Master and Commander

Posted: Nov 14, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The great director Billy Wilder was once asked about subtlety in movies. ``Of course, there must be subtleties,'' said Wilder. ``Just make sure you make them obvious.''

The trailer for ``Master and Commander,'' the seafaring epic opening Friday, can hardly be described as subtle. It is a dazzling montage of dramatic scenes of early 19th-century naval warfare, with cannonballs, bodies, furniture, masts flying all over the place. Nonetheless, my first reaction to a screening of the film itself was that it was beautiful and brilliant, but I was not sure it would find a mass audience because of its subtlety.

Perhaps subtlety is the wrong word. It perfectly describes director Peter Weir's mind and manner, but perhaps refinement is the word for what might hinder the film's commercial success. Weir gives us some magnificently choreographed naval mayhem, but it is spread over two hours of thoughtfulness and restraint.

The story, drawn from the Patrick O'Brian novels, is framed by battle scenes between a British and a French warship. The TV trailer promises ``'Gladiator' at sea.'' But the movie is really about the nature of naval life in the age of sail, the nature of command, and the nature of friendship (between the ship's captain and the ship's doctor).

Although entirely fictional, ``Master and Commander'' might be considered the most dramatic and brilliant naval documentary ever made. It should be on the reading (viewing) list of every college course on the history of naval warfare. Weir has given unbelievable attention to every detail of the period -- the cookware, the rigging, the uniform buttons, the drinking songs, the instruments of surgery.

And the mode of speech. This is where I worry about subtlety. I speak English reasonably well, but I could only make out about half of the dialogue. That is because Weir has maintained an unswerving fidelity to the period dialect (the 1805 action is situated about halfway between us and Shakespeare's time, and so is the diction and syntax). Pepper that with nautical nouns you never heard of, often issued in Russell Crowe's barely audible drawl, place them within a cacophony of ship sounds (another example of Weir's fidelity to authenticity), and you sometimes wish that the movie had been accompanied by subtitles.

Weir's restraint carries into a remarkable austerity regarding women. In the movie's version of a love interest, a Brazilian beauty in a small boat selling wares offshore to the sailors of Captain Aubrey's ship catches Aubrey's eye for a moment at a considerable distance. For about 5 seconds you see Aubrey (Crowe) returning her glance.

And that is it. Indeed, that scene marks the only appearance of women in the entire two hours of the film, setting a new outdoor record for sexual austerity in an epic, a record previously held by ``Lawrence of Arabia.''

The austerity works as film, as does the fidelity to detail. My only worry is that it won't sell to the kids who flock to see ``Pirates of the Caribbean,'' who expect sex and swashbuckling between their battle scenes, and whose patronage is needed for the movie to recover its $135 million cost.

It is perhaps odd to worry about a film's box office, but when a film is as splendid as this one, you want it to succeed. Perhaps it will be helped in the U.S. by its timing. We are at war, and this is a film not just about the conduct of war, but about virtue in war. Its depiction of the more ancient notions of duty, honor, patriotism and devotion is reminiscent of what we glimpsed during live coverage of the dash to Baghdad back in April, but is now slipping from memory.

The film was first planned a decade ago, long before Sept. 11, long before Afghanistan, long before Iraq. But it arrives at a time of war. And combat on the high seas -- ships under unified command meeting in duelistic engagement in open waters -- represents a distilled essence of warfare that, in the hands of a morally serious man like Weir, is deeply clarifying.

Even better is the fact that the hero in his little British frigate is up against a larger, more powerful French warship. That allows American audiences the particular satisfaction of seeing Anglo-Saxon cannonballs puncturing the Tricolor. My favorite part was Aubrey rallying the troops with a Henry V, St. Crispin's Day speech featuring: ``Do you want your children growing up and singing the Marseillaise?'' It was met by a chorus of deafening ``Noes.'' Maybe they should have put that in the trailer too.