The British Navy Sails again in "Master and Commander"
By Cathy Schultz
Oscars 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
And what of its history? Accurate, but sometimes confusing. Heres
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 films ship, the
Surprise, captained by Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe), is
a creation of novelist Patrick OBrian.
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
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 films surgeon, actual
surgeons cut as fast as they could, to spare the patient any extra
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 films main characters is a cherubic little
12-year-old, who commands grown men during a battle. Whats
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, wasnt that the actual
backdrop of OBrians book, "The Far Side of the
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 mans 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 novels 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. Whats a good book for more information?
A. OBrians novels, of course. But for historical background,
take a look at Richard ONeills book, "Patrick OBrians
4/18/04 Joliet Herald News