[Our Sunday Visitor, December 7, 2003]
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
The opposite of "chick flick" is "guy flick," the kind of film that’s expected to appeal to "real men." It has predictable elements: big explosions, naked girls, and high-speed chases. "Master and Commander" is a different kind of guy flick, because it’s more thoroughly about "real men," who have normal-size, realistic powers rather than superhuman ones. If you want to see someone hover in mid-air and kick a bad guy in the head, go see "Matrix Revolutions."
This is what makes the film so deeply appealing: it has a human scale. When you see three sailors straining to hold down a rope in the teeth of a gale, their strength and the wind seem a believable match. The howl of the storm and the creaking of the old ship’s timbers sound about right. Nothing is larger than life. It turns out life is large enough.
Russell Crowe, as Jack Aubrey, Captain of the Surprise, is large too-he’s not a witty, prancing swashbuckler of the old school but a stout, fleshy man who delights in a bad pun. His pappy is not Erroll Flynn but Charles Laughton. He guides the Surprise in a slow-speed chase from Brazil, through the Straits of Magellan, and on to the Galapagos Islands; the screen unrolls one beautiful vista after another.
But other than the stunning views, the film doesn’t seek to astonish. The crew is made of regular guys, not by-the-numbers stock characters; the plot proceeds at a stately pace, with events well-telegraphed in advance. You get to experience the tedium as well as the excitement of shipboard life. There are no complicated subplots or cutting, clever dialogue, which a chick flick requires.
What "Master and Commander" reveals is that real men want to test their strength against the elements. They want to set a seemingly impossible goal, like sailing a tall wooden ship around the tip of South America, and then try to do it. (My first reaction to the opening shots of the film was "What are they thinking? Why are they trying to do this? This isn’t safe! They should go home!") Men like working as a team toward that goal, and will sacrifice themselves for the goal or each other, and give spontaneous praise for another’s achievement. None of this comes easily to women. This film is a good experience for us, because it gives us insight into who that guy in the La-Z-Boy could really be, deep inside. It’s good for that guy, too, for the same reason.