The Outstater

May 2, 2023

A Movie not for our Times

I ASK THAT YOU FORGIVE my ancien cinéma phase. Last evening was spent rewatching Peter Weir’s film, “Master and Commander,” an acclaimed and authentic glimpse into early 19th century naval warfare. But halfway through I was struck by a disturbing thought: Nobody below the age of 40 is going to have any idea what this movie is about.

Indeed, the plot and character development would seem anachronistic, some kind of reverse science fiction. And even if the viewer can get past the fact that the crew of the HMS Surprise is not cast as black immigrant transsexuals, the movie has discordant themes.

Two decades old now, the Oscar-winning film is set during the Napoleonic Wars and adapted from Patrick O’Brian’s “Aubrey” series. It stars Russell Crowe as Aubrey, captain in the Royal Navy, and therewith begins the trouble.

Captain Aubrey, besides being an utterly privileged cisgender white male — the crew must salute him or be whipped — loves his king and country (reverse science fiction, as I said). Moreover, he subverts his feelings to an individual sense of duty and honor. He leads his crew with courage and expert seamanship and, perhaps most shocking to the “everything is relative” crowd, a willingness to make sacrifices in recognition that there are absolutes in war at sea. A quote:

“England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England. So it’s every hand to his rope or gun, quick is the word and sharp is the action.”

Most important, the officers and crew understand the tenets of their civilization and articulate them in their diverse roles. Again, more reverse science fiction. Would today’s audience accept as realistic a script driven by values and events dating back a century or more before the characters themselves would have been born?

No, the movie might as well have been set on Mars. Check the commentary on the Internet. Other than a few egghead journals such as the Claremont Review of Books, it is hard to find reference to any thought or event before a particular author’s fifth birthday — and these are the few paid commentators, not the many crackpots.

All of which was predicted by Mark Bauerlein just as this age was coming of age. It was back in 2008 when he wrote his indelicately titled “The Dumbest Generation.”
“It was obvious to me,” said the First Things editor, “that a 21st century teenager who didn’t read books or magazines or newspapers, who had no religion and ignored history, civics and great art, would grow into an unsatisfied and confused adult.” 

Those teenagers are facing middle age now and they lead a shallow, snippy public discussion. It is one dominated by modal verbs projecting a false command of the facts — “must,” “shall,” “will,” “should,” etc. And because discussion is limited to that within their lifetime and experience every one of them is an expert with instant opinions about everything.

We are awash in them and we learn nothing — a nation of gadflies.

If all this makes me an old fogey, so be it. In my defense, you will have noticed that pollsters no longer ask this generation what it knows about, say, the signing of the Declaration of Independence or even the Civil Rights Act. It was just too discouraging — and terrifying.

And yet, here is Captain Aubrey on my television screen telling his friend and alter ego Dr. Maturin: “Men must be governed. Often not wisely, I will grant you, but governed nonetheless.”

I fear we are headed for a different kind of governing, one more in line with “Lord of the Flies” than with “Master and Commander.” — tcl


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