Have movies rediscovered male bonding?

Special to The Times

Has Hollywood ever heard of male bonding? There's a woeful lack of real buddy movies coming out of mainstream Hollywood -- I'm not talking here about the typical "We hate each other, we beat each other up, now we're pals" business, but true friendship between two men.

In movies (as in real life), women are allowed to have a best girlfriend that they share everything with. Romy has Michele, Thelma has Louise (well, for a while anyway), the ladies in "Beaches" have each other's wind beneath their wings. But men are expected to be stoic and solo. Maybe it's that old cultural saw rearing up again: As children, girls play with dolls that teach them about socializing, while boys play with dolls (sorry, action figures) that teach them about killing. So by the time they're grown up and on film, the boys think they need to be brave soldiers who go it alone.

Thus it is wildly refreshing that in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" we have two brave fighting men -- OK, a fighting man and a surgeon who knows his way around a sword -- who go it together. And although their filmed relationship doesn't reach the level of complexity found in the Aubrey-Maturin series of novels from whence the movie came, it does reach a place few mainstream dramas dare to go -- the realm of close male friendships. Movies give us brothers, fathers and sons, mentors, even lovers, but serious friendships between men are few and far between.

It's hard to think of another strong male relationship as vividly portrayed as this one. "Lawrence of Arabia" comes to mind, but that was more than 40 years ago. Besides, the friendship between Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) and Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish (Omar Sharif) is often mentioned in the context of subtext -- homoerotic subtext, to be precise. In "Master," though there is a bond between the two men that occasionally resembles that of an old married couple, the attraction never becomes remotely sexual. They are simply, and decidedly, best friends, and it is their friendship that forms the movie's core. In contemporary dramas, such a friendship is an anomaly.

This isn't the case in comedies. Buddies aplenty populate such examples as the Hope-Crosby series, the Martin-Lewis series, both of the "Wayne's Worlds," "The Blues Brothers," "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "Swingers." Apparently, as long as they're playing for laughs, men can rely on each other all they want.

When things get serious, however, the male duets tend to hew to certain very specific categories. There's the old mentor and student genre. Young grasshoppers abound in such movies as "Finding Forrester," "Antwone Fisher" and "Good Will Hunting."

That last film portrays a sweet friendship between the characters played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, but it takes a back seat to the Big Bond established between Damon and the father figure of Robin Williams.

Another acceptable alliance is found in the action genre, between former enemies who beat each up until a grudging respect develops, out of which a friendship is created ("48 HRS"). Or men who become bosom buddies in a crisis, as seen in "Die Hard" and the "Lethal Weapon" series.

In other words, if there's a lot of bleeding or explosions involved, it's OK to rely on a guy.

"Master and Commander" is certainly an action-filled film loaded with blood, battles and bombast. But the relationship between the two men existed long before the action began, and it isn't reliant on the gory externals for its depth. In the film, their friendship is recognized as special by the two men as well as by the surrounding crew. Maturin alone is allowed to speak to Aubrey as one friend to another, rather than as crewman to captain.

As such, he doesn't hesitate to point out Aubrey's weaknesses and even to question his motives for pursuing a much faster ship on the open sea. Nobody else on board could get away with such audacity. And though Aubrey argues strenuously with Maturin, he also clearly respects the man's opinion.

The relationship even looks somewhat marital (no, not conjugal) at points throughout the film. Case in point: The ship's course takes them near the Galapagos Islands, a place Maturin desperately wants to visit to engage in his naturalist studies. Aubrey refuses, arguing that it would interfere with his duties. Their fight soon takes on the tenor of a married couple's age-old quarrel:

"You never take me anywhere!"

"Honey, you don't understand, this is work."

"Oh, and your work is more important than mine."

To top it off, Maturin then stalks away rather petulantly, wearing a floral patterned robe that looks remarkably like a housecoat. Aubrey wins, the ship continues on its way, Napoleon apparently taking precedence over Galapogian insects.

But a little while later, when Maturin's life is at stake, Aubrey lets duty be damned, and the ship lands at the Galapagos. Here we see a tender side of the captain, as he gently helps his friend. Here too we get a sight of Maturin's bravery, of a sort very different from his captain's, but no less awe-inspiring. Aubrey, for example, can only look on in wonder as Maturin performs a brutal surgery on himself.

The men subtly bring out the best in each other, as true friends do. In this respect, the casting was inspired. Director Peter Weir chose Bettany, a man who had worked so well with Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind." Crowe has said that on that first film together, they developed a kind of creative shorthand.

Their ease and comfort with each other is immediately evident on board their ship, the HMS Surprise. As the adventures continue, the couple bicker and make up a few more times, as fond old couples do. And every time, they soon go back to making beautiful music together. Literally. In a sweet routine, the friends regularly end their evenings with a violin-cello duet.

It's observed by the crew members as something of an oddity, but one that they endure respectfully.

What's really odd, though, is that male friendships aren't more common, and more respected themselves. But society is slowly opening up. On television, gay men are welcomed as friends to straight guys ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy") and to each other (Will and Jack's relationship in "Will & Grace.") Perhaps "Master and Commander" will usher in an era where straight men are afforded the same consideration.

I can already hear the pitch: "It's a 'Beaches' for men!"

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