Now Playing at a Theater Near You: Old Ironsides

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2003

Old Ironsides is ready for its close-up.

The venerable USS Constitution -- long a tourist fixture of Boston's waterfront -- makes its big-screen debut this weekend in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," the Russell Crowe naval epic adapted from the late Patrick O'Brian's incomparable historical novels. But ironically, given the Constitution's undefeated history and our own tense times, America's most famous sailing ship of war appears not as a U.S. vessel but -- say it isn't so! -- a French one. In a case of casting-against-type on the scale of, say, having Sylvester Stallone play Henri Rousseau, the Constitution stands in for the 44-gun French frigate Acheron. Sort of.

It's a computer thing. Director Peter Wier had a graphics team digitize the 204-foot frigate from cathead to rudder in his search for age-of-sail authenticity. Those computer-generated images, subsequently mixed on some very serious Macs, reportedly show up as various bits of the French ship being chased through the flick by HMS Surprise and Capt. Jack Aubrey (Crowe).

"They scanned just about every inch of her for three days," said Petty Officer 1st Class Peter Robertson, the Constitution's press agent. On a bright fall morning a few days before the movie's premiere, Robertson is standing on the Constitution's gloomy gun deck in a trapezoid of sunlight beaming through the hatch above. "They seem to be taking accuracy very seriously. That's why I'm looking forward to it."

He grinned. "That, and they promised I'd be in the credits."

Technology has been very good to the Constitution. It was itself one of the world's most complex machines when it was launched in Boston in 1797. It posted a remarkable string of victories against the indomitable British navy in the War of 1812, thanks in part to its innovative design (bigger than other frigates but still agile). And two centuries later -- as the oldest commissioned warship still afloat -- it remains as seaworthy as ever, due to moisture monitors in the hull and other 21st-century gizmos implanted in its 18th-century bones.

And now, the latest in computer imaging is going to animate the ship in ways its keepers have only dreamed of. (Already, groups of seamen stationed on the Constitution -- the crew responsible for maintaining the ship and showing it off to tourists -- were making plans to see the movie in their period uniforms.) "For our sailors, this is really important," said Robertson, his hand on a black 5,600-pound cannon that has remained cool and unfired for decades. "This is our bread and butter; we live it every day. But except for oil paintings and drawings, we've never been able to see her in action. This could put it all together for us visually, even if it is only a movie."

But that tide can run the other way, too, moviegoer. If the digital, Dolby experience of a fighting frigate makes you curious about the real wooden version, the Constitution is always on duty as an ambassador from the glorious days of sail. Permanently stationed at a berth in Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard, Old Ironsides is arguably the best living example of a genuine man-of-war. (Visiting Horatio Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England, is a transcendent experience for any lover of naval history. But that storied fighter, alas, is in dry dock, probably never to swim again.) The Constitution not only floats soundly at dockside, but is towed out around Boston Harbor at least once a year (on the Fourth of July); it actually sailed under wind power around Massachusetts Bay in 1997 to celebrate its 200th birthday. For a visitor, knowing the ship remains fully fit for sea adds some hum to the rigging. This is no museum hulk.

"If the president said, 'Hey, let's sail the Constitution tomorrow,' the sailors would be ready," said Robertson.

More than 800,000 visitors a year troop up the Constitution's gangway to see how our young republic projected power in its earliest years. Wier came to breathe the confined, between-decks air of a real man-of-war. And O'Brian, an English author who lived in the South of France, came aboard in 1993 during one of his rare American tours. He toured the ship and the excellent USS Constitution Museum, a nonprofit annex just across the dockyard.

O'Brian wrote about Old Ironsides in "The Fortune of War," placing Aubrey aboard the HMS Java as it closed for action against the Constitution in a real-life engagement in December 1812. "Blazing sun beyond the port, and there, exactly framed, the Constitution. A heavy frigate indeed; now he could gauge the true size of her massive spars, the unusual height of her ports, well clear of the choppy sea breaking white against her side. A tough nut to crack, if the Americans could fire their guns as well as they could sail their ship." They could, and the Constitution would prevail after a fierce battle.

On board almost 200 years later, in the open air of the top deck, visitors gather around the forward carronades, their heads swiveling about the endless tangles of lines and stays and shrouds, a system at once impossibly complex and impeccably ordered. Under a foremast that towers almost 20 neck-craning stories into the autumn sky, a young seaman bawls out specs: The 52 cannons weigh almost a quarter of a million pounds; the carronades can throw a 32-pound ball some 400 yards; the long guns below can send a 24-pound ball 1,200 yards ("Or right into the Fleet Center," he says, pointing across the water to downtown Boston); it carries just shy of an acre of canvas as well as six anchors totaling more than nine tons.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company