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Now Playing at a Theater Near You: Old Ironsides
Boston's USS Constitution Finds a New Role

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.

Muscular numbers. But the Constitution seems to shoulder its burden effortlessly, sitting on the water like a black swan. How, you wonder, could something made of wood carry all this iron weight? And not just carry but dance it lightly atop mountainous seas and glide it smoothly across countless latitudes?

In Old Ironsides' case, it's not just any wood but live oak, harvested from Georgia's Sea Islands. A cubic foot of it can weigh 76 pounds, and it was so much mightier than the shipwright's usual white oak that it amounted to a secret weapon. ("Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron," cried a sailor when British cannonballs popcorned off those massive planks, and a nickname for the ages was born.)

It would be hard to overstate the effect of Old Ironsides' early victories on a country just emerging from the yoke of dependence. When the Constitution went broadside to broadside with HMS Guerriere in 1812 -- outsailing and outgunning the Brit vessel even after having its wheel shot away -- upstart America signaled its willingness to take on the world's superpower. When it went on to defeat the Java, the Admiralty in London directed its outraged captains not to engage American frigates one-on-one. When the Constitution bested two British ships, Cyane and Levant, at the same time, America's role as military power was sealed.

"Right after the Revolutionary War, the rest of the world didn't take us seriously," said Lt. William Marks, the ship's executive officer. "The Constitution in particular proved that no country could impose its will on us. We're pretty proud of her record."

Scramble below decks, where 32 guns manned by 14 sailors each once fought these actions, and the awesome enterprise of a sailing war begins to take shape in a way even Imax can't reproduce. "You've got to get the feel of how close this is," was Wier's admonition to his computer artists when the director came aboard the Constitution with them, according to Robertson.

Close indeed. Even the captain's suite is cramped; the officers' quarters are little more than tall coffins. And each deck lower is closer still, until even small visitors are humbled by the lowest orlop, bent over double in the space where wounded arms and legs were lopped off in the ship's surgery.

This pleasant funk of oil paint and old wood must be dead on, you think. But no. With 450 men aboard, sharing 18 inches of hammock space, living on salt beef and grog, working 12 hours a day without showers or toilets, sometimes in sweltering tropical air, sometimes in a suffocating brume of gun smoke and shattered bodies, it probably didn't smell like a clean and empty ship on a sunny fall day in Boston Harbor, perfectly preserved though it is.

Walking these decks is a powerful way to imagine the era. Movie effects will give us a passable glimpse of what it probably looked like. The nearby museum explains quite well just what happened. And, of course, the masterful O'Brian can transport our minds there for chapters at a time. But what it actually smelled and tasted and felt like to live and fight aboard one of the great fighting ships in the age of sail . . . well, only imagination can tell us that.

The USS Constitution (617-242-7511 , www.ussconstitution.navy.mil) is permanently docked at Charlestown Navy Yard, off Chelsea Street in Boston. During winter, the ship offers free 30-minute tours from 10 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. In addition, the Navy Yard, near Bunker Hill, features a World War II-era destroyer and the USS Constitution Museum (617-426-1812, www.ussconstitutionmuseum.org; free), an exceptional small museum that encapsulates Old Ironsides' history and the tall ship era generally.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company