Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Recommended. This is a great historical action story. It is not quite as rich or deep as say Braveheart, but there is a lot about courage and leadership and friendship that makes this story worthwhile. The central dramatic premise is the hunt for a French war ship, the Acheron, by the British naval Commander, Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). But the meat of the story is in Jack’s leadership with his men, and in his friendship with the ship’s doctor and naturalist, Stephen Maturin. The naturalist is a man of science and Jack is a man of war. In the film, science always seems to take a back seat or supporting role to war rather than the pursuit of knowledge itself being primary. There is a sequence where they pass by the Galapagos Islands, the famous site of Darwin’s finches, but about 50 years before Darwin would go there and write his book, On the Origin of the Species, that would change the world. The doctor wants to stop for some research, but Jack pushes on because the imperatives of war outweight the “useless” examination of species. An obvious irony in light of the impact of Evolutionary theory to come. This is intended to show the blind-sided nature of military hegemony. The centrality of war may win battles but may also keep us from “great achievements” that will change the world far more than war. Stephen also challenges Jack’s leadership as proud at times and power-driven rather than by compassion or understanding for his men. This tension is brought into focus when Jack places his men in needless peril in order to achieve his objective. The men become expendable and so his leadership becomes heartless. But when the doctor is injured and needs to get to dry land for surgery, Jack decides to forestall a possible capture of a vessel to help heal his friend and express the value of his men. He takes him back to the Galapagos Islands to heal, which allows some scientific exploration to be done as well. It is a powerful moral choice of humaness and shows the effect that the naturalist has on bringing balance to Jack’s military leadership. In other words, science becomes the balancing power of compassion and reason for the overarching power of the military. Well, this is a rather pretentious claim to make since the morality of compassion and understanding is not really a scientific issue, it is a spiritual one. Science is really not a tool of morality, it is a tool of power. In the hands of moral people, science has helped extend life and help people more effectively, but in the hands of immoral people, it has been used to kill and destroy more effectively. Witness the fact that the 20th century, the century of science and modernism, has increased the life span of the average human being by many years, but it has also killed more people through genocide than all the rest of history. Both medicine and genocide have science in common. The difference between the two is not science, but morality. It is not men of science that bring compassion or humanity, but men of spirituality or character. And a man of science may have character, but he did not get it from science, but from appropriate spiritual understanding. One moment in the movie has Stephen telling a young kid that God made all the animals with their strange and interesting characteristics but that they change on their own too. This ambiguous nod to theistic evolution keeps the science from itself being a monstrosity of oppression as atheistic materialistic evolution has indeed become in our lives.

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