Today we’ll learn about the historical accuracy of 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Helping us separate fact from fiction is Gordon Laco, who was the Lead Technical Advisor and Historical Consultant for the movie.
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Dan LeFebvre 01:45
The text at the beginning of the movie gives a date of April 1805. It says Napoleon is the master of Europe. Only the British fleet stands before him. oceans are now battlefields. Now, I must admit when I think of Napoleon, I think of his campaigns with the army and not really the Navy. So can you share a little more historical context around the role of the French Navy and how it served in Napoleon’s campaigns?
Gordon Laco 02:09
Yeah, sure, Dan, there’s a lot there in that statement, both in it in between the lines as usual in a movie, what we say oceans are now battlefields. They always were, if someone were alive, then in 1805, he would have been the son of somebody who was the son of somebody who had new a World at War, the Seven Years War had been fought in their grandfather’s time. And that by every definition was a World War. In fact, that was the global conflict that led to the American Revolution, which led to the French Revolution. In the middle of the 1700s, the American colonists clamored for the crown to fight award, Dr. France, or to bring the word of the continent to dry France out of North America, the crown did. And then they said, okay, boys and girls, now you’re going to pay for that war. So they put the T taxes and so forth on the colonists, and they didn’t like to pay their taxes. So in that statement is is a lot. The war was already everywhere in the planet, that there was water to float ships, because trade was worldwide them. And with regards to Napoleon, the French had a very large Empire then they had very fine seamen, but they were very much a continental power, their lines of inter of communications were internal, or is the British tended to be external, just like in World War One and World War Two and our, our parents and grandparents living taught living memory. The French had another problem. They did have a fine service. They built wonderful ships that the British Royal was delighted to have when they could take them. But the French Revolution basically and figuratively, actually decapitated the French Navy. Because of the nature of the service. Many of the of the talented leaders and un officers were in aristocratic families. Yes, they were in England. And those people were locked off, literally. And the French leadership was very young and inexperienced. Men rose to command much, much sooner than they would have a normal times. And sometimes because of political reasons. That whole mix didn’t didn’t go together too well. But that’s not to say they weren’t a very formidable foe.
Dan LeFebvre 04:21
Okay. Now, another movie is based on a novel by Patrick O’Brien of the same name. And it’s actually I think, the first like 20 novels that we’re focusing on. Russell Crowe’s character Captain jack Aubrey, as well as Paul Bettany, his character in the movie, Dr. Stephen maturin, and where they actually based on real people?
Gordon Laco 04:39
Yes, and that reminds me of something that made me scratch my head and squint when the movie was first made. We shot it as far side of the world. The bulk of this plotline comes from that novel in the series. But in the last weeks of post production before the movie was released, the added master and commander to the title mastering commander comma The Far Side of the world, the people in Hollywood hoped that there was going to be a series. And it would be called the master and commander series after the first novel. But of course, people have read the book know that movie has got nothing to do with the first novel, but a lot to do with the the one where they sail into the Pacific. So yes, that story was based on on reality. During the years of the war of 1812, the United States sent a frigate into the Pacific Ocean, USS Essex, to attack the English whaling fleet. And there were many parallels to our times actually in that and what was happening right when we were shooting the movie. Imagine a, an immensely wealthy religious fanatic, who had a pathological hatred for the world, one of the world powers then this was an American fellow named Peabody in Massachusetts, who hated England. And he helped outfit a warship that would attack that world’s power in a manner that his national service could not because the world power was just too large. They knew that whale futures were being traded on the London Stock Market. And it occurred to people in the US that if they could decimate a season’s whale oil, it would cause the stock market crash in England, and that might knock England out of the war and allow Napoleon to invade. And basically in the world war that was going on then. So the British Secret Service found out about this, the American frigate had already been dispatched to the Pacific, and the only ship that could go was a small warship named HMS Phoebe. And Phoebe chased Essex around Cape Horn up into the Pacific Ocean, where they, they had a meeting, I won’t go into the details of now. But that is the genesis of the story. That’s an O’Brien’s novel. So it is based on a real story. And interestingly, we set the film 10 years earlier, not in the war of 18 holes, because we felt after several meetings, we didn’t have the time in the film, to explain what the war of 1812 was about. So instead of earlier, and made the enemies French instead of England instead of American, that didn’t require any explanation that was something that people could understand. I fantasize and actually scribbled scenes where Steven, as an intelligence agent, is explaining to jack what the war of 1812 was all about. Because of course, we would have been deeply involved in all that. But we did we didn’t get to do it. The characters are based on real people to Captain jack Aubrey is based very heavily on Thomas Cochran, who was a friggin captain. During those days, the feats of daring that he accomplished defy fiction. He did things that if you put in the movie, nobody would believe Stephens character, I think is a mix of Sir Joseph banks, who was a very wealthy scientific benefactor who traveled with cook, Charles Darwin, who was course from a later time, and obviously Patrick O’Brien himself, the secretiveness and, and so forth that comes from there. I think O’Brien was writing about himself a lot when he was coloring in Stephens character.
Dan LeFebvre 08:06
One of the terms that we hear in the movie is weather gauge, the way that the movie explains it, it kind of explains it to to Stephens character. And he says that basically, weather gauge means that they have the wind in their favor. And that’s how they explained in the movie at the Acheron is able to sneak up on this prize the first couple times that they see each other in the movie, the impression I got was the only option that the surprise had, when the Acheron showed up with the weather gauge was all you had, all you can do is run away, pretty much can you give a little more information on what the weather gauge term was. And once the ship had that in their favor, was there no other option, but there went away?
