Caught Master and Commander this afternoon. Great fun, if not fantastic, although the sea battles were totally outstanding (as they should be after spending 180 million) and it is certainly a boy’s film. The storm as the Surprise tries to round the Cape was amazing and the horrible decision Aubrey has to make – to save a man overbaord in stormy seas and risk the whole ship – seemed to be a direct homage to the classic British war-time sea film, The Cruel Sea, with Jack Hawkin’s captain on the bridge of his little corvette during a U-Boat attack, having to decide if he should fire the depth charges while other sailors are in the water. If he stops he is an easy target, is he fires he will kill them… The crew of the enemy ship remain invisible for most of the film, which I thought at first made the film pretty one sided, but then when I thought about it I realised that this is how it would have been, never seeing the faces of your opponents unless you were doing broadsides or close enough to board.
I was also reminded of just how dangerous that journey around the tip of South America is. Nelson-era British sailing warships were the absolute peak of the sailing vessel’s design – tough, fast, agile, durable. And a lot of them didn’t make it around the Cape. Even today it is dangerous. I remember watching a documentary of the Cousteaus sailing from teh Falklands round the Cape in the Calypso II, which is a prupose built ultra-modern exploration vessel, with a composite hull and tall thin structures which are hi-tech metal wind sails (to cut down on polluting engines). Despite radar, sonar, satellite navigation, radio and hyper accurate charts they hit a series of rcoks and ripped a gash in the hull. If the ship had been built conventionaly they would have joined centuries of other sailors at the bottom of the ocean. As it was they managed to limp back to the nearest port.
I still recall that film because the year was 1986. The intrepid crew of the Calypso II had just heard about the Challenger disaster. In an incredibly touching scene they disembarked on the tip of South America and joined the most southerly lighthouse crew on the planet in their little chapel, one group of explorers paying tribute to another on a rocky outpost at the edge of the world where two great oceans meet. I wonder if, in a few hundred years time, people will read or watch documentaries of Gagarin, Sheperd, Amrstrong or Bob Ballard in his deep sea submersible or Coustea and marvel at the places they explored, the knowledge they brought back from places where no-one had gone before in such rickety and primitive craft.