[Marxism] Re: "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Nov 17 12:44:21 MST 2004


Louis Proyect writes:

In the climax of the film, Aubrey rouses his men with the cry, "Do you 
want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? Do you want your children to 
grow up singing the 'Marseillaise'?" Oddly enough, this evokes the 
climactic scene in Shakespeare's "Henry V," when the British monarch 
also leads his troops into battle against a far larger French army:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.


Note that Shakespeare's Henry V, speaks not in French-fearing or
French-hating terms, but in what were for those days, social-democratic
terms.

The yeomen who fight with him and his nobles raise themselves above
those of higher status who did not volunteer by their participation.
And more than that, there is the suggested bribe: "This day shall gentle
his condition." And the Shakespeare Henry V, if not the real one (and my
reading of the life of the real one suggests that he would have followed
this wise course), would certainly listen sympathetically the the
appeals of a yeoman who fought with him that day.

The Shakespeare speech, which I still repeat to myself when I go into
"battle" in this or that tight situation, is populist and chauvinist.
Anti-slacker-Lords, not anti-French. (As the years go on, I remember
this line more and more: "Old men forget, but he'll remember, with
advantages, what feats he did that day.")

You can miss this in Olivier's very beautiful but heavily edited Henry V
film.  Kenneth Branagh captures Henry as popular demagogue of the
developing new monarchy (Bolingbroke, and later Tudor) where the King
attempts to present himself as the 'people's King."  Even his image as a
former tavern drunkard and whore-chaser with Falstaff and the gang is
part of the populist image. 

 This is Branagh's finest hour, to my knowledge, especially such moments
as his embracing his Welsh captain-of-arms Fluellen and proclaiming, "I,
too, am Welsh" after the victory. Great moment.  Very moving.  And
politically very profound. And it is very important that a good
demagogue COMPLETELY BELIEVE what he says when he says it.  Demagogues
who are true cynics, like McCarthy, are second rate and tend to fall by
the wayside with the first setback. Henry V represents a different kind
of political rule than his predecessors, in a society that is becoming
less purely feudal -- a society changed by the consequences, which
include more than the defeat, of Wat Tyler's peasant rebellion and the
subsequent fall of the Norman-Plantagenet Richard II.
Fred Feldman





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