Gordon Laco 08:43
Yeah, in reality, weather gauge is a very complicated concept. Sometimes it could mean the drop wind of the enemy. And you can control the wind that he’s feeling by positioning yourself. It can also mean being downwind of an enemy. And I can remember vividly being at meetings trying to describe this to the production in terms of modern yacht racing, which is my passion, outside of work. If you have a phone that doesn’t want to fight, the place to be is downwind of so in that in that circumstance, the weather gauge is downwind. Because you should imagine the ocean as an angled ski slope, the ships can travel back and forth across it down easily, very, very difficult to go up. So if you’re pursuing a foal that doesn’t want to fight the way to panem is to get underneath them downwind and push them up against the wind until he can’t go any higher. And if you have a fast ship that can sail higher closer to the wind, closer to the wind direction than your foe, you can force him to fight in force and control a combat situation that way. That’s all yacht racing works. If the boat wants to fight and you don’t, well, then the roles are reversed. And the weather gauges then when when you’ve got the wind behind you. So it all depends on the situation. And overlaying all that Which is horribly complicated, maybe not necessary for the film is the circumstances of commerce Raider, which is what the friendship is in our film, he is 1000s of miles from home. If he is damaged at all, he can’t carry out his job of attacking the whaling fleet, he’s finished. So he in some situations needs to avoid combat. Because the warship doesn’t really care so much about casualties and damage. As long as he damages the enemy gets a different way of thinking. If, however, the vessel being pursued and the commerce Raider, in this case, the ashram feels that this is a dog and follow that’s going to chase and chase and Chase, it’s to their advantage to try to end with a decisive blow bump them off and finish them off. So in our story, she’s really too big for a surprise to fight. So the French Captain would know this. And he would think if I can just knock away a few of their spars and kill enough of them in one quick engagement. They can’t chase me anymore. And jack would know that too. So he knows he can only fight if he has an advantage. So that’s why sometimes surprised has to run in sometimes the French have to run, the French will only fight even though they’re more powerful, if there can be sure of a knockout blow, because they’re so far from from how,
Dan LeFebvre 11:17
okay, I guess I didn’t factor in the idea that their tactics would have to be completely different because of their location, how far they are from home having to be different there. I guess I didn’t really factor that cuz we don’t really see a lot from the French side, you know, aboard the friendship, and we don’t really see a lot of their strategy as much. Yeah, that’s
Gordon Laco 11:36
right. So it’s, it’s a very, it’s like a game of chess, sometimes one side will have an advantage and sometimes the other will, and with these two ships, well, right up to World War Two, our commerce commerce Raider would only fight a warship, if it was to be sure of a fast knockout blow. And it actually happened once, when a German Raider named cormoran met an Australian cruiser off the coast of Australia, HMS Sydney. And the French tried to pretend they were a friendly ship, protesting the ribbing pursued by somebody and tried to block the Australian worship into getting too close. And it worked. They sank the worship. Of course, they were sunk themselves. But normally, the commerce Raider runs unless you can be sure of a knockout blow. And in the opening scenes of the film, that must be what that French capital is thinking. And that’s actually the thoughts and the tactics we put, we put into the film The he knows that frigates not going to stop chasing them. If he can, if he can hit it hard once and get away. That’s what he wants to do.
Dan LeFebvre 12:39
The first time we do see the electron firing on surprised Aubrey makes the decision to hide in the fog bank. They managed to make it there even though seems like they’re badly damaged from the shots. But it seems to work. Like once they go into the fog. All the men are quiet and the friendship can’t see him anymore. With that tactic actually work just hiding in the fog like that,
Gordon Laco 13:04
then absolutely not. It’s something the audience could understand. So we found that useful. When we’re making historic films of any type of any era, I often throw in the table that I do try to keep in mind when giving my own advice, that it’s possible to be so right that you’re wrong. And what I mean, you can be slow, historically authentic with what I was just talking about a commerce Raiders. So convoluted correct, that the audience loses track of what you’re talking about. And then if you lost them, that’s bad. So what the production did here was they introduced fog in the story, fog in the equator. That’s pretty unlikely. Imagine if I wrote 500 tonne frigate, which is about what the size of surprises is being told by three small boats with six or eight oars in each boat. And she’s been sued by somebody that’s going fast enough they have a bow wave. Well, why wouldn’t the French just follow them into the fog and shoot the hell out of them? And I said that to my wife didn’t want to go when we rewatch the film. And she says one or two and she said, Well, selling fast in the fog is dangerous. I said yes, it is because he might hit something. But it was based the French want to hit that shift. If they if they crash alongside and grappled with or they don’t number them three to one. And that would be good. But it was something we did in the film to help the audience understand the jack has come up with something at the spur of the moment. You know the funny thing, Dan, when the film came out, in 2003, there was a blizzard of armchair historians making complaints about various things. One of the things I thought we’d be crucified for was that fog, and the fact that it seemed like a barrier the French wouldn’t cross. Nobody noticed that. What they did complain was how the young man in the boat, which was actually mid ship and calamy how he gave his orders to stop rowing. Well, I know as a naval officer longtime in the historic service The correct order to stop rowing is the command Rs. When you yell oars, the oars stop, and they are held up out of the water. And that stops the rowing. We discussed that in the production. And Peter Weir are brilliant director, he said, Gordon, I don’t want him to be an efficient naval officer at this moment, I want him to be a frightened teenager who’s just realized he’s going to live. So we had him give the order wrong. And that’s why we did that. The emails and the phone calls I got were unbelievable over that. But nobody noticed that the fog was unlikely.
Dan LeFebvre 15:38
That’s funny focus on the complete wrong part there.
Gordon Laco 15:43
It is a movie of on these productions, they see my job is to help the director tell his story. And I showed I explained everything to them, I just told you and they understood. But my job is to show where center is down the tracks. So when they go off course port and starboard from the known facts, they know when and by how much. And those decisions are always made carefully. So the fog the fog issue was introduced to allow surprise to escape. And to let jack show a bit of brilliance.
Dan LeFebvre 16:13
When I watched that, again, watching it again, before discussion here. It seemed, they entered a little bit of fog, and it wasn’t quite enough. But then once they hit the real thick fog, okay, now that’s going to be enough to have them magically disappear, almost like off the radar if they had radar, right, like they’re disappearing,
Gordon Laco 16:28
hardening and fog can work. If the vessel being pursued has some speed honor, what I would do if I was commanding a vessel retreating into a fog bank to hide which happened in history is a travel on a course. And then say, okay, they saw me steering this course when they last saw me go another mile, and then change and then tack in change course. So that when they come in, they don’t know if I turn left, right or went straight. And in that circumstance, you could hide effectively. But you need to be moving fast enough yourself that you can cover some ground before they come into the into the fog to
Dan LeFebvre 17:03
which you probably wouldn’t be if you’re being towed by three boats. No, like this price. But there is there is another scene in the movie where something like that sort of happens, except it’s when Aubrey uses the technique to build this decoy with lights and they set that there and then the actual surprise changes course and leaves and then the ashram keeps firing on that decoy. Is that something that would really happen?
