When I first got into Patrick O'Brian's series of novels about Capt. Jack Aubrey, R.N., I was delighted with the film based on the same: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. A few weeks ago I got another chance to see it, while I was much farther into the series and more deeply acquainted with it. This suddenly changed my opinion of the film's historical accuracy! Here are just a few of the trifling things that I didn't have any problem with the first few times I saw the movie, but which are now glaring errors to a reader seventeen books further on.
First, I must take issue with the casting. I have always enjoyed Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, and I originally thought Paul Bettany made a wonderful Stephen Maturin. I still think his acting was very good; but I don't think he was right for the character. First, superficially, he is too tall. Bettany towers over Crowe; whereas, in the books, it is frequently mentioned that Aubrey is a giant of a man and Maturin a short, slight, mean-looking specimen. Second, Bettany plays Stephen as a petulant, sulky whiner who frequently unburdens himself of passionate speeches toward his friend and captain; whereas the Stephen of the books is positively reptilian in his taciturnity, loath to surrender his dignity or to make indiscreet remarks, and wise enough in his friendship with Jack to avoid imposing his opinion or desires on him. In the first book, to be sure, the character and the relationship were still growing, and there may have been a few moments like the ones where film-Stephen nags film-Jack about a promised botanizing expedition. But for a film representing the first ten books in the series, this really is not a fair characterization.
Third, the writers completely omitted the most fascinating twist in Stephen's character: his highly dangerous career as a secret agent, in which he himself is not the least dangerous element. For example, in the film's inevitable reorganization of material from the books, there is a scene where Stephen operates on himself to remove a musket ball put there by a marine captain who was aiming at an albatross. In the equivalent passage in The Surgeon's Mate, however, the wound resulted from a duel to which one may well apply the proverb: "You shoulda seen the other guy."
The film is, after all, full of authentic details. While watching the movie with a friend, I repeatedly paused the video to point out, with great excitement, illustrations of real maritime practices that I had never noticed before - such as precisely what it means to "batten down the hatches," and how the log was used to measure the ship's speed. But there are grave lapses as well.
In the final scene, for instance, Jack orders his lieutenant to "beat to quarters," then retires to his cabin to continue a violin-cello duet with Stephen, over a nice dish of toasted cheese. It makes a witty ending for the film, but in reality it couldn't have happened. As soon as the marine drummer started to beat quarters the bulkheads, furniture, instruments, and the doctor himself would have been carried below by a rush of industrious hands as they "cleared fore and aft" to ready the guns. There would have been no music, no cheese, indeed no cabin in which to enjoy them, within seconds of the order being given. Even in spite of an earlier scene clearly showing the fluidity of the floorplan (where the exquisite Killick shouts "Which it is soused hog's face!" at his deafened captain while table, cloth, dinner, and walls are simultaneously set up after gunnery exercise), the film ends with Stephen and Jack carrying on with their impossible duet while all hands are preparing for action. Maybe there was a parallel universe thing going on; in which case, this was a science fiction film after all!
Should I complain about this? I have long thought this was a very effective movie, and it does capture so many bits of a fictional world I have loved for years. I can understand why the filmmakers would choose a gorgeous actor to play Tom Pullings, instead of the barrel-chested, round-headed type O'Brian describes him as. I don't think such deviations from the canon make it a bad movie. But it does pain me to have to revise my opinion of how historically authentic it was - to revise it, decidedly, downward.
IMAGES: A chip log & related paraphernalia; a battened-down hatch; a promotional image showing Crowe and a bit of the HMS Surprise.