Crowe Is Master Of Briny Boy’s Domain

Ahoy, matey! You are 12 years old and back on the briny, so fully engrossed in the sweat-soaked pages of your dog-eared copy of Captain Horatio Hornblower you don’t even hear your mom calling you to dinner. You have never heard of computer technology, you have not yet cynically lost the ability or the imagination to be enchanted by books, and your idea of a hero is Errol Flynn hanging from a yardarm. Even if you’ve grown up to be a three-button suit with a cell phone that needs to be surgically detached from your earlobe, if you still dream about the boy inside that never grew up, you might be just a perfect member of the target audience for which the brawny, bloody, ridiculously over-budgeted seafaring epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is aimed. For everyone else, it’s a big bore, with so much mumbling by Russell Crowe that it needs subtitles.

The movie is based on the popular seafaring boys’ book adventures by Patrick O’Brian about “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe), a fighting captain in the British Navy, and Dr. Stephen Maturin (Peter Bettany), the ship’s surgeon, who is also a naturalist with a passion for collecting exotic bugs and lizards. There are 21 of these novels, as famous for their carefully researched historic details as they are for Lucky Jack’s endless adventures. Does that mean more movies are on the way? The expense is staggering to contemplate. This one was so expensive it took three companies to finance it-Fox, Universal and Miramax. For a movie about sweat and body odor, $135 million–plus seems excessive enough to call in the accountants and the lawyers. The entire cast of men wears the same clothes through the whole movie without bathing, and there’s no need for barbers, makeup men or costume consultants. How could this movie cost so much? In the good old days before digital computer graphics, the swash and the buckle was all done cheaper, just as convincingly, and-except for the noise and the number of realistic-looking corpses blown to sea by cannon fire-in some cases better, by Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster. Still, if this is the stuff that rings the bell on your macho meter, go with my blessing. You won’t get much in the way of a story, but the lashes of whips on naked backs, the brown-skinned native girls offering their wares in dinghies, the human sacrifices, the authentic architectural details in the construction of the two ships, and the thrill of seeing the first movie ever shot in the Galápagos Islands are some of the things that will keep your eyes open and your whiskers sharp. Advice to the ladies: move along, dears, nothing here for you ….

In 1805, while England is fighting France, Captain Lucky Jack is a ferocious warrior on the ocean battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars. As commander of the H.M.S. Surprise , he is ordered to blow the French Navy out of the waters off the coast of Brazil. But the opposing French warship is bigger, faster and has more guns. Like a phantom, it sneaks up on Captain Jack in the dark, attacking by surprise. The first of the film’s full-screen battles makes you feel what it’s like to be ambushed at sea in a blinding fog-terrified and vulnerable on the decks of a vessel that is being blasted into match sticks. The hull splits, the sailing masts rip, water pours through the cannonball holes with unstoppable volume, drowning the crew and the rats. The Surprise narrowly escapes destruction, the casualties are numerous, and the doctor is kept busy performing all kinds of crude surgeries, including the amputation of a young boy’s arm. Defeat is not an option, so overtaking and capturing the French ghost ship becomes an obsession with Captain Jack. With the kind of pride and scowling arrogance Russell Crowe always projects, he pursues the superior French man-of-war on a 12,000-mile journey from the tip of South America to the wintry storms of the Cape of Good Hope, to the waters of the Galápagos, risking his men’s lives for a personal crusade that is nothing more than a war-of-wills vendetta between two enemy captains to see who is the bigger man.

The French ghost ship on Lucky Jack’s hip and tail becomes his own Moby Dick. (Penis envy pounded to the ultimate degree, in Technicolor.)

On the rare occasion when the wind calms and director Peter Weir gives us a momentary break from the suffering, a tiny, infinitesimal stab is made by scriptwriters Weir and John Collee to explore the human equation. The men think they are being plagued by bad luck, the midshipman loses the respect of his crew, the doctor believes Captain Jack is corrupted by power, and the two men entertain by playing dolorous duets on the cello and violin. (Captain Horatio Fiddlebower?) But the quiet moments last no longer than the calm of dead, humid and motionless air that drives the crew to insanity and suicide. In the next round of fire, the doctor performs a surgery on himself through a reflection in a hand-held mirror, and if you’re still in your seat with your eyes open, you may be grateful for the rare attempt at humor (Captain Jack says the ghost ship is “as hard to find as an honest man in Parliament”). Not funny, I know, but it wakes you up. After passing the two-hour mark, the movie wakes up, too. Captain Jack, following the example of a rare insect that disguises itself to confuse its predators, makes the Surprise look like it’s burning in order to lure the spectral enemy frigate into a trap. At this point, I longed to rush home for a rerun of All the Brothers Were Valiant with Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger and Ann Blyth, but this movie refused to end. Fooled again by a clever adversary, Captain Jack changes strategy again, switches course and heads his ship in another direction-for a possible sequel?

