Talking Movies

April 15, 2016

Master & Commander: good solid research

Australian director Peter Weir’s 2003 film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World is noteworthy for being remarkably faithless to the letter of the novel on which it is based, The Far Side of the World, and yet admirably faithful to the spirit of the Aubrey/Maturin series of which that novel is the tenth instalment. Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on that adaptation.

It is hard not to watch Weir’s film and be struck by how he is picking lines of dialogue and character moments from disparate books all across the series: one deleted scene alludes to the future laudanum addiction of a supporting character. One of the subtlest joys of the movie is the depiction of Jack dining with his officers, only on repeat viewings do you note definitively that all concerned are never entirely sober in any of these scenes; a consequence of the endless series of ‘A glass with you, sir’ toasts O’Brian presents. And so is presented in the best context the infamous weevil joke, “Do you not know that in the service, you must always choose the lesser of two weevils?” This is word for word as O’Brian wrote it, and Weir has Stephen riposte it with a quote from a different book – “He would that make a pun would pick a pocket.” Stephen critiques Jack’s corny wit in The Far Side of the World, with a quote applicable to all the officers across all the books, “Shakespeare’s clowns make quips of that bludgeoning, knock-me-down nature. You have only to add marry, come up, or go to.” And yet the humour of the books is based on solid research. Some of the peevish admirals Jack encounters in the novels recall Lord Chancellor Thurlow’s outburst at a deputation of Nonconformists, recorded in TH White’s The Age of Scandal, “I’m against you, by God. I am for the Established Church, damme! Not that I have any more regard for the Established Church than for any other Church, but because it is established. And if you can get your damned religion established, I’ll be for that too!”

“He will continue to respect historical accuracy and speak of the Royal Navy as it was, making use of contemporary documents” promised author Patrick O’Brian in his introduction to The Far Side of the World. And indeed not many pages pass before a reference is made to the late 18th century concept of ‘bottom’; which TH White defines as not just a precursor of the modern concept of ‘guts’, but also a marker of financial resources and emotional stoicism. But it is in rendering dialogue accurately that O’Brian is a marvel, men of the Napoleonic Wars speak as they would have done, of the things they would have spoken of, and with the gradations of class that would have inflected their dialect; so that when O’Brian describes the intake of the Defenders to the Surprise, the narration becomes coloured by the slang and sentence structure of the able seamen, “A few were striped Guernsey-frocked tarpaulin-hatted kinky-faced red-throated long-swinging-pigtailed men-of-war’s men, and judging by their answers as they were entered in the ship’s books some of these were right sea-lawyers too.” By hewing so closely to O’Brian’s dialogue, Weir adds unusual authenticity to a Hollywood historical action adventure, from the cries of ‘Huzzay’ to Jack’s ‘Thankee, Killick’ to his servant.

Click here to read the full piece.

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