Today, I want to talk about my all-time favorite relationship movie.
No, I’m not talking about Pretty Woman, nor Titanic. (Blech!)
Not Leaving Las Vegas either!
I’m not even talking about that flick about a cabin on a lake or the one where somebody in Portland or thereabouts has a bad case of insomnia. I don’t even care when Harry met Sally, not at all! (Okay, maybe a little in that case.)
I like Master and Commander.
Yes, that’s right.
My favorite relationship movie is a war movie.
Don’t get me wrong. This film has everything you would want in a war movie. The battle scenes in Master and Commander are intense as Hell! During the very first engagement I was seriously afraid I would get hit by grape shot, or that some debris from the ship would come flying out of the screen and leave me with a terrible scar. I could even imagine telling the story later. If I survived! Anyway, the point is that this movie doesn’t scrimp on the battle scenes. Master and Commander definitely makes a good war movie.
It also makes for an excellent relationship movie.
The central story line of the film is a quest to sink or capture a French privateer that was playing havoc with British commerce during the Napoleanic Wars. So the main question in this film is whether or not Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal British Navy (played by Russell Crowe) will succeed in finding and defeating this offending French commerce raider, the Acheron. To say that the Acheron will prove a challenge is putting it mildly. The vessel has superior a design and its Captain clearly knows what he is doing. Aubry’s own ship, the Surprise, is badly damaged in their first engagement and his own officers quickly come to the conclusion that they should abandon the chase and limp back to England.
Aubrey of course will have none of it!
Aubrey makes plans for repairing the ship of the coast of South America and giving chase to the vessell that clearly outclasses them just as soon as he possibly can. And of course Aubrey is the Captain, so he can do that.
The rest will have to do as he says.
While hunting the Acheron, Aubrey falls into conflict with his close friend, the ships doctor, Stephen Maturin (played by Paul Bethany). Maturin thinks Aubrey’s pursuit of the Achoron is reckless, and says so. (Big mistake!) When they end up on the Galapagos Islands, Maturin has an opportunity to learn a thing or two and possibly advance the science of biology. The film hints at the possibility that Maturin might have, with sufficient time and support, played a role in history comparable to that of Darwin, but of course the Ancheron calls and Aubrey if of course eager to answer. So, the two end up losing their trust in each other even as they find themselves at odds over their best course of action. Maturin really wants to stay and study and Aurbey really wants to go and find the ship that’s probably going to kill them all when he does.
This conflict between Aubrey and Maturin over their respective priorities threatens to break their friendship apart just as Aubrey’s own priorities threaten to tear the ship apart in the pursuit of a vessel clearly out of their own league. So, there we have it! A nice tight little story about a relationship sitting smack dab in the middle of a story about fighting a war and defeating the big bad evil guy in battle.
This relationship between Aubrey and Maturin follows much the same course as your average romance story. The man in this relationship is clearly Aubrey as he places the pursuit of war at the top of his priorities which of course makes him a manly man at his manliest. (Stereotypes happen!) Maturin’s own interest in the study of bugs, and birds, and what not clearly feminizes him in relationship to his more belligerent friend. (Next to a poet or a literary scholar, maybe Maturin would prove the man in the relationship, but next to Captain Jack Aubrey, Maturin clearly occupies the role of a woman. The question of whether to stay on the Galapagos and study the wildlife or go out in search of a battle they are likely to lose threatens to tear this happy couple apart. It provides the obstacle to their relationship which is of course a staple in such stories.
So, can our lovely couple overcome that obstacle and regain the bliss they once found in each other’s company, or will go their separate ways once and for all in the end?
All of this of course assumes our star-crossed lovers survive the war in the first place, because that pesky war-movie intrudes upon the love-story whenever it wishes, as one might expect of a war movie forced to share the screen with a softer narrative like this. The larger plot here can be such a bully!
This of course bothers Maturin more than it does Aubrey.
Okay, so tongue-in-cheek humor aside, this isn’t really some homo-erotic love story. Far from it! My point is simply that the story line actually does make use of some of the same mechanics we are used to seeing in relationship movies. It even evokes much of the gender-based stereotypes that guide so many relationship movies, not because there is anythig about the film which deliberately plays to these stereotypes, but because patterns of significance have a way of intruding even where they are not wanted. Once you see it in this film, the sense that you are really watching a romance is hard to avoid. We end up with two serious questions in this film, one about whether or not these two will somehow repair the damage to their friendship and one about whether they will win the battle. What makes it a great film is just how well these two questions are bundled up together in the overall story.
WARNING: Half-spoiled spoilers ahead!
The actual resolution of the conflict works just fine for me, at least when the question is do I enjoy the story. It also leaves me wondering about the ultimate significance of the story line. Once you see the gendered themes in the film, it’s tough not to read the relationship in those terms, not because anybody is playing their role with a limp wrist, but because warfare is typically thought of as a manly pursuit, and because the doctor’s priorities align more closely with what would be those of the woman in just about most any other relationship movie. Of course the decisions each will make are set in the background of a story line rendering each of their actions quite plausible, and the ultimate resolution of the conflict certainly makes sense on that level. But this leaves me with a lingering fear over what priorities we are to take away from the film itself. Which, in the end, really does matter more?
Science or warfare?
Perhaps without intending to, I cant help thinking this film answers that question. It does so by answering another question, one about how out lovely couple resolves their own conflicts?
Who gives up more for the relationship?