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Wednesday 21 November 2012

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. (Part 1)

Master & Commander is #1 on my list of movies where I pine for a sequel. The thing is, even nine years on, they could still totally make one. The hope just makes it all the more painful, my friends. Master & Commander is so close to perfect that it even withstands the presence of Bach's Prelude for Cello in G, one of the most overused pieces of classical music in movie history. And as for the visuals, while M&C is mostly dominated by Naval uniforms, I find its costume design to be far more satisfying than a hell of a lot of other historical movies.
As a war story with an all-male cast, Master & Commander is immediately predisposed to look more realistic because in movieland, war + men = dirt = authenticity. While men's costumes in period dramas are typically less showy than women's, they tend to be a lot more accurate because female characters are almost always idealised. Pirates of the Caribbean came out at around the same time as M&C, and while it's a Disney comedy about zombie pirates and therefore can be taken with a pinch of salt, it's still weird to see so many scenes where Keira Knightley looks immaculate while the male leads look like they haven't washed for a week. The female lead in a historical drama is expected to be alluring regardless of the state of everyone else, but the cast of M&C is made up of rugged, grime-spattered sailors who occasionally happen to be played by handsome movie stars. They even made the actors get their teeth stained in the name of historical authenticity, which I can pretty much guarantee has never happened to Keira Knightley in anything. Although in Master & Commander's defence, a 19th century Naval ship is one of the very few instances where it's legitimate for there to be zero female characters, so it doesn't actually bother me in that regard.

Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for movies where a lot of the characters are in uniform, because it forces filmmakers to be more thoughtful about costume design. One of my favourite examples of this is Alien, another shipboard film that actually has a few parallels with M&C when it comes to the divide between officers and working stiffs. The thing that makes Master & Commander particularly interesting in this regard is that in 1805, British Navy Uniforms really weren't all that uniform. The first Naval uniform guidelines were issued to officers in 1748, and by 1805 those had been narrowed down to a more-or-less uniform selection of navy blue coats, white waistcoats and so on. But that still didn't translate to everybody  looking the same, and the general attitude towards the uniform was very different from the way it is today.
The uniform's main purpose was to create a clear distinction between the upper and lower classes onboard ship, so it wasn't hugely important for all the officers to wear precisely the same thing -- just for them to represent the officer class in a respectable manner. The basics of a Naval officer's uniform were a navy blue coat, white breeches or trousers, a white shirt, and a waistcoat. Within those parameters, you can already see a fair amount of variety among the officer characters in Master & Commander. It's closer to a strict office dresscode than a modern-day military uniform -- as in, you have to wear a sombre suit, but your boss doesn't tell you what colour of tie to wear. If you look at the officers onboard the HMS Surprise, you can tell they're wearing near-identical coats and other "uniform" items, but their waistcoats, shirts and cravats are often different, as are the styles in which they wear them. The standards were more exacting when it came to dress-uniform occasions but for everyday wear, officers had a certain amount of leeway.
Military uniforms in the early 19th century were closely tied to current fashions and images of masculinity, so it's not surprising that the uniform guidelines were so malleable. Not only was there a certain amount of fashion-based posturing among officers in real life, but there was also a generational divide -- one that we see quite clearly in this film. Captain Aubrey, a traditionalist in early middle-age, represents the old guard in canvas knee-breeches and long hair. But the teenaged midshipmen look more like Victorians in terms of style, with short hair and long trousers. The enlisted men wear what were known as "slops" -- non-uniform clothing that was generally bought either from the ship's stores or at the docks when the ship was berthed. Enlisted/pressganged men often made and mended their clothes themselves, whereas the officers, as Gentlemen, were expected to pay for their uniforms to be made from scratch. Since mass-production wasn't yet an option, the officers would have their uniforms tailored professionally, which further adds to the lack of uniformity among the ranks. Aubrey is probably wearing the same coat he's had for years, whereas a younger officer's coat would be tailored to a more modern style.
One of the things that makes this movie seem so true to the period is the widespread grime and the characters' attitude towards it. This was the beginning of the "cleanliness is next to godliness" era, with a great deal of pressure being put upon people to look smart and therefore "civilised". There are several scenes where Midshipmen are told to smarten up or Aubrey references the importance of neatness and efficiency to a British Navy vessel, but to a modern eye everything still looks filthy. Maintaining an image of British aristocracy and cleanliness is no picnic when you have a full-time manual job sailing an 18th-century frigate, and have relatively little fresh water or, indeed, soap.
This post is already getting too long, so I'm going to split it into two and write about the individual character costumes in the second half. But for now, have some nerd facts:
  • When filming onboard ship, the actors in Master & Commander were segregated according to class, meaning the officers never socialised or ate with the enlisted/pressganged men.
  • The reason why a long pigtail is the stereotypical fashion for the enlisted/pressganged sailors was originally because it showed you hadn't recently been shaved for lice.
  • When it came to "uniforms" for the enlisted men, captains were encouraged to set guidelines, which were semi-enforced by the ship only selling a particular colour of fabric to the sailors for clothing manufacture. Of course, this also meant that captains could effectively make their entire crew dress in red gingham, if they wanted to. According to legend (mmm, reliable), the captain of the HMS Blazer made his crew wear blue-and-white striped jackets, which may or may not be the original source of the modern-day blazer jacket.
Link to Part 2.


  1. Well, now I have to rewatch this movie! I saw it before it would have even occurred to me to notice costumes, but this is super duper fascinating! Thanks for making this post

  2. Whee, nice to see some appreciation for this rather under-seen film. Interesting nerd facts, too! I can't say I knew much about the period and its clothes, so it's cool to hear that they were pretty accurate. I guess it's the kind of film that attracts history nerds who care about getting things right.

