Criminally Overlooked: “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”November 25, 2007
I don’t know why Peter Weir’s excellent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World hasn’t entered the pantheon of great films of the 2000s, but rest assured that when I am rich and weird, I’ll have it playing on a continuous loop in my compound. M&C is just about everything an adventure story should be. It’s a crackling action movie grounded by fascinating and sympathetic characters set in a beautiful tall ship which ably serves as a microcosm of British society (not for nothing does Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey refer to it as “this wooden world.”)
The plot is simple and effective. The HMS Surprise is charged with hunting down the French privateer Archaron which has been raiding ships along the South American coast. In the breakneck opening sequence, the larger, more powerful Archaron ambushes Surprise and makes its escape. And the hunt is on. In one of the Patrick O’Brien novels upon which the movie is based, the privateer was an American warship, but the French make better villains.
Veteran director Peter Weir knows how to make life aboard the ship live and breathe, from the ever-present shifting and creaking of the ship’s bulkheads to the daily routine of the sailors aboard her. No frame or scene is wasted, and as effortlessly as the Surprise glides through the crystal waters of the Pacific, Weir shows us the society of a Napoleonic warship. We see the cook gathering eggs from a chicken coop, the ship’s surgeon hastily converting the mess hall to a sickbay, the lower-decks playing the fiddle and folk-dancing, while the officers retire to the captain’s quarters to drink and tell stories late into the night.
What makes M&C such an absorbing experience, though, is the characters of Jack Aubrey and his friend and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin played by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany respectively. Aubrey and Maturin’s friendship is vivid and complex. Aubrey is an officer and a soldier of the empire, while Maturin is a man of science and an ill-fit within the military machine on which he serves. Still, the men share a mutual respect for the other’s expertise and mastery over their disciplines, and the scenes of the two of them playing duets on the fiddle and cello seem as natural and organic as the rest of the film. When their worlds do collide, the disappointment they feel in one another is palpable. After an argument over naval discipline, Aubrey says to Maturin “I hate it when you talk of the service that way, Stephen. It makes me feel so terribly low.” As Crowe delivers it, this line is subtly heartbreaking and gives Aubrey a depth seldom found in cinematic heroes.
Everyone shines in their roles, yet Crowe and Bettany do the heavy lifting. Crowe playes Aubrey as a man from another age, when leadership meant not simply boldness and heroism, but honor and decency. Even his smallest interactions with the crew make it understandable why they’d follow him into battle. Russell Crowe may not be the first person you’d want checking in to the suite next to yours, but on the basis of this and The Insider he’s easily one of the best actors working today. Watching the scene in which he visits a 12 year-old seaman—a Lord, and thus, his social superior—who’s recovering from an amputated arm and brings him a book of Lord Nelson’s naval victories, I simply can’t imagine any other actor making the credible much less as affecting as it plays out on screen.
Bettany plays the quiet, sensitive counterpoint to Aubrey. A doctor and naturalist, he’s an oddity on the ship—but a well-respected one. Early in the film he cuts away the skull of an injured sailor to relieve the swelling of his brain. As he does so, the crew forms an impromptu observation theatre, watching in awe. “Is that his brain?” one asks. “No,” Maturin responds blandly, then points with his scalpel. “That’s his brain.” And the crowd jostles for a better look. Later, he finds a like mind in the young Lord Blakely (Max Perkis of the first season on Rome), the young amputee who’s an amalgam of Aubrey and Maturin’s best characteristics.
For a film that takes place for the most part aboard the Surprise, M&C has a true adventure story’s sense of scale and scope, taking the ship around Cape Horn and even to the Galapagos Islands (beating the Beagle by a couple years) before arriving at the exhilarating climax. Weir, of an age before movie directors were hired on the basis of their work in music videos, stages the sea battles as realistically as possible, allowing for the push-pull of combat’s moments of excruciating suspense and sudden, chaotic action. When the smoke clears, he doesn’t let the audience forget the human cost of this endeavor, devoting equal time to the dead being sewn into their hammocks and buried at sea by the men who fought alongside them.
Women tend to hate this movie, and I suppose that’s natural since it’s pretty much a boys-only club (the only woman seen in the 2-plus hours running time is a shatteringly beautiful Brazilian woman–played by Marsha Thomason–who briefly bats her eyes at Aubrey). But why men haven’t adopted this movie—along with films such as Heat and Ronin—as guy-classics is beyond me. Maybe it’s because we don’t our heroes wielding cutlasses instead of guns. Or maybe it’s because the time is long gone when we’ve come to expect our heroes to be gentlemen, and in which concepts such as duty and honor are not merely buzzwords to be thrown out, but standards to live by. This weekend the movie Hitman premiered, featuring a genetically-programmed killer who, on the basis of the commercials, weilds a submachine gun in both hands and shoots down Russian gunships. Jesus wept.