Gordon Laco 17:30
Yes, that is a ruse that Cochran used against the French himself in the Mediterranean. And incidentally, while doing a TV documentary called history versus Hollywood a few years ago for discovery, we replicated Cochran rousse, and it works incredibly well. wasn’t as elaborate as we showed in the film, what we did was build a dam boy with a barrel spar and a lantern on it, and describe them to the camera how in Cochran stay, when he really did this, he didn’t have all his lights blazing on the stern of the ship. What he did was showed one light, occasionally then hit it and then showed it and then hit it. thinking to himself, the French will say, haha, those stupid English someone’s showing a light and train them to follow that light. And then next time the light comes on, it’s on the buoy, and the ship sails away. And the French chase the the decoy. And we found as we were shooting the decoy correctly for the documentary, it is really really difficult to tell how far away it is when it’s one point of light with no reference around it. impossible to tell if it’s 50 meters away, or a mile away. Isn’t that crazy? and awkward knew that. And it worked. That really happened in World War One. There was an English submarine named e 11. And they were being harassed by Turkish gunboats in the Sea of Marmara during the gliffy campaign. And of course, they had to surface every night to recharge the batteries and change their air. They needed to shake off the pursuers. So they made a fake Periscope. And they left it on the surface when they after they dove and then stood off for a while watching the Turks gleefully destroy this Periscope. And they thought they’d got the submarine. So the hunt came off in more recent times. This is during my days in the Navy, NATO has a war game every few years in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific. There’s another one for the Allies there. And sometimes it ends up as all the allies against the Americans because they have the largest fleet. And what a British frigate did. This was I guess, about 10 years ago that when the wargames started, she put on all her lights, she slowed to 12 knots, which is the speed of cruise ship travels out, put a sailor on the radio who could speak with a really good East Indian accent. And then, when they were challenged by the US Navy saying, Please alter your chorus. This is a military operation happening here, blah, blah, blah, oh my god, what’s happening this ships all over none of them have lights on and they pretend to panic while weaving through the defenses of the aircraft carrier. And when they got beside her within missile lock range, they put their lights out and said, gotcha. And that is what those wargames are for of course, but even in these modern days ruses work. And when I was a naval officer, myself standing on the bridge of Warships off the east coast of Canada, it was explained to me that, despite the fantastic sensing instruments worships have today, the radar and so forth. If you send a pulse out with your radar, everybody knows where you are. So let’s come back to an officer with his eyeballs behind a pair of binoculars again, and at dawn, you go to Action Stations, because you don’t know what you’re going to see. It’s it’s back to jack, Aubrey and Cochran. Isn’t that interesting?
Dan LeFebvre 20:53
That’s really interesting. Again, I wouldn’t have even thought of that until you mentioned like, Yeah, okay. You You send that ping out, you’re going to be able to know where they are. But they’re also going to know where you are. And so it kind of defeats the purpose.
Gordon Laco 21:06
That’s right. So the the creativity that we showed in the film still exists the naval officers today, and they’re trained for it.
Dan LeFebvre 21:13
Now on the other side, would in the case of you know, a chip like the ash, Ron, would they know about that sort of decoy and be on the lookout for it?
Gordon Laco 21:23
Yep, they would be very wary of being tricked. So using the same trick twice, often wouldn’t work as well for the US Navy versus the Royal Navy. In the Atlantic, they would be very wary and very aware of that. In our film of spoiler alert. JACK Harlow uses the disguise to lower the enemy close enough. And he knows the enemy is hunting whaling ships, partially because of intelligence reports he received with his orders when he was dispatched, just like HMS Phoebe. And partly because he’s, he’s picked up whalers, they know that, so he knows the French are pillaging that fleet. So he knows they’re hungry for whaling ships, so he disguises himself as one. And in real life, that disguise would have worked up to probably half a mile away, not right up close. But it’s the kind of rooms that captains did in those days, they could very dramatically change the appearance of a ship by altering its sail plan, making it look dirty, when it shouldn’t, by how it’s sailing, and what’s going on on board. So that part was all real, that we stretch the credulity of a little bit by letting the French come right alongside.
Dan LeFebvre 22:29
Yeah, cuz they even like paint the back of the ship. I mean, they go all out and changing, changing the name and everything. And
Gordon Laco 22:35
Cochran did that. Yeah, he took strips of old silk cloth and painted it so that the height is gunports. And he did things like that to to fool the enemy. And of course, they would be looking very carefully, trying to decide whether or not this thing was safe enough to approach.
Dan LeFebvre 22:50
I mean, that just adds another level of sensitivity that you have to have like, Do you always on edge, because you can’t, you can never let your guard down. And so you’re always Who is this ship that we’re approaching? Is it actually harmless? Or is this going to be the end? You never know.
Gordon Laco 23:05
And the end means really the end because it’s not a game. The End means
Dan LeFebvre 23:09
something that struck me in the movie was how young some of the crew were, for example, that the actor who plays Blakeney he’s he was born in like 1989, maximum commander is released in 2003. So he would have been only like 14 years old and movie, maybe even younger, depending on when they actually shot that versus released it. But was it common to have teenagers that young in the military on ship like that?
Gordon Laco 23:32
Yes, the average age of a member of the ship’s company was probably early to mid 20s to mid to late 30s. That’s for the sailors and petty officers and officers. But there was a concerted an organized campaign to start training people young. So officers would often join the service and go to see 12 1314 years old. And the funny thing is, their names would have sometimes been put on the books of the ship already from when they were six years old. In order to gather sea time that was a that was sort of a time embezzlement strictly against the law, but people did it. But someone as young as blakney Yes, would be aboard that ship and yes, he could be in combat that young. The Royal Navy, like all the navies of the time, we’re, we’re breeding men that we would consider today Superman with regards to the standards of seamanship. They learned and exhibited. the only nation in the world back in the time of our film that actually had a Naval College that had been long standing was Russia. Peter the Great had started a Naval College in St. Petersburg. All the other navies of the world learned by experience sending those young men to see the British at that time had just started their naval officers shoreside program. It was a good idea and it became what it is now. But at that time, there was some prejudice against book learning versus being at sea. And the the pressure was absolutely intense for those young men. To the basically, Excel promotion in the Royal Navy happened by brilliant demonstrated behavior. And those who failed were guys like hollom. We, as we showed in the film, who statesmanship and were not promoted, and suicide was not uncommon among them.
