Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Produced and distributed by 20th Century Fox 
Directed by Peter Weir
Screenplay by Peter Weir and John Collee from Patrick O’Brian’s novels

The Last Samurai
Produced and distributed by Warner Bros. and Cruise-Wagner Productions
Directed by Edward Zwick
Screenplay by John Logan

Magisterial sea yarner Patrick O’Brian comes to the screen in Peter Weir’s new film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  This is the tale of an early-19-century English frigate’s mad chase after an enemy ship sailing from Brazil to the Galapagos Islands by way of Cape Horn.  In visualizing this adventure, Weir has given us a gorgeous lesson in his medium’s resources, filling the screen with vast on-location vistas, faithfully reproducing daily shipboard life in all its particulars, and staging utterly convincing battle scenes.  Not that you are aware of this as you watch the movie.  It is essential to Weir’s art that his efforts remain hidden.  Even when he deploys special effects, including computer-generated typhoons, the technical legerdemain is quite unnoticeable.  Everything has been designed to pull you into the world of 1805 on a 28-gun warship plying its bloody trade on seas that “have become battlefields,” as the voice-over introduction tells us.  Surrender to Weir’s recreation, and you will enter into the hearts and minds of men who lived 200 years ago.

After an opening shot of the ocean at dawn to establish that we are in the South Atlantic off Brazil, Weir’s camera plunges into the cramped quarters belowdecks of the warship Surprise, commanded by Capt. Jack Aubrey.  We are pressed up against the crew’s “197 souls,” a considerable portion of whom will soon be forever liberated from their professional confinement.  We watch these rough, weathered men wake at the first bell, slip from their hammocks, and go on deck, where they find two upper-class midshipmen trying unsuccessfully to pierce a heavy morning fog with a telescope.  One asks the older fellow, Hollom, if he sees anything.  Unsure, Hollom stands confused in the middle of the milling crew, who murmur at his lack of resolution.  Is it the enemy?  Should he wake the captain?  He hesitates when decision is needed, and, finally, the younger man takes the initiative, calling the captain from his cabin.  Hollom’s uncertainty introduces a theme dear to Joseph Conrad, especially in “The Secret Sharer.”  Two men arrive at the point of decision.  One is paralyzed by doubt; the other, propelled by duty.  It will be a moment echoed again and again in the narrative, especially in Aubrey’s relation with his own secret sharer, Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon and his closest friend.

Like Conrad’s nameless narrator in “The Secret Sharer,” Maturin is a thoughtful man.  As a medical doctor and naturalist, he has a skeptical, questioning turn of mind.  He refuses to accept things as they are.  He is prone to reflection, a mental habit Conrad deemed pernicious to spontaneous initiative, however necessary it may be to intellectual analysis.  Aubrey, on the other hand, recalls Leggatt, the narrator’s inverted double in Conrad’s story.  He is so fully at home in his world that he rarely hesitates in making decisions, nor does he worry about their consequences.  Paul Bettany plays Maturin, giving him a reflective inwardness in the way he stands to the side of others watching them, not fully joining in their repartee.  As Aubrey, Russell Crowe is a study in hearty self-assurance.  His softly growling voice resonates with natural authority, whether he is giving a command to flog an insubordinate sailor or telling an anecdote about Lord Nelson.  He is a man who expects to be heeded, and others are quite willing to accommodate him.  His behavior exhibits the marks of an effective captain as Conrad’s narrator describes them:

there are . . . certain words, gestures, that should in given conditions come as naturally, as instinctively as the winking of a menaced eye.  A certain order should spring on to his lips without thinking; a certain sign should get itself made, so to speak, without reflection.

This is Jack, a man in whom there is only the briefest interval between thought and act.  This is what makes him so masterful and so liked.  His spontaneity inspires his crew with confidence, just as Hollom’s hesitation infects them with misgivings.

This, however, is only the public Aubrey.  Privately, he is something different.  When the French privateer Acheron blasts the side out of the Surprise, he barely keeps her afloat.  Inwardly shaken, he goes to Maturin to reflect on his efforts while they play Bach and Mozart duets in his cabin.  Their choice of instruments is telling: Aubrey plays the violin with sprightly, headlong energy, while Maturin accompanies him on the cello in deep, reflective tones.  Although not as absolutely drawn as are Conrad’s, the characters represent differing tendencies and need one another to achieve moral equilibrium.  There is a wonderfully comic scene that makes this point.  In a battle, Maturin takes a musket shot in his side, and the ball must be removed before sepsis sets in.  As the ship’s surgeon, he decides to do it himself, probing his wound with the aid of a mirror.  Aubrey stands by to give his friend moral support, but, to Maturin’s amusement, he grows increasingly uncomfortable as the operation proceeds and, finally, must look away.  This is the captain who has watched men die and ordered others flogged, yet a bit of self-surgery can make him queasy.  Of course, poking into one’s interior would naturally unnerve so extroverted a man.