    It's probably for the best it wasn't successful enough to justify a sequel, though. Hollywood would only have fucked it up if it had.

    (Apparently, the books it's based on are also excellent...)

    1. Hollywood would only have fucked it up if it had.

  3. Ohh, thank you for making my night! Every occasion to read something new about one of the best movies ever is a feast. You make some very interesting points about costumes politics in M&C, I'll have to admit I didn't see all these variations of clothing style between the officers. I'll have to watch it once more: thank you for reminding me this movie is different every time we watch it, showing off small details we didn't notice before.

  4. I have a passionate adoration for this movie and its historical authenticity (my favorite nerdfact about your first nerdfact is that Russel Crowe was the one to suggest the class segregation, which makes me laugh, like, a lot). And while I agree with you that the lack of female characters is historically plausible and therefore largely unobjectionable in M&C, the fact remains that the books were full of badass female characters who were very frequently on board the ship. That not-happening sequel should totally be based off The Truelove.

  5. Amazing film and basically the only thing I can watch Russell Crow in. Random fact - I took millinery lessons from the lady who made all the hats for this film (and loads of other historical films like the recent Jane Eyre).

  6. My sympathies go to the milliner. When the film begins we see Jack Aubrey in his bicorne hat (worn 'athwartships' as he preferred it) but it gets blown off his head a few moments later and he never seems to recover it.

    This is actually a good example of the way the costumes and characters were lightly updated for a modern audience. Jack is bareheaded for most of the film just as Stephen is never seen in his wig; I have no special knowledge of the production, but my guess is they decided that from the point of view of a 20th century multiplex it just looked a bit silly. What they're trying to convey is character, and this is one case where scrupulous historical accuracy would send the wrong message to the audience.

    That said, I do feel they missed a trick with Stephen's costumes. The Maturin who made it into the film is a very different beast from O'Brian's creation and I can see why - you'd need a miniseries at least to convey such a rich and interesting individual - but his clothing comes up frequently in the books and it would have given him some nice character notes. Book-Stephen is regularly upbraided for his shabby appearance; his torn stockings, his tattered periwig, his stained clothing and fingers. He has not the least interest in men's fashions, but more importantly he has no notion of Naval sensibilities.

    On the other hand, to convey the effect completely they would have needed to make the ship's officers dress more severely and that wouldn't have done at all, for the reason I mentioned above.

    (Another nod to modern sensibilities: in the picture above they are standing to drink a toast. In Nelson's Navy toasts were usually drunk sitting down, first for lack of headroom and then out of convention. But it would have looked odd to us.)

    (And one last thing about attention to detail because I love this film so much - there is a brief funeral at the end and the Lord's Prayer is read. Stephen, being a Catholic, does not join in with the final words.)

  7. stephen wears a wig in the books?? DEATH. actually i think it would've been legit for him to NOT wear a wig at sea, messy or not. before uniform rules came in, officers still didn't wear wigs because even though they were meant to look upper-class, they worked out pretty sharpish that wearing a wig outdoors on a sailing ship was idiotic.

    i don't know the books well enough to comment on stephen's character, but i suspect it's the paul bettany effect. he's played a whole bunch of supposedly-repellent characters and it's just like: BUT HE'S PAUL BETTANY. i agree re: the miniseries thing. as far as i know, maturin is meant to be a spy, a laudanum addict and an eccentric, btu there isn't really enough room to explore that in one movie. i think the movie-maturin works very well, though. while he and aubrey are by no means two-dimensional, movie!maturin is more of a geek/intellectual stock character to aubrey's hero protagonist, which is an easy combination for audiences to follow in a standalone movie.

    yeah they go for the strict naval sensibilities thing in pirates of the caribbean, for contrast reasons. which is A+ when norrington goes off the deep end. I LOVE NORRINGTON!!!

    p.s. interesting re: the toasts thing! :)

  8. p.s. mum says the british navy STILL sits down to drink

  9. only under-seen by some!! i have watched it AT LEAST a quintillion time.

    idk, i think hollywood could've made a good sequel?? there are A LOT of books to work from, and the attention to detail in M&C was impressive.

  10. thank you, i'm glad you found it interesting! :) i haven't watched it in a while, but there are definitely clothing differences among the officers -- they're just subtle. i'm going to write a second post about individual character costumes later, so check back i guess?

  11. awesome!!! that's so cool!

  12. I agree - the character choices work very well for the film. I'd say
    more but I wouldn't deny you and your readers the chance to discover the
    Aubrey-Maturin books for yourselves. Dare we hope for an HBO version one day?

  13. if they do a tv series i hope they pick someone really gross to play one or both of the two main dudes. like ok, go for some Young Shatner action with aubrey, but make sure that maturin is a suave but unwashed gollum to balance it out. or else, maturin is all bettany-esque while aubrey is corpulently sliding into middle age, and covered in saber scars. I JUST GET BUMMED OUT WHEN EVERYONE IS REALLY PRETTY ON TELEVISION, IS ALL. like i bet if there was a Vorkosigan movie he'd be played by james mcavoy or something.

  14. I have nothing intelligent to say, but it just makes me so happy to see other people love this movie. The fact they didn't make a sequel is just so disappointing.

  15. I just watched the film for the first time (prompted by this post, of course) and your comment made me pay special attention to the toasts. Turns out they're actually mostly sitting down -- e.g. the very overt Nelson toast. It seems to me that the screenshot is rather the outlier!

    Oh, and I really did enjoy the film a great deal :D One odd thing that I appreciated how suitably distressed the fabrics and materials looked -- it's something that tends to stick out for me, one of the few things I actively notice about costume design, really. When my (good, mended) everyday clothes show more wear and tear than fantasy hero x's after a three-week journey I am always a bit underwhelmed.