Dan LeFebvre 25:16
I don’t remember when it was exactly in the movie, but there was a scene where, again, I don’t remember the which character it was that was teaching him but I was showing some of the younger men like how to use the sextant and how you know, training some of them it looked like on on deck sounds like that would be something that would have been common.
Gordon Laco 25:33
Absolutely den training was every day as it is in the Navy today. And even when they’re being hotly pursued by a ship that could destroy them and kill them all. It’s noon. So they trained, and they learned how to take a noon site and start the ships day. We’ve seen in there specifically for that reason. And also specifically what is as soon as jack turns away, they all look at this, throwing them in stop taking their sunset.
Dan LeFebvre 25:58
In the movie, there is a mention of someone named Lord Nelson. There’s a book that Aubrey gives to Blakeney about Nelson’s victories. He also mentions having served under Nelson at the Nile was Lord Nelson, a real person and what was that mentioned of the Nile that the movie is referring to?
Gordon Laco 26:15
Sure, Lord Nelson was most certainly a real person. One of my jobs was to indoctrinate the actors in the ethos of the time they were portraying. And when I was describing to James Darcy, the scene in which he was talking to jack about Nelson, I said, Imagine your nation’s greatest military hero is someone you just learned your boss worked for. And that’s referenced in its you know, in the spring of 1805, he was still alive. Nelson was a brilliant leader who rose to a very high rank rapidly in his career. He was absolutely beloved by his men. He was a tough man, his he had to be to be a commander at sea in those days as today, but records about him indicate that he knew how to make men love him. There’s a letter in existence, where he he interceded himself and paid the debts of a young officer who’d fallen in love with an opera singer in Italy, and jumped ship and was in debtors prison after living with her in a hotel someplace. And because this young man was one of his officers, he felt loyalty to him. And a letter exists that Nelson sent to the boy’s father saying, It’s okay, I’m fixing this and I paid the debt. And you can bet when the boy was back aboard, he got to talking to about proper behavior. But that’s the sort of thing Nelson do from the highest ranking brother officers that served with him to the common sailors. They loved him, and his death was quite a blow. So the Nile was one of Nelson’s great victories, he pursued the French up and down the Mediterranean river and caught them at a place called applicare. Bay, just east of Alexandria, Egypt, just east of the mouth of the Nile River. And the importance of that action was that Napoleon had landed with a huge army in Egypt. There was no Suez Canal then. And his objective was to cut the overland route where the canal now is, and help limit England’s access to its subcontinent colony in India, which was a source of much wealth. Again, wartime then just like now it was tactical as well as strategic. So what Nelson did basically was destroy the fleet and ruin the army there. And that was what two whole armies that Napoleon lost. The other one was course was in Russia,
Dan LeFebvre 28:34
I would have been a big deal for Aubree to have taken part in such a big victory like that.
Gordon Laco 28:41
Yeah, a cataclysmic and decisive action with whole fleets of battleships. There’s only happened a very few times in history in those days, partly because it was so difficult for them to find each other. There were no aircraft, no satellites, and if one ship saw the enemy, how did they tell anybody what they saw, they have to send a ship back with the news. And two weeks later, the enemy is going to be somewhere else. So it was difficult to bring fleets together decisively. And more difficult yet for one fleet to completely destroy the other, as happened at the Nile and at Trafalgar in Copenhagen, of course, was was particularly horrible because one of the largest friendships lorien caught fire and exploded. And if jack was there to see 1000 men go up in the air when the ship blew up, that would have been quite something. And it was an impressive enough moment in Nelson’s own life, that when he was presented with pieces of lorien as trophies, I guess people thought he just sent them home. He said he wanted them kept to form his casket when he died, and he was buried in a casket made from L’Oreal’s main nest.
Dan LeFebvre 29:51
So then, if that happened to to Nelson, but it’d be difficult to find each other like you’re saying was that almost by accident that they that They found each other or was did they know that? Okay, this is this is where they’re going to be. Good point,
Gordon Laco 30:06
it was partly intuition. Nelson had a particularly good way of putting himself in the mind of his his opponent. And partly also Naval Intelligence Services, spies, intercepted messages, overheard conversations, discussions of plans, people lurking on a dock saying, seeing a shipping loaded and saying, Hey, bud, where’s this thing going? And some idiot might say, Oh, the invasion of fifth of Egypt. A week later, in London, they will know. I’m being facetious. But they took as great care then as, as military. Intelligence men do today, men and women to try to discern what plans the enemy might have. Nelson would have known in the national campaign, for example, that their supply line to to India was threatened. If Napoleon had a large fleet on the loose of Warships, he would know that Napoleon might try to do something about it. He before auger, he chased the French three, three times back and forth across the Atlantic. Knowing that sugar and grain coming from the colonies in the Caribbean and the United States needed to get to France, he knew the French would try to maintain that lifeline. He also knew in the summer of 1805, jumping up to the time of our film now, and this goes to some of the lines that we gave jack Aubrey in the story. Aubrey would know like every other Royal Naval captain, that if Napoleon could control the English Channel for a week, England can be invaded by an army she couldn’t face. So there was desperate work and strategy being done trying to prevent the French from accumulating a large fleet. And one of the exciting story points in choosing the year rates, you know, April of 1805, as we did for the film, is that they know that home is in great danger of invasion, great danger. And here, they’re sent off around the world doing something else. They don’t know what’s happening at home, England could have only been taken. They didn’t know that in October of that year. Nelson caught the French and the Spanish combined fleets at Trafalgar and destroyed them that for a while eliminated the threat of invasion. But it’s important to remember that that war carried on another 10 years. It was generations of a World at War than
Dan LeFebvre 32:25
what you’re talking about the inflammation that brought something to mind that we see in the movie as well. And that’s when William Morley and Joseph Nagel they give Aubrey a scale model of the ash Ron because I guess well, he happened to be in Boston, right. He saw it being built. And then the carpenters make puts together a model of the ship when I saw that movie, and then when you’re talking about being able to gather information about where things are, I got the sense that getting that information would have been extremely rare. And so it was something that went in movie where we see Aubrey being able to tell how his enemy ship is built. That gives him a tactical advantage. Would that be the case?
