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Interview with Russell Crowe on the making of the film

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The British Navy Sails again in "Master and Commander"
By Cathy Schultz

Oscar’s a history buff. When the Academy Awards gave a coveted Best Picture nomination to "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" this year, it continued its tradition of honoring films set in the past. In fact, more than half of the Best Picture nominees in the last six years have been historically based films.

Out on video and DVD, "Master and Commander" is well worth a viewing. It combines a good yarn with stunning visuals and intriguing characters.

And what of its history? Accurate, but sometimes confusing. Here’s a cheat sheet to guide viewers through some of the intricacies and oddities of British Navy life, circa 1805.

Q: Was there really an H.M.S. Surprise?
A: The English Navy did do battle with French warships around the globe during the Napoleonic Wars. But the film’s ship, the Surprise, captained by Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe), is a creation of novelist Patrick O’Brian.

Q. Was 19th century surgery that gruesome?
A. Cannon and musket shot do nasty things to human flesh. And in this era, a pretty common "remedy" for many wounds was amputation.

The pain must have been excruciating. As the film shows, patients were given lots of alcohol and something hard to bite. But unlike the slow, careful work performed by the film’s surgeon, actual surgeons cut as fast as they could, to spare the patient any extra pain.

A famous historian was once asked what historical era he would like to visit if possible. "Anytime after the invention of anesthesia," was his response. Exactly.

Q. One of the film’s main characters is a cherubic little 12-year-old, who commands grown men during a battle. What’s going on there?
A. What we see there is the British class system. Sons of the aristocracy often joined the Navy at a tender age, and despite their youth were immediately considered officers. Trained in seamanship for a few years, they could then command much older sailors or "seamen," who were usually from the lower classes.

The film unapologetically depicts the rigid British class system of the era. The officers wear spiffy uniforms and drink tea from delicate china cups. The seaman by contrast wear a motley collection of clothing and eat from rough wooden plates. "This ship is not a democracy," Captain Aubrey proclaims at one point. Indeed.

Q. The crew on the Surprise seems like a fairly contented bunch. Was that typical?
A. No, because many British Navy seaman had been hijacked, or "impressed" into service against their will. Roving "press gangs" used to seize men for the Navy regularly, both on land or at sea. In fact, the practice of stopping American vessels and kidnapping their sailors for service in the British Navy was one of the tensions that led to the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the U.S.

Q. Speaking of the War of 1812, wasn’t that the actual backdrop of O’Brian’s book, "The Far Side of the World?"
A. Yes, but the filmmakers thought American audiences might not want to see Americans as the villains. So, they switched the events to 1805. Conveniently, that made the French the villains.

Q. In one scene a sailor is flogged for not showing deference to an officer. Did that happen?
A. Absolutely. Seamen were expected to make an obeisance (what appears in the movie as touching an invisible cap) to officers. In the British Navy, captains were quick to punish any display of insubordination, since mutinies in that era were not uncommon. Flogging with a "cat o’ nine tails," which could scar a man’s back for life, was one of the more severe punishments, but happened frequently.

Q. "Give the men a ration of grog," the captain orders in one scene. What IS grog?
A. Watered down rum. Plying the men with alcohol was a time-honored way to keep them from thinking about how miserable life was in the British navy. The problem was that too much rum tended to create too many drunken sailors. And what can you do with a drunken sailor? Hence the creation of grog: one part rum, eight parts water.

Q. Did people really talk that way?
A. The filmmakers opted against dumbing down the novel’s dialogue. Thus the film bristles with wonderfully archaic lines, such as, "might we press you for an anecdote, sir," and, "it makes me so very low." Jane Austen, a contemporary of the fictional Aubrey, would feel right at home.

Q. What’s a good book for more information?
A. O’Brian’s novels, of course. But for historical background, take a look at Richard O’Neill’s book, "Patrick O’Brian’s Navy."

4/18/04 Joliet Herald News

"Grog, I said, give me some GROG!"

Why is this kid on a war ship?


Russell Crowe looking fierce..



© 2004 History in the Movies
cschultz@stfrancis.edu