..."that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."
The king of Brobdingnag, Gulliver's Travels
Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.
Winston Churchill, My Early Years
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (MAC) is not just a brilliant war movie — although it is that, of course. It’s a celebration of all the noblest parts of the human spirit, a two-hour testament to the sheer joy of being alive. It is a humanist triumph: a humbling reminder of how precious human life is, how susceptible to extinction by the whims of nature. It shows us that we must fight if we want to live — and that we ought to want to.
MAC follows the journey of HMS Surprise as she pursues the larger, faster French Acheron around South America during the Napoleonic Wars. She’s captained by “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, who finds in the Acheron prey large enough to match his ambitions, and in ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin a friend, confidant, and duet partner. The film portrays Aubrey and his men engaged variously in living, dying, and attempting not to die, as they reel the Acheron in across thousands of miles of sea.
The battle scenes are simply magnificent. Cannon leap, jerk and roll like startled beasts in carefully timed broadsides. Masts splinter, shatter, crack; pineapple-sized cannonballs streak across the upper decks with spectacular indifference to their contents. The great warships themselves are gorgeous, majestic and practically crackling with embodied purpose — terrifying when bearing down from windward, with sails that seem to ripple out to the edge of one’s vision. The dogged persistence of their crews is no less admirable. When repairs are being made, or sails taken in, the rigging quite literally swarms with sailors. The sheer amount of brute force required to raise an anchor or pump out a flooded deck is dizzying. And then there’s the simple, heartrending courage displayed by the seamen who sleep belowdecks, crammed in hammocks like so many cuts of meat, who are carried after battle to an operating room more akin to a mechanic’s shop than a place of medical science. As a portrait of war, a heartfelt tribute to the force of will required to move a ship and make it useful in battle, MAC is unparalleled.
Yet MAC is not just a war movie: it’s about our species’ struggle for survival in a thoroughly hostile universe. This is even evident in the portrayal of the Acheron — for the majority of the film, she’s not a human foe, but a “phantom ship” which falls upon the Surprise like a force of nature. The crew never see the humans that comprise the French privateer until the final decisive battle, and in the intervening time display no great animosity towards them. They seem motivated more by a love of each other — and a sense of duty — than by hatred towards the enemy.
The struggle with nature is carried out between bouts of naval combat with no loss in excitement or pathos. There are two tragedies in these solitary periods: a sailor lost in a storm, and a midshipman’s suicide. There are also unalloyed joys, like the unexpected visit the Surprise pays to the Galapagos islands, and the moments of respite Aubrey and Maturin find in music. None of these is directly related to the hunt for the Acheron. Rather, they’re glimpses, provided by the crew of a single vessel thousands of miles from home, into the struggle to beat back and understand nature that constitutes the progress of human civilization.
It is nature, and in particular the weather, that inflicts the greatest psychological toll on the men of the Surprise. Ambushed by a storm off Cape Horn, a sailor is cast overboard when the mast he’s perched upon snaps in heavy wind. Lest the ship tip over from the drag of the mast’s wreckage, Aubrey decides to cut the mast — and with it, the sailor — loose. Thousands of miles to the north, the Surprise again loses one of her own to the deep, when she’s becalmed without rain for days on end. As the men grow increasingly restless, a rumor spreads that one midshipman Hollom is a “Jonah” who calls disaster down upon the ship. Hollom doesn’t have the strength to defend his position, and is driven to suicide within a few days.
In each case, the crew feel compelled to cast out one of their own because of the whims of sea and sky. A wind howls, a cloud bank dissolves, and so a man must die. In these moments, the ship seems so small, and so powerless — a log crawling with ants, adrift in a callous, breathtakingly indifferent expanse. There is tragedy in the sacrifice these men must make to cruel gods, to chance, when they’re forced to cut bonds of brotherhood. They’re entirely dependent upon each other for survival, and they know it. Yet they’ve killed two of their own, and they know that as well.
Environmental fluctuations are inevitable. What turns them into existential crises is the low absolute level of technology that the Royal Navy possesses. When wind is the only means of propulsion available, one’s physical safety depends its magnitude and direction. When drinking water must be replenished by land or rain, the meandering of clouds becomes a rather serious matter. Simple, entirely solvable problems become destructive, because the right tools aren’t available. And when the crisis arrives, it often has to be resolved with violence. One suspects the crew of the Surprise would gladly put up with a bit more French privateering if they could suffer less of this galling helplessness.
* * *
On that count, incidentally, not much has changed since 1805. We have faster ships and better hospitals, but storms and wind still knock down our buildings, and our crops still depend on rain. We sit nervously under the thumb of weather gods. Watching Master and Commander, one is reminded that there never has been a human Master or Commander of any great portion of the physical world. To a rather humiliating degree, when we look for power, we must satisfy ourselves with exercising it over other humans, because our surroundings remain largely a turbulent and violent mystery.
We haven’t given up, though — and nor do the men of the Surprise. From navigation and brain surgery to wildlife biology, they display an admirable enthusiasm for the observation and dissection of the natural world. Maturin keeps detailed records of new species encountered in and around the Galapagos, with an obsession for discovery often directly at odds with the ship’s military duties. Although the rest of the crew are not as voracious in pursuing knowledge, they share a great respect for the doctor’s excursions into the unknown. Young midshipman Blakeney, for instance, takes to biology quickly under Maturin’s guidance, and aspires to become a “fighting naturalist”. The naval officers understand natural sciences as a most potent weapon — useful against other humans, to be sure, but also against the natural world itself. Despite the protestations of both Aubrey and Maturin, in the long run there is no fundamental conflict between the duty to fight and the drive to explore.
Meanwhile, those of the crew without the taste for scientific work do not sink into despair in the face of unthinkable, uncontrolled power — they enjoy their circumstances, and bring warmth to places cold and unknown. Dancing and singing are a daily occurrence; some of the most beautiful scenes in the film involve Aubrey and Maturin sharing a few minutes of Mozart or Boccherini in the captain’s cabin, as the vicissitudes of war and weather are dealt with outside. Life is good, and worth fighting for, and we should all love it as much as these two do.
MAC is a quietly joyful description of exactly why being a human is so much fun. We’re born into an enormous, carelessly deadly universe full of hurricanes and diseases, asteroids and supernovae — in fact it is, in many ways, a bit much. In order to live, we have to fight, and we have to learn. As the boyish courage of the Surprise demonstrates, a good fight can be fun, and need never preclude the acquisition of real knowledge. Discipline and curiosity are both mandatory: to hold off human enemies, and to make headway against those which our whole species faces. We ought to take a page from Maturin’s book, and keep one eye on the horizon. Somewhere out there, among the lazing iguanas, the moronic tortoises, the vast and parched rock fields — somewhere out there is a bit of the real, bona fide scientific fact that amounts to our best shot at winning the war of survival. It is (subject to the requirements of the service) worth looking for.