I engaged in a bit of self-indulgent literary time-wasting today, and the following bit of prose is the result. Before reading, you may want to read the offending column to which my humble effort was intended to reply (I won’t bet the price of a burrito that the Tribune will print my letter, but stranger things have happened)…
As a penny slipped from my fingers this morning, I began to wonder how long it would take before some right-wing jingoist would take the opportunity to reinterpret the new Hollywood action-adventure epic “Master and Commander” into a public service announcement for neo-conservative imperialism. Charles Krauthammer answered my unspoken question before the penny hit the floor.
In his essay (“Combat on the high seas,” Nov. 17) he gushes about the film, saying that it might be “the most dramatic and brilliant naval documentary ever made,” even though he has just acknowledged that it is entirely a work of fiction. I can understand someone being so impressed by such a technically sound and dramatically efficient film as “Master and Commander.” What I found amusing, and a bit distasteful, was Krauthammer’s sloppy attempt to spiritually connect this work of fiction to the Bush administration’s foreign policy. “We are at war,” he writes, “and this is a film not just about the conduct of war, but about virtue in war. Its depiction of the more ancient notions of duty, honor, patriotism and devotion is reminiscent of what we glimpsed during live coverage of the dash to Baghdad…”
It is a good thing I can type while gagging on my own disgust. Throughout the 19th century, the British would eventually be at war with the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, etc., and much of the resulting combat would take place on the “high seas.” Given that Mr. Krauthammer seems to so deeply admire the “virtue” of the combat portrayed in “Master and Commander,” perhaps he needs to be reminded about just what that fighting was about. The powers of Western Europe, with their respective naval forces, were fighting over colonial hegemony. In other words, all that noble and dramatic action on the “high seas” was for the sake of determining which powerful, militarily advanced nation-state was going to brutally subjugate which smaller, weaker foreign peoples and steal their resources. Sound familiar?
Mr. Krauthammer’s essay comes off as transparent propaganda precisely because he strips all of the warfare he is aggrandizing out of its context. Given that the Patrick O’Brian novel upon which the film is based was originally published in 1984, I don’t believe that such political preaching was Peter Weir’s intent when making his film, any more than pitting the British ship against a French one within the film was an attempt to appeal to the less sophisticated among potential U.S. viewers. Furthermore, Mr. Krauthammer’s narrow focus on the televised aspects of the U.S./U.K. invasion of Iraq leaves out decades of deeply layered context regarding U.S. involvement with Saddam Hussein, not to mention the dubious (at best) justifications given for the “preemptive” and catastrophic action of removing him from power. Nothing about this clumsy attempt to tie a brilliant work of literary and cinematic fiction in with an ongoing work of political fiction is “subtle” in the least.