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By David Templeton | November 20, 2003

“I love the way the movie opens,” says author and Ship Lit authority Dean King, talking about the new epic film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, based on the novels of Patrick O’Brien, directed by Peter Weir with Russell Crowe as the swashbuckling Captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as the bug-collecting surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin. “It’s a kind of a surreal and eerie beginning,” notes King, “with those long shots of the men sleeping below decks, tightly packed in close quarters, every man in a hammock swaying back and forth. It’s almost funny, because it looks so strange, you’re not even sure what you’re looking at at first. And then, just a few minutes later in that first battle with the French ship, I really liked the way the cannon balls were shown being fired into the ship. It was amazing! To see the incredible damage those cannon balls could do to a wooden ship, to see it up close – it was very exciting, and really was superbly done.”

Dean King knows his way around ships and cannon balls, and knows quite a bit, too, about Patrick O’Brien and the shockingly-popular Aubrey/Maturin seafaring adventures, all 20 novels’ worth. He (King) is the author of numerous books including A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion to Patrick O’Brien’s Seafaring Tales; Harbors and High Seas; Every Man Will Do His Duty, and the insightful biography Patrick O’Brien: A Life. He is also the mastermind behind the Heart of Oak Sea Classics series, an imprint of Henry Holt & Company, in which King has discovered, restored and re-released a number of forgotten books (Joseph Conrad’s The Rover and James Norman Hall’s Dr. Dogbody’s Leg), each about the sea and the men and the ships who sailed her way back in the 18th century.

It is a period that O’Brien made his mark describing in the Aubrey/Maturin novels that first began appearing in 1970, but did not become a publishing world phenomenon until the 1990’s. O’Brien, who died in 2000, was a legendarily crust character, who did not much care for movies, so one can only guess what he’d think of the new film, or what he’d say about Weir’s decision to start the movie in the exact middle of the whole story. Far Side of the World, the novel from which most of the film’s events are taken, was the tenth book in the series. It’s as if Peter Jackson had chosen to start his Lord of the Rings movies at the Council of Elrond, instead of at the beginning.

“One of the greatest opening scenes in literature, and definitely one of the most memorable scenes of the entire series, is from the first book, Master & Commander,” says King. “The scene where Aubrey and Maturin first meeting in the music room during the chamber concert is a brilliantly written scene, and it’s incredibly important in understanding how far these two men have to go in order to become such close friends. By the time they came to the events of the tenth book, you know what it means when they make the decisions they do. By starting the movie in the middle of the story, we don’t get any of that character development, so when people make the choices they do or suffer the fates they suffer, it doesn’t have the same emotional impact.

“You have to have a very good reason to tell a story out of sequence,” King adds. “And I’d just like to know what their reason was.”

As for guessing about O’Brien’s view of the film, according to King, the old man of the sea might have enjoyed the excitement around the movie, and the fresh attention it has brought to his books, but he would probably have mixed feelings about the finished project, regardless of where it picked up the thread of his massive story.

“Patrick O’Brien was never very happy about the ancillary projects to his books,” says King. “He never liked the Books on Tape versions of his novels. Even when his own publishing house persuaded him to participate in a cookbook project – Labscouse & Spotted Dog: A Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels – he did so very reluctantly. O’Brien, I think, had no patience for anything that shone a light on something other than Patrick O’Brien.”

Getting back to King’s own personal views of the new film, he admits that it pulls off a difficult trick: it gives you a sense of what it must have been like to be trapped on a sailing ship at sea with a hundred smelly men and a Captain fond of rum and bad puns.

“That’s very true to the spirit of the books,” he says. “O’Brien had a way of dropping you right down into the life of the ship. He had a great deal of respect for his readers, and he never talked down to them. He did not explain everything, because that would be an insult, it would be condescending to his readers to treat them as if they needed everything spelled out. Instead, he simply showed it to you. This is what life on a ship was like, and here are the people living that life.”

The release of Master & Commander comes not long after the unexpectedly popular Pirates of the Caribbean, and coincides with the highly-rated “Horatio Hornblower” movies on cable T.V. It’s ironic that after years and years during which a swashbuckler resurrection has been repeatedly attempted by Hollywood, and during which these attempts have been repeatedly scuttled (remember Mel Gibson’s dreary “The Bounty”? Or “Cutthroat Island”?), suddenly, seafaring movies are back on the horizon. This is good for King, and good for fans of the genre, and certainly good for those who will now be anticipating an Aubrey/Maturin sequel.

“At the moment, there is a great enthusiasm and appreciation for these kinds of stories, and for this kind of seafaring literature,” says King. “That’s not going to go away anytime soon.”


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

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