch their way through a sensitive parry of pride and loss, something magical happens. Maturin shows him one ‘save’ from the island. He hands Jack a small branch of a bush and, enjoying a moment of foolery at Aubrey’s expense, looks on without saying anything. Aubrey plays along, especially since he has the audience of young Will. He holds the stick under his gaze until it moves ever so slightly and reveals itself to be an insect. Stephen explains that the insect camouflages itself as a stick to elude hungry birds. A sly look creeps across Jack’s face. Maturin has given him just the note he needs to draw in the phantom Acheron and, with Lucky Jack’s luck, possibly take it as a prize. He will disguise the Surprise as a whaler, pretty prey for the Acheron.

The creative tension between Jack and Stephen, epitomized in the music they play together but drawn out in detail in the choices they’ve made to elevate friendship above duty, yields an edge for the HMS Surprise in battle. Jack turns Stephen’s trick of nature into a ‘ruse de guerre’, using an insect’s instinct for survival not simply as camouflage for survival but as a way to get the upper hand against a superior force. Stephen, of course, can’t resist teasing his friend by pointing out that it is Jack, not the captain of theAcheron, who is the hungry bird! Later, in hand to hand combat on theAcheron, it will become necessary for Stephen to pick up a sword, exercising physical aggression as well as intelligence to defend himself. Each man must become more than he has been to meet the future.

And then there’s Will. Early on, when the Acheron came out of the fog like a phantom, its long cannon crashed into the HMS Surprise. It took its toll on ship and men alike. Will Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a bare teen, lost his right arm. But it seemed to make him stronger, more of a leader among the men. He gladly accepted the consequences of battle, determined to make others feel better about their weak points. The boy rises above the wound, using his recovery to study and learn. He reads Aubrey’s books on war at sea, (in particular, one about the renowned naval hero, Lord Hornblower) and draws pictures of Maturin’s insects. He softens the blows of Aubrey’s stubborn command upon Maturin and buffers Maturin’s angry judgments against Aubrey. He is a voice of kindness, especially providing a calm presence to the sailors around him as fear fed superstition characterizing the mightyAcheron as a devil ship. But he also steps up to take command when necessary. Will fills the bill as ‘the one’. He connects the above and the below, the opposites of rule and exception, reason and emotion, light and dark. Hermetic, he listens, carries messages and furthers a mysterious connection between forces when all else is failing. When an officer, designated by the seamen as a scapegoat for the unexplainable adversity of bad weather befalling the Surprise, takes his own life to appease the gods, Will is there to witness it. Of course, the winds began to blow. The ineffable connection between belief and effect has been paid homage – and acknowledged, much like in the ancient days of Agamemnon.

It is no small gesture of mythic storytelling that the fledgling image of a ‘relational masculine’ takes its human form in the ship’s very young midshipman, Will Blakeney. Will may be destined to the action of war but he harbors talents as a naturalist, gluing opposites together with empathy. His mentors may turn to one another for sibling-like solace but Will’s caring is key to his personality, instinctual not behavioral. He not only draws insects, he cherishes a lone beetle saved from the Galapagos. The beetle proves a bit of welcome salve for Maturin’s loss as Aubrey takes off after the Acheron. In case the implication of Will as a new kind of hero in the making might be missed, Maturin reflects out loud to Will that – perhaps, somehow – he will grow up to combine the qualities of a captain of war and a doctor of science. Will likes the idea. “Perhaps I could become a fighting naturalist.” If so, he would transcend and unify the opposites that Maturin and Aubrey find so antagonistic – and add an alliance of male strength to the myth of what makes a real man.

Novel idea, two heroes in the same story. Each made more unique by the other. True friendship. Novel idea, two men parenting a ‘fighting naturalist’, a real man for a future that will call out for both. Out of fierce confrontations, solid disagreements and embarrassing concessions, Aubrey and Maturin wring a broader version of manhood from mythology than the one left by Odysseus. The conflict between two friends drives the center of a drama in the mythic territory of wild seas on the far side of the world. And the boys who watch, the boys who would become men under such unusual tutelage constellate an Odysseus who turns egoism to compassion, avoiding the pride that brought Poseidon down on Odysseus. As Stephen says of the Iliad, “The book is full of death, but oh so living.” Yes, as it is also in the film, Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World.

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