Gordon Laco 33:08
Yeah, well, it was certainly the case, but it was not unusual. Both sides had very active espionage services, trying to keep track of what each other was doing. And what was happening. later than the time of the movie was the US Navy quite brilliantly, came up with what came to be called Super frigates. And we assumed that our restaurant was one of these super frigates they were called frigates. They sailed like frigates, but they were built like ships of the line. So in modern terms, I guess you might say it’s fast and maneuverable like a destroyer. But armed like a battleship. And the the American started that the French carried it on and the British were a step behind the catching up. So that’s what makes the ashdon so so, so formidable to have someone on board who actually saw it himself that wasn’t an intelligence officer. That’s just luck. And we imagined that this young man is a sailor, and he was impressed enough with the description of it. He wanted to build a model of it. So actually, that model was built next door to my office in the studio in Baja while we were shooting the film, and yes, I covered that model. But we all thought the movie so we left it behind with all the props. It was not unusual for intelligence to be gathered. It was not at all unusual for that. But there was a new kind of frigate coming onto the scene. That’s why I actually I jotted the line down, where jack says what an incredible modern day we live in. People thought then they could cope with change, just like we can’t cope with it today. Well, they thought so too then. And we imagined that ash Ron was a sister of Constitution and the other super frigates that were built. And we know that the the fledgling US government was having great difficulty paying for these ships and we imagined that a consortium of French ship owners being driven towards bankruptcy by the blockade, preventing their lines of ships from going banding together and buying one of those ships from the Americans. And yes, the Americans just like today, sometimes errs hated their allies by giving weapons and self worth to people who later become enemies, and then they have to face them again. That was happening then. So we imagined that this frigate might have been bought by a consortium of men who were wanted to go privateering she’s way too big to be a privateer. So what cargo what what prey could be worth the huge investment to buy such a large and outfit such a large worship whale oil, and that fits perfectly with the esic story. And if you watch the movie over and over again, and stop frames, and so forth, you’ll see that we dressed the French sailors. On one hand, like their grandfathers, they really should have looked like the English, but it being a movie, they wanted the bad guys to look different. So we dress them from an Arab, you’ll see I put French Revolutionary roundels on their caps, and so forth. And I armed them with an odd assortment of obsolete military equipment, both French and English. And I imagined a warehouse of captured equipment that these guys would have bought and then outfitted the men with. You’ll notice they don’t work on their cannons, because of course, that’s a new innovation that only the Navy has at that point. And if you stop stop frame on some of the French sailors in the in the melee fighting scenes, you’ll see cheese that guy’s got a sword ball jerk. It looks like a million army one. Well, yeah, it was. And this guy’s got an English 1803 pattern Cutlass? Where do you get that from? Well, from the warehouse sale. That’s what we imagined. Yeah,
Dan LeFebvre 36:44
we have to go back and go frame by frame on some of those and check that out for sure.
Gordon Laco 36:50
There are layers and layers and layers in there that nobody will ever see. But our our hope was that there would be a patina of realism that would accumulate.
Dan LeFebvre 36:58
One of the locations that we get to see in the movie is the Galapagos Islands, or is muttering calls them the enchanted Isles. And according to the movie, they’re at that point they’re they’re thought to have had all manner of strange creatures. I think the the map that documentary is holding at one point says that the owls were discovered by Captain Collie in 1684. But then, Aubrey says that he’s going to be the first naturalist to step foot on the island. And since the movies taking place in 1805, that’s like 121 years after they were discovered. Would it be normal for an island to be discovered? And then not have anybody stepped foot on them for so long?
Gordon Laco 37:42
Well, a remote island Yes. But these islands were actually being trod upon quite heavily by people slaughtering tortoises seals and GLONASS and so forth for food. The way there’s a we’re already beginning to use the islands as a provisioning port. But as far as is known, no naturalist ever did a study there until Darwin, which is, of course, a generation after our film. So we wanted to imagine what would have happened if, say, Joseph banks who was a very wealthy naturalist, traveling with Cooke and had a chance to go to those islands and make the discoveries and make the connections that maybe Charles Darwin did 30 years later. So we were imagining there so that they weren’t untried by humans, but they were untried by scientists, by
Dan LeFebvre 38:27
scientists. Okay. Okay, I guess yeah, that’s the key. They’re
Gordon Laco 38:31
accurate charts of new parts of the world were military secrets then. So those who knew where the Galapagos were wouldn’t tell anybody. And that was partly national security level. And partly say you worked for one whaling ship owner, and you knew whether it was good water, or you wouldn’t blab it to everybody. So you have that good water yourself? And so that there’s layers of secrecy there.
Dan LeFebvre 38:56
So then does the the intelligence and the Espionage start to go in there where one military is trying to keep this? The location of these islands is secret, but another one figures out? Okay, no, they know where these islands are. So now we can go there. And all that starts to factor in then?
Gordon Laco 39:13
Absolutely. And similarly, in real life, the Americans in our film, the French have realized that whaling in the Pacific Ocean is just opening. It’s just the people are wandering in there for the first time and there’s sperm and right and fin whales and so forth, that are have not been hunted before. It’s virgin territory for that for that industry. And so espionage would have told those national services, there’s prey there for us, the whalers themselves. And it’s very similar to how things work today.
Dan LeFebvre 39:45
I wanted to ask you about one of the punishments that we see in the movie and it’s when Aubrey happens to see Nagel bumping into hollom on deck, and he refuses to salute him. And for this Nagel is flogged 12 times. Was that punishment that would have been carried out for refusing to salute someone of a higher rank.