At the beginning of Youth, Conrad’s favorite narrator Marlow observes that “there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence.”  In Conrad’s tales, the illustration of life is to be found by confronting the other in oneself.  Each of his characters either succeeds or fails to gain self-understanding through the agency of another person who harbors unsettling aspects of himself.  O’Brian’s story uses a similar strategy.  Aubrey and Maturin discover their secret sharers in each other.  In so doing, they achieve a balance of thought and will necessary to accomplish their missions: Aubrey, to win honor in combat; Maturin, to win scientific knowledge.  In the film’s most remarkable sequence, the Surprise stops at the Galapagos, where Maturin’s research into the islands’ strange beasts sets him wondering in a manner that anticipates Charles Darwin’s speculations by 30 years.  At first, Aubrey is unimpressed.  He is wholly incurious about anything outside the range of the world as he has come to know it.  He derisively tells Maturin, “Name a shrub after me; something prickly and impossible to eradicate.”  When Maturin shows him a self-disguising walking stick insect, however, Aubrey is unexpectedly and providentially inspired.  He instantly hits upon the strategy he needs to take on the larger, more heavily armed Acheron and declares, “I intend to study nature from now on.”  And so intellectual inquiry and heroic deeds happily come together.

A number of O’Brian fans have knocked the film for departing from the original texts—Master and Commander, the first of the Aubrey-Maturin series of 20 volumes, and The Far Side of the World, the tenth.  The loudest complaint has been that Weir has moved the story back to the Napoleonic era so that he could change the enemy ship from American to French and, thus, provide a more politically pleasing contretemps.  This alteration was undoubtedly political, but it was also commercial.  The film cost $135 million to make.  One can understand why its financial backers may have feared affronting one of its largest markets.  Whatever the motivation, “Acheron” fits the story quite well: It is the name of one of the five rivers to Hades.  In good Conradian fashion, this is a tale about descending into the private underworld that lies beneath the public self.  We can also take solace in the ending’s ambiguity.  It begs for a sequel that, we can hope, will come closer to O’Brian’s narrative.  Of course, this assumes that Master prospers at the box office.  Right now, it is faltering in America, where it is being driven out of the multiplexes by such films as The Last Samurai, a development that may prove the people behind Master have naively mistaken its audience’s whims.

With Samurai, director Edward Zwick assumes Americans love nothing better than to be kicked about for their manifold transgressions, and his film’s popularity seems to be proving him both politically and economically correct.  Zwick wants us to believe that late-19-century white middle-class citizens of the U.S. of A. were culpably unaware that their government had plotted genocide against the Indians.

The story begins in 1876 with a washed-up U.S. cavalry officer, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a Civil War veteran who went on to become a renowned Indian killer.  Although Algren has become a self-loathing alcoholic for his innumerable crimes against the invariably innocent Indians, his former colonel nevertheless recruits him to go to Japan to help the emperor modernize his army.  Soon, he is teaching conscripted peasants how to shoot rifles so they can defeat samurai warriors who oppose the industrialization of their nation.  When he is forced to lead a campaign with poorly trained troops against a band of seasoned samurai, his soldiers are massacred.  He, however, is spared when the samurai leader, Katsumoto (Ken Wantanabe), witnesses his extraordinary valor.  He is taken back to Katsumoto’s village where he learns the Way of the Samurai—which, needless to say, is unswervingly honorable compared to the foul Way of the Gaijin.

Smitten with the samurai, Algren changes sides and takes up the sword to fight the emperor’s dishonorable guns.  In the film’s climactic battle, he finds himself heroically combating the foe with Katsumoto, now his best buddy.  In a brief lull in the carnage, he tells the man who is about to become the last samurai about the Greek soldiers who held off the Persian hordes at Thermopylae.  Impressed, Katsumoto asks what happened to those brave warriors.  Algren replies, “Dead to the last one,” and they smile at each other beatifically.

Except for its reflexive know-nothing anti-Americanism, Samurai is not really a bad film.  It is just silly, like a Saturday-afternoon Gene Autrey serial made on an unlimited budget.  The scenery is terrific; the battle scenes, energetic; the acting, more than passable.  Although Cruise is given to boyish posturing, he handles the action scenes with athletic aplomb.  As the heroic, stoic Katsumoto, Wantanabe wears his samurai gravitas lightly, making you believe that he is not kidding when he points to a cherry tree and says to Algren, “Like these blossoms, we are all dying; take life in every breath.”  Wow.  That’s, like, so existential.

With all of its idealizing of swordsmanship, Samurai might lead you to believe that it is the fever dream of an anti-NRA lobbyist.  As it turns out, the film has an historical basis.  Katsumoto is based on a samurai warrior named Saigo Takamori who fell into disfavor when he tried to halt the Westernizing influences transforming Japan.  In 1877, his opponents, including many gun-wielding samurai, lured him into a battle that cost him most of his followers and drove him to suicide.  To prevent further insurgency, he was posthumously pardoned by the Meiji emperor, and statues were quickly erected in his name.  His heroism undoubtedly inspired those future soldiers who would give us hell in the Pacific six decades later.  Perhaps Zwick thinks they were all honorable warriors, too.