- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

Contemporary politicians like to pretend that coercive policies of any kind are always profoundly repugnant and chosen only as a last resort. The equivalent hypocrisy among filmmakers over the past generation or two is to pretend that any movie that depicts warfare or military leadership is justified by an essentially “antiwar” outlook.

As a rule, that outlook is subverted by the sheer dynamics of moving imagery, which remain powerfully drawn to the pictorial spectacle inherent in scenes of pitched battle and to the heroic appeal in displays of valor and leadership.

A stirring new example of such displays is supplied by Russell Crowe in Peter Weir’s splendid seafaring adventure movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

Cast as Capt. Jack Aubrey, the commander of a Royal Navy frigate stalking a French warship in 1805, Mr. Crowe plays a man whose faculties are sharpened by combat and adversity.

The movie begins with a reversal: Capt. Aubrey’s ship reels from an unsuspected barrage that also leaves Aubrey slightly wounded. The remainder of the story depends on extending our sense of intimacy with the officers and crewmen who have survived this shock, repaired their habitat and resolved to regain the initiative.

Capt. Aubrey turns out to be a man of many parts. He is a shipboard chamber musician, raconteur and counselor, but ultimately it’s his enthusiasm and guile as a warrior that justifies the trust of his sailors, the Admiralty Office in London and an admiring film audience.

Military prowess and sacrifice have been too endemic for far too long to human societies to be threatened with obsolescence by the literature of the screen, barely a century old as a medium of storytelling and popular legend. If anything, the movies provided a vivid new photo-realistic means for re-enacting tales of valor that stretched from antiquity to the battlefields of World War I.

Reflecting popular sentiment, the American movie industry felt comfortable with fully mobilized patriotism during the successive world wars and less confident about the proxy wars fought against Soviet client regimes in Korea and Vietnam.

Nevertheless, even as a controversial war in Vietnam wound down, the most imposing single performance in a major American film was probably George C. Scott’s impersonation of Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. It was a portrait of a tyrant in several respects, but clearly a tyrant whose leadership skills and sense of vocation could be valued in a time of the gravest national peril.

Francis Ford Coppola, the principal screenwriter of “Patton,” was destined to overreach polemically and stylistically while directing a Vietnam War allegory, “Apocalypse Now.” The unintended irony of this “antiwar” spectacle was that the deranged military men portrayed by Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, ostensibly the principal antagonists, were overshadowed by Robert Duvall in the role of an air cavalry officer who seemed completely at peace with his profession. Mr. Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore was supposed to be an ugly American. Instead, he earned audience respect as a man with a devotion to vocation much like that of Mr. Scott’s Patton.

Not even a reflexively anti-American veteran of the Vietnam War, Oliver Stone, could devise a way of making combat sequences uncinematic in “Platoon” or “Born on the Fourth of July.” Only inept directors are able to transform life-threatening circumstances into lackluster movie footage.

Meanwhile, an English director, John Irvin, had the temerity to complicate the Stone approach by finding a great deal to admire in the hard-bitten tenacity of 101st Airborne troops in Vietnam in “Hamburger Hill,” derived from the recollections of Jim Carabatsos, another veteran who had turned to screenwriting, though less successfully than Mr. Stone.

By the time Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks rediscovered the virtues of World War II infantrymen in “Saving Private Ryan,” it was safe again for Hollywood to venerate the exploits and sacrifices of brave men.

Shortly after the shock of September 11, 2001, another English filmmaker, Ridley Scott, extended this deference to the contemporary soldiers of “Black Hawk Down,” obliged to fight something of a dress rehearsal for an ongoing, global battle with terrorism and urban chaos.

Russell Crowe, 39, a New Zealander raised for the most part in Australia, still has a way to go before overtaking Mel Gibson, 57, an American raised in Australia, as the pre-eminent warrior archetype among contemporary film stars. Mr. Gibson laid claim to World War I in “Gallipoli,” the Middle Ages in “Braveheart,” which won him Academy Awards as a director and co-producer, the Revolutionary War in “The Patriot” and the Vietnam War in “We Were Soldiers.”

Mr. Crowe, whose career has been surging since the late 1990s, revived the Roman combat spectacle in director Scott’s “Gladiator,” which won Academy Awards for best picture and actor. “Master and Commander” now gives him a daunting advantage in the Napoleonic Wars, whose naval heroes, real or fictional, have been neglected by Hollywood since Gregory Peck played C.S. Forrester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower 50 years ago.

If “Master and Commander” can justify its $135 million investment around the world — and it deserves to succeed as few movie spectacles do — Mr. Crowe will return in at least one sequel. So would Paul Bettany, cast as Capt. Aubrey’s friend and intellectual foil, the physician and naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin. (Curiously, Mr. Bettany played the imaginary sidekick of Mr. Crowe’s psychotic mathematician, John Nash, in the Academy Award-winning “A Beautiful Mind.”)

At a recent press junket for “Master and Commander,” Mr. Bettany offered a witty summary of his colleague’s success: “Russell contradicts pretty, asinine leading men.”

This tribute comes close to saying it all about Mr. Crowe’s emergence.

By looking more down-to-earth than decorative, he commands attention in roles that demand martial authority and fearlessness. As a rule, this privilege has tended to be reserved for actors with a taller and handsomer profile — from Gary Cooper, Erroll Flynn, Tyrone Power, John Wayne and Gregory Peck down to Clint Eastwood.

Mr. Crowe is now positioned to get a jump on rediscovered antiquity by playing Alexander the Great. (The last prestigious actor to play the Macedonian conqueror was Richard Burton, nearly half a century ago.) The director of the new Alexander project is — Oliver Stone. Thus, today’s leading screen personification of the traditional martial virtues and their pre-eminent debunker are set to collaborate on a warrior epic in the grand style. The results should reveal much about the status of the warrior archetype in film today.

When you hear that men of war are out of fashion, the rumor is almost certain to be misleading, if not utterly untrue. It’s a trend the country can’t afford. Neither can its film industry.

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