Gordon Laco 40:06
Yeah, they’re saying there’s a lot there, then there’s a lot there. And I’m going to talk a bit about history. And I’m going to talk a bit about my own naval service in the modern Navy. In that scene, Nagel is not just just respecting them, the junior officer, he’s actually bought some of his shoulders he goes by, that’s absolute disdain and disrespect. The man would not have had to be punished if hollom had turned and said, You there, stand? And what are you what are you about man or something like that, and reminded that follow to step aside, or salute and apologize, and that the whole thing would have carried on without intercession by the captain. If hollom was a good officer and had done that, but hollom was not a good officer, he was not confident, and he did not react to the punishment. The captain side. That’s why the captain interested in right away when he saw the man didn’t, he can’t let that sort of dissolving of the chain of command happen. It’s it’s the beginning of rot, that they just cannot let happen. You salute the rank, not the man. And we had that scene that I? Well, I told you before we started talking here, I was crouching in Jack’s cabin, when Captain Aubrey in his white shirt is trying to explain to the young officer how to be a good officer, and the kids just aren’t getting it. And I was watching that scene thinking back on and watching an Academy Award performance, because I believe that Russell Crowe was an Royal Naval captain, doing his best to give this young man what he has himself. But he knows that young man’s just not catching it. There’s another point in the procedure, which is inexorably started once the disrespect is demonstrated, where the captain can order up to 12 lashes that’s quite severe, without other captains being there for a trial. But the charges read, and there’s a moment in the full ceremony, which is like is inexorable as a wedding, once it starts occurs through to the end, when the captain reads the charge. And then he says, do his officers have anything to say for him? And they still say that today in the Royal Canadian Navy and in the Royal Navy, and I assume in the US Navy, too. And that is the moment when a good officer in Holland was a good officer would step forward and say, Yes, sir. He’s been very attentive to his duties. I think he stumbled. And I recommend sir leniency he’s a good man. And that would have allowed the captain to say right, you deal with it at your level. And by God, you imagine that that junior officer would take the guy side afterwards and say, You idiot, do you know what just about happened to you Don’t make me save you again. Which something like that. But then when we shot that scene, and I wish it could have been shown in its entirety, there was a moment when the officers are lined up at the break of the quarter deck. And CRO reads the the charge and he says the line do his officers have anything to say for him. He rocked forward on his feet and inclined his head a little bit so that his peripheral vision, looked down the faces of his officers. And at that moment, Lee ingleby playing hollom rock back on his heels and hid behind the guy beside him. And Waechter said, What did you just do after yield cut? And then we explained, and but we didn’t survive editing. But that was jack, giving that officer one more chance to be a good officer, If you only knew how to do it, and the kid was afraid. He rocked back and he didn’t say anything. So hold on, was flogged, and everybody in the crew knew. Yeah, he shouldn’t bump into one officer, you got what you deserved. But it shouldn’t have gone up to the captain and forced him to do that.
Dan LeFebvre 43:49
Yeah, yeah. Wow. Yeah, that would have been that would have been great. Just that nice little subtlety of backing away and shirking that responsibility.
Gordon Laco 44:00
Yeah, that movie could have been 12 hours long down with the material we shot. In my own career, I witnessed what they call a summary trial ones were an act of insubordination had happened to a petty officer. And this was in the modern Royal Canadian Navy, and I was in the room when this summary trial occurred. And the witnesses were called, and some of them were at sea in the Persian Gulf and so forth. And they made their testimony by radio. And after hearing all the evidence, there was that moment when they say, do his officers have anything to say for him, and prove your officer actually was the guy that he disrespected? And he didn’t say anything. And that young men basically had his career broken for what he did, mostly because it was in public. The disrespect he showed to a superior, but as soon as he was marched off Afterwards, he received a fine and was frozen in rank for two years, I believe. And they marched him out. And then my commanding officer Just swiveled his head and looked at the PEO, who hadn’t spoken who had basically provoked the disrespect by his poor leadership. And he said, You come with me and practically saw the walls bulging in the cabin. Well, that fellow had a talking to Wow. It’s serious. You cannot allow, you cannot allow dissolving of the strength of the chain of command. It’s bad for morale. It’s bad for efficiency. It’s bad, bad, bad. So that’s why jack did what he saying.
Dan LeFebvre 45:32
Wow, yeah, that puts a whole new level of clarity on not only with all breeze character with Chekhov’s character, but also with with Holloman how he was failing to do what he was supposed to do. And so it was, you know, partially his fault as well for letting that happen.
Gordon Laco 45:49
What we tried to get across in this film, and this I’ll say is my favorite part of what what I think we we achieved in the film was depict a well run ships company is a partnership. Imagine the ship’s company, the crew, all their officers obedience and expert skill and their traits be their sailors or sailmakers, or carpenters or gunners or whatever. But the officers equally owe the crew judgment and good leadership. And the crew expect that of their officers. And they’re tough to lead because they’re lions, and they need to be led well. And we tried to show that HMS surprise had a functioning partnership happening there with the two pyramids. And the point where it wasn’t working was when hollom did not react as he should have to that, that disrespect.
Dan LeFebvre 46:43
But speaking of hollom there’s another term that we hear in the movie kind of surrounding him, and that’s the one the term of Jonah and it’s suggested it’s a curse. Now I’m assuming that the name Jonah comes from the biblical story of Jonah, there is a brief shot where we see Captain Aubrey holding Bible open to the book of Jonah after Holmes death. What was this concept of the curse of Jonah a real thing?
Gordon Laco 47:05
anecdotally, yes, but not as a focal point. We had killock hand, the book open to the book of Jonah gets kill, it’s a jerk. And he doesn’t have a sense of appropriateness. And it was a sign of what kind of men Killick is insensitive. The sailors sailors were superstitious. But as in our discussion about weather gauge, there’s a lot going on in that scene. And being declared a Jonah was a symptom of the terrible pressure that was crushing hollow. He knew he wasn’t a good officer, he was in a world that was breeding Superman as naval officers. He wasn’t making the grade, and he was failing and failing and failing. And he was under terrible pressure. So being declared a Jonah and then being further despised by the ship’s company, is what caused him to commit suicide. Some men who were religious might have hearkened on the Jonas story, we had the semen with the who revived himself from the brain surgery, becoming ultra religious as a symptom of the reborn self, his character changed. That wasn’t something that you would imagine 10 out of 10 sailors believed in but maybe two or three. And it’s the sort of brand that a bad officer could earn for himself that would stick. And that was one of the things crushing that young man, funny thing is, Lee ingleby, was the sort of young man who if I had him aboard the vessel that I was in command of in the historic service, he would have been a superb officer. But he had to, he had to play a bad one. And we signed each other’s souvenir books at the end of the production, and he wrote in mind, drowning wouldn’t have been the same without you, Thanks for reading half my lines. So he was a young man who could have been a great officer, but he was playing a man that wasn’t making the grade. And again, the service was on one hand nurturing the happy officers, wardroom happy officers mess, wasn’t like a family, and we show that in the dinner scenes. But if you weren’t in that group, and you were in your place in that group, by your excellence, you were outcast. And, and that was a tragic role to be in and very, very tough to break out of
Dan LeFebvre 49:15
it, Paul, say had survived and that particular mission and found himself on another ship somewhere else would that sort of superstition kind of be stuck to him. And those stories kind of play out where, basically from here on out, he’s seen as this outcast
Gordon Laco 49:34
could, but what I’d like to think is that Apollo had survived that that expedition, he might have gone into the merchant service, and being captain of a small trading schooner on the coast of England or Canada, or wherever. He might have lived a very, very successful career, not having to be a tough sea officer, which he wasn’t. So to think of that, that’s what might have happened with him.
