CLASSIC MOVIES #9 – MASTER AND COMMANDER

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Obscurantist visual seduction at its very best, convincing us once again that conflict among human beings – especially white European human beings – is inevitable, and with the right music, the right actors and the right lighting – great fun to watch.

Like it does in so many action films, masterful, cinematic violence stars in the cause of ‘honorable revenge.’ In the great American tradition of  ‘they fired first,’ manly-men bound by a common sense of decency and fair play, battle incomprehensible odds and each other to reassure us – once again – that the plucky little guy with guts and smarts always wins.

Russell Crowe revives his Maximus Meridius character for the occasion to play ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey, an early nineteenth century English naval captain, charged with preventing the French from extending the Napoleonic War into South American waters. Of making the war worse so to speak – or bigger as it were. A noble mission, for which true-to-form, officer-who-mucks-in-with-the-lads, captain Crowe is more than qualified. Marshaled against him on this go round are the awful uncompromising forces of watery nature, the unpredictable temperaments of a stressed out crew and the greater fire-power of a cunning French adversary. A bigger, boat so to speak – or worse as it were.

A ship at sea is a world unto itself, “…a little wooden world” as captain Jack puts it, a microcosm encapsulating all the wonderful foibles and heroic aspirations of the world at large. An “Upstairs, Downstairs” at sea kind of world, full of the fun and ironic exchanges that necessarily occur between poor people working and rich people giving orders. Punctuated in this case by the occasional cannon ball ripping through the kitchen and taking ‘Cook’s’ legs off. “Oo Mr ‘udson! Whatever next?” Whereas the honorable upstairs crowd is clearly defined, each with a name, an ideal and heroic agenda, the downstairs lot are portrayed as an anonymous mob of superstitious yet fiercely loyal slaves. Until the ship needs repairing that is, when they spring into action with amazing skills of craftsmanship and know how. There’s a sculptor on board to fix and repaint the figurehead, a carpenter to fashion a mast from a tree and a supernaturally fast model-boat-maker who’s able to pinpoint the weak spots of the enemy ship.

True to formula the hero is the underdog. Cap’n Jack’s ship is undersized, underpowered, undergunned and on top of everything else – undermined. There’s a Jonah on board. A weak toff no less, who raises the real possibility of a mutiny to top off Cap’n Jack’s seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Jack of course isn’t called lucky for nothing, and after an evening of getting down on the fiddle with his cello playing ship’s doctor pal, he arrives on deck next morning to find the situation has cured itself. Weak or not the upper class has class, and the toff has tossed himself off in the night. With him out of the way the decks are now cleared for action.

Jack is still outmatched, but he has one thing on his side that the French ship doesn’t: utterly implausible coincidence. When he’s compelled to choose friendship over duty, a miraculous sequence of events suddenly transpires. His friend discovers a stick insect – the stick insect leads to the French – the French lead back to the stick insect – and the stick insect shows Lucky Jack Aubrey how to blow them up. ‘Stick’ it to them as it were. It’s tremendous – and a life lesson for the young at heart. In the fight that ensues, everyone has a great old time. Arms and legs are whipped off with cannon balls and chopped off with swords, people are shot and crushed and blown up, and all on account of love and a stick insect.

In the glow of the aftermath, all concern and attention is lavished on the individual toffs, none on the anonymous slaves beneath them: the husbands, brothers and sons. The six-year old orphan boys volunteered into hell. That they all share the horrors is obvious, but only the privileged are recognized, rewarded and remembered for it.

Jack and the doctor rescue us from such gloomy thoughts. Emphasizing once again the virtues of friendship, they turn their fiddle and cello on their sides and send us smiling from the theater with a jaunty, get down, hootenanny, jig. The fact that the French ship had not been defeated after all, and that the fun and carnage must be repeated, only adds to the warm thoughts that accompany us back to the parking lot.

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Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of 2012.

www.burroughsmcneillart.com

His most recent exhibition of paintings was in New York.

www.malcolmmcneillscience.com

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