Image source. Copyright Twentieth Century Fox, 2003.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World could easily have been as unwieldy and inelegant as its name. Fortunately, it isn’t. Director Peter Weir not only makes a strong action movie out of a deceptively boring topic, but, unlike a certain director of a certain other Russell Crowe movie, also manages to cast nuance over familiar platitudes of sacrifice and honor.
Master and Commander takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, the set of clashes and battles that racked early-19th-century Europe. But instead of settling for the more-familiar Waterloo or Austerlitz, it goes halfway around the world to tell the story of the HMS Surprise, an English frigate sailing off the coast of South America. It’s a small but lively ship, headed by the imposing, headstrong Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), so renowned for his naval prowess that he’s nicknamed “Lucky Jack.” He’s aided by his best friend, the intellectual Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), and a host of lesser captains and colorful shipmates. At the beginning, we open on Aubrey diligently going about his usual morning routine: wake the crew, survey the weather, adjust the course. Just another day on your average 19th-century English naval vessel.
Then, from the midst of the dense morning fog, a volley of cannons hurtles forward and all but destroys the hull of the ship. Being half a world away from the Old Continent doesn’t mean the Surprise misses the action. As we learn, the French ship Aubrey has been ordered to hunt down, the Acheron, has taken advantage of the fog to ambush its sleepy, unprepared British counterpart. However it got its name, the Surprise doesn’t react very well to surprises; it barely manages to get out of enemy fire in one piece. The only thing the attack doesn’t manage to damage – Aubrey’s resolve. On the contrary: Aubrey, now stung by defeat, decides to drag the Surprise on an all-or-nothing chase after the Acheron. Ship in need of repairs? Crew members feeling ill? Serious resource deficiencies? Forget it. Aubrey has his great white whale in sight, and there’s no quitting until he has it.
In ancient Greece, the Acheron River was the resident “river of pain,” a river best known for leading unfortunate dead souls straight to hell. (Literally.) The Surprise’s journey turns out to be no different. Storms, droughts, sickness, more ambushes, more damage…those who think life on a ship must be boring will stand corrected once they see what this crew has to endure. Victory, if it’s still possible for these hardened, battered men, doesn’t come easy, and it’s here that Weir turns what could have been a mediocre, Gladiator-like action spectacle into something more meaningful. He doesn’t shy away from showing how Aubrey’s unsparing attitude towards capturing the Acheron causes deaths, permanent disabilities, forced suicides, and stirrings of mutiny. Eventually, after Aubrey reneges on his promise to allow Maturin to explore the Galapagos – just for the sake of gaining a day on the Acheron – he’s forced to confront his actions and whether unswerving, blind duty has its drawbacks. What’s driving his quest? A desire to serve the English crown? Or selfish, wounded pride? Here, Crowe does a fine, maximal job (cough cough, Oscar) portraying this unbending fighter learning the lessons of humility.
Like Aubrey, Master and Commander knows not to get bogged down in one place for too long. Weir intersperses these quasi-philosophical reflection points with plenty of solid seaborne action. The camerawork can get a little messy, particularly in the final battle, but this is hardly a blind, charge-into-the-enemy bash session. This is “smart action,” action where your favorite characters actually have to use some strategy to win, action where the structure and logic are the keys to its effect. It doesn’t have the big bombast of The Avengers or Star Wars, but we feel this tiny “duel of ships” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean matters just the same.
Said excellent action scenes also owe their power to the movie’s superbly authentic production values. Weir – and Patrick O’Brian, the author of the book on which Master and Commander is based – obviously researched the historical setting very meticulously. Every last detail, from the cannon sounds to the structure of the ship to the clothing to the distinctively 19th-century dialogue, will immerse you in the atmosphere of the time. The cinematography cleanly captures both the grand panoramas of the vast, mysterious, tempestuous sea and the grimy, infested, crowded atmosphere of below-deck quarters. It’s all so well-made that you’ll probably be disappointed to learn that Jack Aubrey never actually existed.
Master and Commander might be better known today were it not for the poor timing of its release. Its production values and thoughtful content were overshadowed by The Return of the King, Peter Jackson’s sweeping conclusion to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Compared to Frodo and Middle-Earth, Aubrey’s naval battles might seem ridiculously tame. But Master and Commander deserves more than it’s gotten. Whether in the action or the plot, there’s plenty of solid substance in Master and Commander. It’s a movie that respects the viewer’s desire for an intelligent, thought-provoking story.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy, Billy Boyd
Running Time: 138 minutes
Produced by: Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., Peter Weir, Duncan Henderson
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Peter Weir, John Collee
Based on Patrick O’Brian’s novel of the same name.