James Holmes

When Hollywood Gets Seapower Right

The Naval Diplomat recounts three enduring lessons from one of his favorite films, Master and Commander.

So the Naval Diplomat spooled up one of his all-time favorite flicks, Master and Commander, while puttering around doing housework this weekend. It's been awhile, so it struck me afresh how rich the movie is. It's not just a venture in storytelling about the age of sail, though it excels at that. It reminds viewers of ageless truths about naval warfare, martial virtue, and, perhaps most important, leadership at sea and under fire.

The oceans remain an alien element, never mind the fact that they bathe most of the earth's surface. As the psalm has it, they who go down to the sea in ships occupy their business in great — and sometimes hostile — waters. Leadership is at a premium when the operating medium can morph suddenly into a deadly foe. Any crewman can find himself thrust into a position where he can save — or lose — the ship, and his shipmates.

Three quick points are conveyed in Master and Commander. One, warships have many functions, and they can switch among them almost instantly at the behest of the captain or higher-echelon commanders. For instance, the ship's surgeon in HMS Surprise, Dr. Stephen Maturin, chafes when the exigencies of war trump scientific endeavors. Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey brings the Surprise around Cape Horn in pursuit of the French frigate Acheron, which rampages against British commerce in the Pacific Ocean. After losing the Acheron's trail, Aubrey orders his ship to pause at the Galapagos Islands for provisions, and to let Maturin explore for exotic species.

Once tipped off as to the enemy's whereabouts, however, the Surprise sets sail forthwith. When the doctor protests too loudly, the captain admonishes him that His Majesty's vessels have no time for such "damned hobbies!" as natural history when prosecuting warlike expeditions. Combat comes first. Men-of-war tend to other missions on a not-to-interfere basis.

Second, certain facts of sea combat are timeless. The enemy frigate, a privateer built in Boston, combines size, thick wooden walls, and heavy ordnance with speed and maneuverability. That's a tough combination to beat, even for a Lucky Jack. It's hard to win when the enemy outranges you with heavier weight of shot. You have to take a pounding just to get into weapons range to return fire. Prevailing against such a mismatch takes artifice, not just seamanship or tactical wizardry. It takes wit, and guile. And there are no guarantees of success. Material inferiority, then, stacks the deck against even the savviest master and commander. Better to carry a weapon equal or superior to the foe's than bet on derring-do to nullify physical shortcomings.

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Lastly, there's leadership, a theme that courses through the entire tale but comes through most clearly when Aubrey confronts one of his junior officers. The crew becomes convinced that the hapless Midshipman Hollom is a Jonah, a figure who brings bad luck upon the ship. When a bluejacket makes a show of open disrespect and Hollum fails to reprimand him, the skipper summons the midshipman to his cabin for what we Southerners call a come-to-Jesus moment — a.k.a. a tongue-lashing. "Look, Hollom," advises Aubrey, "it's leadership they want — strength. Now you find that within yourself and you will earn their respect. Without respect true discipline goes by the board."

"Yes, sir … um, strength, respect, and discipline, sir," replies Hollom. He recites the traits of successful leaders, but you can just see that he's ticking off a list he learned by rote, not qualities he practices. Or maybe he's just repeating his superior's words back to him. Either way, strength, respect, and discipline are abstractions on a page for him, not verities with practical meaning.

Book learning is a fine thing (quoth the professor), but it's not always easy to put to work in everyday life. Despite — or perhaps because of — his amiable character, Hollom never matures into the man he wants to be, or the Royal Navy needs.

This barely scratches the surface. As sea power in film and literature goes, the Aubrey/Maturin yarns rate top marks. Check 'em out.