Monday, June 8, 2015

Master and Commander and Pirates

“Jack was standing firmly planted by the taffrail with his leg wide apart, swinging his telescope from one end of the bay to the other. The first savage blaze of triumph had faded, but his eye still had a fine piratical gleam in it was he turned the possibilities over in his mind.”

Who is this pirate Jack? Is it Rackham? Sparrow?

Nope. This one is Captain Jack Aubrey, an officer in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, circa 1805.
Like many people, I had my first taste of Captain Aubrey in the 2003 movie “Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World” This major motion picture traced adventures of a Navy ship sent to chase down an enemy vessel on the Far Side of the World. The ships were enough to persuade me to watch, and the movie was, in my estimation, a 10/10. Most reviewers had similarly positive responses. And now, twelve years later, Master and Commander has the kind of staying power that makes a classic.

I recommend it to anyone who wants to do research on sailing ships. Not everyone has a chance to get aboard a wooden ship, even one that is tied up in port. Master and Commander is incredibly well researched. The movie has been scrutinized for over a decade and the only flaw found to date is that a single piece of rope, shown in close-up, is not period correct.

I harp regularly on how unbelievably crowded ships were, and here we don’t just hear about it, we see it. It’s one thing to hear that an officer’s cabin was six feet by four feet square, with five feet of headroom. It’s another thing to see it. I tell you that the toilet on a ship was the woodwork at the front of the ship. In Master and Commander we get to see some poor sailor, in an Antarctic snowstorm, sitting bare-ass on this woodwork, waiting for nature to take its course. Furthermore, the story takes place over many months, and the movie does an excellent job of showing this.

The ship is 135 feet long (on deck) and 35 feet wide. 197 souls are on board, and, short of the casualties, they live their lives: weeks, months, perhaps more than a year, in this confined space. We see the men at work and at rest. We see the ship’s boys, some less than five years old. We see and hear the youngest officer, a boy whose voice has yet to break, leading men into battle. In confined spaces, so close they almost touch. Day after day.

So, even though it’s not about pirates, watch Master and Commander, the Far Side of the World.
One of the other spectacular things about this movie is that it is based, not on a single novel, but on a whole series. The author, Patrick O’Brian, was a sailor (in addition to many other things). He composed many tales about the sea and the men who sailed upon her, but what has been dubbed “The Aubrey/Maturin series” (Jack Aubrey’s best friend and sailing companion is Dr. Stephen Maturin, a physician and English spy) is his crowning achievement. The books have been called the greatest adventure novels in the English language.

It’s even been said that, if he had chosen to, O’Brian could have passed the novels off as writings from the period. The language, the author’s understanding of the workings of the Royal Navy, his grasp of ships and the ways they were sailed, and his complete empathy for the men, officers and crews, who sailed them are entirely convincing.  

O’Brian wants you to know how these men talked, what they thought about, what they valued, what they were willing to die for. His writing slowly introduced me to the details of sails and ropes, explained why a ship in heavy seas keeps her topsails flying, let me hear the sounds of the ship’s deck being holystoned in the hours before dawn.

O’Brian is the one who showed me – Showed Me – why horizontal escapades with a girl was sometimes referred to as “giving her a green gown”. when a young lady, having disappeared from a party for a few minutes, returns with the back of her dress green with grass stains.

No one movie could cover all this. The movie, which takes the first part of its title from the first book and the second from the tenth. The plot does not replicate any of the actual scenes from any of the books. Instead it captures the flavor, the sense of adventure and the spirit of the characters. It’s a tribute to both the novels and the quality of the fans that this was accepted without the usual hullabaloo that ruins a movie closely inspired by a popular work of fiction without replicating it scene-by-scene. Here’s to you, fans of Aubrey!

My own goal as a writer has always been to bring my readers into a world of my own design. O’Brian brings us into a world which may have actually been as he describes it… The closest thing to a time machine that you’ll ever find.

He left us with 21 ½ books in the Aubrey/Maturin series. The earliest books strive to be stand-alone works, but by the middle of the series, O’Brian has pretty much given in and acquiesced to the inevitable… It’s really one long novel, like one of the long voyages, each day blending into the last, the unbroken horizon stretching on and on.

Why end with half a book? Because O’Brian, tragically, died in mid-novel, even in mid-sentence. No one was skilled enough to finish the novel, but the fans demanded it. So there it is, a published novel that ends abruptly. Those of us who love the books imagine Aubrey and Maturin sailing off together, forever searching for the next adventure.



  1. TS,

    This makes me think of watching the movie again, once I can find the DVD that is.


  2. saw this in the theater with my dad! he loves the books (they're on my "rainy day pile"). going to check the dvd out from my library tonight!