Dan LeFebvre 49:56
Not at the very end of the movie, we see Captain Aubrey come up with Another clever tactic in the back and forth, we talked a little bit about this, but this is when he pretends to be a whaling ship. And the idea that the move he puts forth is, Aubrey gets the idea for this from a phasmid that matrin picks up on the Galapagos Islands, I always call them walking sticks are basically the bugs that, you know, look like sticks, right to disguise themselves from predators. The idea of coming from nature, and you already talked about how that sort of disguise actually happened. But Was that something that would have come almost spur the moment like that being inspired by nature’s disguises like that? Or was that? Would that just be okay, we know that this is something that could work. Okay, let’s try a whaling ship and disguise that way.
Gordon Laco 50:45
Yes, the ladder ladder, then it would be something that an enterprising officer would always have in the back of his mind. And all through history, those are examples of such things being done. As recently as the late 1940s. In China, when the red Chinese were taking over the country, a small British warship, 1949, I think, was caught far up the Yangtze River, and by Nationalist Forces who had gun batteries, and she couldn’t get out. She was badly damaged, a lot of people were hurt. And when they finally had to make a run for it to get out to see past the red Chinese forces, they did it at night. And they hung Canvas screens up on their rigging to change the shape of their ship. So when she was seen as the silhouette, he might not be aware, she might be a merchant ship, they should be let through. And that caused enough damage long enough that she got away. So naval officers have done that all through history. And I talked about the fellow with the likes of the beginning of a worship by his by his Audacity. So yes, that’s something that was that was done regularly. And you can imagine that the person it was being done to would be very wary. So they have to be very convinced. And in the case of our of our French, privateer rush, Ron, it’s it’s greed that causes them to be a little less cautious than they might be. And of course, here’s surprise, right in the very waters where they’ve been snapping up whaling ships. And here’s the big one. Big surprise. Yeah, exactly.
Dan LeFebvre 52:18
Thinking about the animals that they get from the island. Stevens character document Ryan’s character mentioned a couple times taking those discoveries to the king, would that be something that would really happen that you discover new animals? And then they get shown to royalty?
Gordon Laco 52:33
Yes, we had discussions about this with our, our American colleagues, when we shot the film, the concept of royalty is not generally what the perception of it may be in the outside world, I’ll put it. The royalty in a parliamentary government represents an abstract of what is good and fair. And it is the assumption today as it would have been in Jack’s time to that the king represented some abstract of goodness and fairness and scientific curiosity, and everything that was good in the nation’s character. The fact that George the Third was a man who had periodic bouts of insanity is an unfortunate side point. But his office is something that represents an ideal. So if an expedition brought back a new discovery, it would be presented to the crown. And yes, the king might see it himself. But what they really mean is presented to the nation, and presented for for for proper appreciation and awareness and so forth. That’s what that means. It’s an interesting case, even in light of what’s in the media nowadays, I won’t go into that. But the Yeah, the royal family are real people. They’re real individuals with their good and bad points. But the offices, they hold our high, high ideal that supposedly beyond human fallibility, and that’s what the office is, but it is occupied by people sometimes that are different from that.
Dan LeFebvre 54:02
If there is something from the historical perspective that didn’t make its way into the movie that you wish had, what would that be?
Gordon Laco 54:11
Well, there isn’t anything like that, then. But there is something that did get into that, I have to say is what I love most about that film. And we touched on it earlier in this this talk, that is the balance of responsibility in a well functioning company, the contract between the officers and their and their in the crew that is equal and equally binding for both and equally heavy to carry. I like to think that we got that across in the story, that there’s there’s heavy responsibility on the officers as well as on the men and they expect a lot of each other. That’s what that’s what it is. They expect a lot of each other in an well real functioning ship. They get it and there’s no room for people to bet. And that’s the tragic thing about hollom. Yeah, you
Dan LeFebvre 54:56
definitely get the sense that it’s even though you know, the rain Kings, there’s a hierarchy in the rankings. Everybody’s working together on this. And everybody knows what their place is, in order to achieve whatever their their mission is. In the end.
Gordon Laco 55:11
When we made that film all those years ago, that was a long time ago, my hair was great. And I read a lot of letters, because I was looking for hints at people’s dialects and so on, because of the way people might have written phonetically. And I found an officer writing to another officer in a block hitting Squadron warning that Captain to watch out for one young officer because he could see him in the quarter gallery, which of course, for the officers heads, the bathroom, weeping in the ship, because that’s the only place he could be alone. But there’s windows. And this guy was under such terrible pressure, trouble at home failures and his ability to command. I don’t know what it was. But that young man was under such terrible pressure that he was noticed to be weeping when he thought he was alone. And I remember that, and I described it to the production. And we put a little bit of that into hollom. He’s probably not a bad person. But he’s, he’s not fitting. He’s not he’s not working for him. And I never forgot that.
Dan LeFebvre 56:14
The amount of pressure that that has to put on somebody.
Gordon Laco 56:17
Yeah, and they have to, it’s a world war going on and the let alone from the quote, level of seamanship required, they could be easy on people, there was no room for that.
Dan LeFebvre 56:29
What’s your favorite story from the set as the movie was being made?
Gordon Laco 56:34
Funny, my wife and I were going down memory lane, she kept many of my emails which I can read again, and some nights had get back to where I was living while we shot the movie. I’d be so exhausted, I wouldn’t know how to keep got to get up again the next day. And other times I think I haven’t seen I haven’t seen you guys for two and a half months. And Peter’s voice is changing. And I’m not home, what kind of father Am I being there was pressure on me that was personal. But something that is that was unforgettable was the day, when I started my training for the 60 something and we had in the film, we were a month running up to the big climactic battle scene at the end trading those people. And I was given sessions with them every day for a period of time. And imagine a classroom like any classroom you would have been in in high school, or public school, and have these 60 guys sitting in front of me, and they’re all tough dudes, and they’ve been in movies, and they know how to do falls and drops and handle weapons and so forth. I need to make an impression on them right from the start. So what I did was I was introduced and I stood up there, and I guess they figured it’d be a boring history geek or something. And I said, what kind of gun did Dirty Harry carry, and 44 Magnum, they all knew, of course. And I said, Nobody carried anything that light into a fight in 1805. This is a 75 caliber c service pistol 1803 model. And I took a bullet and I tossed it to the guy in the front row. And I said I could hurt you, if I threw that at you imagine it coming just under the speed of sound out of this pistol. And then I took a nine pounder round shot with Americans color Cannonball. And I held it up and I said, this is the nine pounder round shot and I tossed it in the air crash bang. It went down the aisle between the seats. And I said, Now imagine that coming through this wall at just under the speed of sound. It would kill all of us with the debris that it through. And then I had their attention. And I wanted them to report the weapons, though they appeared unsophisticated to what they were used to. Those guys were fantastic. Would buttonhole me on the set and asked me questions about the characters. And that’s just something that I remember is a little teaching rules I use that worked out well.