This is not my cup of grog, but the period details from Mr. O’Brian’s books are interesting, and the nautical research is impressive. The violent typhoon, the horrible surgical tools and the primitive artillery add a squeamish authenticity to the 19th-century ambiance, even though a lot of it is generated by digital computer visuals. Too bad so much of what’s going on in the narrative is obliterated by British accents that are indistinguishable from Swahili. The overrated Russell Crowe still impresses me as an overgrown baby with cholic who is always on the verge of spitting up its formula. To bolster the crew’s flagging spirits, he delivers a phony St. Crispin’s Day speech so gravely forced that instead of patriotic fervor, it induces nervous giggles. Most of his lines sound like they’re being swallowed with a mouth full of porridge. The real captain at the helm of Master and Commander is the terrific Australian director Peter Weir, who proves again that he can pick any subject (mystery, virtual reality, war in Indochina, television, this time the derring-do of old swashbucklers) and turn out a distinguished, well-crafted work that surpasses its genre. You gotta applaud the look and feel and texture he gets out of two boats, a palm tree and a lot of saltwater.

And Toto, Too

With so many duds at the movies at the moment, no wonder people are heading back to the Broadway theater these nights in record numbers. I’m one of them, and while you can find in-depth reviews of the new plays I’ve been seeing on other Observer pages, here are some of the notes I’ve been taking from my own aisle seat. If your life was shaped and exhilarated in childhood by the legendary MGM classic The Wizard of Oz and the entire library of Oz books by L. Frank Baum as much as mine, then you will find the new Broadway musical Wicked an irresistible extravaganza of music, magic, artistry and enchantment. The delightful score by Stephen Schwartz, the lavish sets by Eugene Lee that reminded me of his designs for Sweeney Todd , the creative staging by Joe Mantello and the clever book by Winnie Holzman all conspire to keep Oz fanatics on the edge of their seats with suspense, fascination and laughter. (I hope you realize we were, after all, the original Trekkies!) And the things you learn!

Dorothy and Toto, who never appear but get talked about a lot, may have departed for Kansas, the good witch Glinda (who will always by Billie Burke) may still be descending from trees and clouds and God knows where (she gets her spells confused) in her silly soap bubble, and ding-dong!-the green Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West (who will always be Margaret Hamilton) is dead, shriveled by that bucket of water into a hissing puddle of radiator gas. But what really happened before Dorothy’s house blew in from Kansas, killing the Wicked Witch’s even wickeder sister? What childhood abuse turned the Cowardly Lion into a sissy? Who was the real Tin Man, before he became a talking coffee pot, and how did the Scarecrow get that way? Who built the Emerald City, and why were the Munchkins turned into slaves? This is their story, and all questions will be answered in due time, my pretty. Transfixed, I roared at the origins of words and phrases that would come later (“Lemons and melons and pears, oh my!”) and the lyrics of early character revelation (“I’m so happy I could melt,” sings the green and gruesome Elphaba in her girlhood). Reversing the fairy-tale elements to shed new light on what really happened in Oz, the premise of Wicked is that Glinda the Good (Kristin Chenoweth) and the Wicked Witch of the West (Idina Menzel) were lifetime friends since they were roommates at sorcery school. Glinda was not so good; in fact, she was a rich, spoiled, curl-tossing, self-indulgent brat, all “pretty in pink,” who took on the green, ridiculed social misfit Elphaba as one of her most challenging projects, teaching her classmate how to be popular. Elphaba, meanwhile, was anything but bad-defending her favorite professor, the only goat on the faculty, when animals were turned into outlaws and driven into the forest, then spending her life in exile to protect the oppressed. (The flying monkeys Dorothy set free, we are told, were really the witch’s foster family, and didn’t want to leave the castle at all.) Both Glinda and Elphaba also loved the same shallow, handsome prince (Norbert Leo Butz), and you’ll never guess who got him in the end, or what condition he was in. Glinda is not so pure of heart, the Wicked Witch got a bad rap and the wise old Wizard of Oz (a funny, addlepated Joel Grey) is merely a loopy, powerless old fool who believes his own P.R. The cast is wonderful, especially the two stars. Ms. Chenoweth coos and vibrates like Little Lulu, Ms. Menzel even makes green makeup attractive, and they both raise the roof with some of the most sensational singing on Broadway. The imaginative book has more twists and turns than the Yellow Brick Road, and the second act piles on the surprises until the final curtain leaves you with your eyes and mouth wide open. Nothing in Oz, you see, happened the way Judy Garland thought it did. In Wicked , the ruby slippers aren’t even red. So, all ye who enter here, check your cynicism at the door and get in touch with the little kid inside you who’s been begging to get out. Neither of you will want to leave Wicked .