Dan LeFebvre 58:48
Yeah, I would say sorry, ever, a name founder rolling down the aisle that would get your attention, that’s for sure.
Gordon Laco 58:57
One of the most unforgettable times of working on the film was after we finished Principal photography, I was I was ordered to create a file of period firsthand accounts of what shot shot sounded like, various calibers. And I presented a an essay basically describing the short rent the year like the ripping of silk and so forth, and various other first hand descriptions. And Peter were very generously and brilliantly said to me, if I sent you someplace, could we actually do this? So to make a long story short, in January of 2003, we went to an artillery range in northern Michigan in the winter, working with a bunch of reenactors. I knew who every summer held an artillery match with live live artillery from the Napoleonic and civil war periods. So when you hear gunfire in the film, and every time you hear a shot, it’s the right size of gun firing at the right range with the right kind of projectile. So over For a week in northern Michigan, we fired 24 pounders, nine pounders, 12 pounders, round shot barshop grapeshot canister at various targets and recorded the sound. And Richard King, our sound designer, very deservedly won an Academy Award for the work he did on the film. And I’m very proud to have been part of part of that. actually doing it is nothing like reading about it in books. O’Brien writes about the distinctive ringing crack of a bronze gun. Well, the gun rings like a bell, and the ring almost overshadows the boom. And that’s because the while the shot is rattling down the board as it goes, and when Peter heard that, he said to me, Gordon, if we had a narrator, he said, perhaps you, I put the camera on you. And then you’d say the guns making that strange sound or that peculiar sound, because then describe it. He said, we don’t have a narrator. He said, I don’t want the audience distracted by that. I want them to concentrate on the courage of the young man that just aimed and fired that cannon. So we did that ring. We found that bar shot which academic historians will tell you is inaccurate and designed to smash up rigging and so forth. We could throw barshop screaming at 800 feet per second, three feet over microphones 800 yards away every time. It’s a terrible weapon. And it strikes with true terrific energy round shot when you have time to aim and use and to clean the gun between every shot is like a laser with regards to accuracy. accuracy, how can that be accurate? You know that’s that’s complete heresy compared to what academic history will tell you. But if the target is not moving, and the platform The gun is is on is not moving, you can aim and very well and the shot will fly true. What you cannot do is track a moving target. They didn’t have gun carriages that could do that. So they’re damn near as accurate at shorter ranges as rifle projectiles. That was astonishing. Grapes was seen grapeshot coming was like a swarm of bees and you can see it coming. But it you don’t have time to say look out just as you draw breath to say look out it bushes by we had cameras to catch that. It was quite quite something the weapons there were the use then were were terrible weapons. a charge of grapeshot from a nine pounder cannon is like a long burst from a 50 caliber machine gun.
Dan LeFebvre 1:02:27
The grip shot is the one it’s basically like connected by change, right?
Gordon Laco 1:02:31
No Great shot in jack OPERS day was a wooden or metal disc with a stem on it. And quilts around it would be a guest for a 12 pounder would be 20 inch and a half diameter iron balls tied together with a quilt so when you loaded it in the gun, there was one projectile when the shot was fired, the the quilting would disintegrate and the shot would fly in a fairly dense cloud of smaller pieces. And that was capable of light structures wouldn’t do people much good either. The shot was chain was called chain shot. And rather than a chain like you see in Pirates of the Caribbean, or whatever it was two or three long links that were telescoping collapse together and then tied with twine so could be rapidly loaded into the gun. When it was fired, the twine broke and the two hemispheres would swirl in the air. I’d read that the English didn’t like using it much because it wasn’t terribly effective. The French and Americans use it a lot. And my judgment from firing an ad grayling, Michigan that winter was it’s a terror weapon. Not terribly effective, but a great terror weapon. It slows down so fast in the air that beyond say 250 yards it’s it’s falling. But it screams when it flies and that that’s something in itself.
Dan LeFebvre 1:03:54
Okay, so the sound of it coming towards you is is straight strike fear into you because you know that something’s coming.
Gordon Laco 1:04:02
Yeah, whereas the bar shot is not so noisy. But that’s a hell of a lot more damage. Yeah, well,
Dan LeFebvre 1:04:07
I don’t want to be on the receiving end of any of those. Any means those on terrible?
Gordon Laco 1:04:11
Dan LeFebvre 1:04:13
Thank you so much for coming on a chat about mastering commander for someone listening to this who is not familiar with your work? Can you give them an overview of what you do and share your website where they can learn more?
Gordon Laco 1:04:23
Sure. My son’s telling me what my website is embarrassing because it’s so primitive. But if you Google my name, Gordon lacco, g o r d o en la co with no gap, you’ll see Gordon lacco.com. That’s my website. I am a historian and technical advisor to film and television. I’ve done I guess 65 Films now. I’m embarked on another one since you and I last talked to set et CIE in 1663. And I’m hard at work on that at this moment. I also outfit historic sailing ships and provide consulting services to museum programs and so forth. And I’m quite fortunate, I think that things have turned out the way they have for me. I love what I do. When my mother passed away, I just thought of this now among her effects, we found this. That’s a sailing ship with gunports and my mother wrote on the back, drawn by Gordie, ah, two years, two months. So who knows where that comes from. But I feel quite fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the people I work with, to do what I do
Dan LeFebvre 1:05:30
at two years. Wow, you knew what you wanted to do?
Gordon Laco 1:05:32
I guess. So.
Dan LeFebvre 1:05:35
Thank you again, so much for your time.
Gordon Laco 1:05:36
You’re welcome. Bye bye.