- Title: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
- Director: Peter Weir
- Date: 2003
- Studio: 20th Century Fox, Miramax, Universal
- Genre: Action, Drama, Historical Epic
- Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D’Arcy
- Format: Color, Widescreen
- DVD Format: R1, NTSC
“Would you call me an aged man of war, Doctor? The Surprise is not old. She has a bluff bow, lovely lines. She’s a fine sea bird, weatherly, stiff and fast. Very fast, if she’s well handled. No, she’s not old. She’s in her prime.”— Captain Jack Aubrey
“This is the second time he’s done this to me. There will not be a third.”— Captain Aubrey
“England is under threat of invasion. And though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is England.”— Captain Aubrey
I loved this movie the first time I saw it, and I really do enjoy it every time I re-watch it. Peter Weir is a very talented director, who manages to balance the large scale, such as full-on battles between tall ships during the Napoleonic Wars, and the more intimate story of the unlikely friendship between the ship’s doctor, a man of science; and the ship’s captain, a life-long Navy man.
Master and Commander is set in 1805, and the HMS Surprise is a man o’war, captained by Jack Aubrey, a hard but fair man, lucky, but also experienced. He’s been in the service his entire life. The ship’s doctor is Stephen Maturin, – a man of science, and a naturalist. He’s close enough friends with Aubrey to be able to challenge him, and speak his mind, especially when talking to Aubrey as his friend, rather than as a member of the crew. The film is based on a series of several novels by Patrick o’Brian, specifically the two that form the film’s compound title (the first introduces the characters, the second is the plot of the film, since Weir wanted to do a plot involving a long sea voyage).
The film contains a lot of beautiful historical details (I love the look of the ship, especially when Aubrey stands alone on the top of a mast). However, the film also doesn’t shy away from the brutal historical facts of the life of sailors, especially naval sailors in the 19th century. The crew of HMS Surprise is shockingly young, and as the British are at war with France, the young die too. We also see Aubrey order the flogging of a disrespectful sailor, not because he is cruel, but to keep discipline. Life in His Majesty’s navy is tough, nasty, and often short — and the film shows you that.
The plot of the film is basically that of a cat and mouse game. A French privateer frigate is harassing British whalers and merchant ships. Aubrey is ordered to find the ship and – “sink, burn, or take her as a prize” as the film’s opening printed narration tells the audience. But the frigate vastly outguns the Surprise — 44 guns to 28, with twice the crew, and the frigate has two decks to the man o’war’s single deck. The frigate also seems to be a cross between a ghost, a Flying Dutchman, and Jack’s opposite number. In two engagements, the Surprise is caught nearly unaware, and the frigate has the “weather gauge” or the advantage in the engagement. In their final battle, Aubrey turns the tables and is able to successfully surprise the frigate, but at a high cost in lost men.
A secondary plot is the ship’s doctor, a naturalist. Because of the damage done to the ship, in both the battles with the frigate and a journey around Cape Horn in a storm, one place Aubrey takes the ship during repairs is the Galapagos — someplace Stephen would dearly like to explore, to collect and document new species of wildlife. But every time it looks like the ship might head there – the frigate shows up, and Aubrey must fight.
There is also a plot about one of the Midshipmen being cursed as a “Jonah”. Basically, he’s scapegoated for the ship’s run of bad luck. He’s the Midshipman whom another sailor disrespects, and gets lashed as a result. The scapegoat plot is one of several examples showing the innate superstition of the sailors. The Midshipman commits suicide, and the ship’s luck begins to turn. Though, Dr. Maturin is accidentally shot after the poor lad’s death. (Maturin is shot by one of the Royal Marines who’s taking pot shots at a following albatross. Obviously, the guy never read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). Aubrey temporarily gives up his chase of the frigate, so Maturin can be brought ashore to remove the bullet and cloth in his stomach. Stephen does the surgery himself, using a mirror, and Aubrey keeps a hand on Maturin’s belly to steady him. It’s one of the more frightening scenes in the film – not that it’s overly gross, but can you imagine operating on yourself? Even if it’s the only way to survive? Yikes!
The final battle is total chaos, then silence, then more chaos. Aubrey looks fine, and in his element as he boards the enemy vessel. Billy Boyd is also quite good in the scene! For the most part, he’s seen alot but doesn’t get many lines, but it is nice to see him again. Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany are perfectly cast, and have a great rapport with each other. The rest of the crew of the HMS Surprise slowly move from faces to having personalities.
One thing both Aubrey and Maturin share is a love of music. Aubrey plays violin and Maturin the cello; and their duets in the captain’s cabin are some of the best moments in a film that is full of excellent moments.
Again, Weir’s direction really is excellent — and he’s now one of my favorite directors. There are plenty of gorgeous shots in this film: the ship at full sail, the creatures in the Galapagos Islands, etc. There are also plenty of terrifying shots: the storm around Cape Horn, the battle scenes. But the driving force of the story is the friendship of Aubrey and Maturin; and the comradeship between the sailors on the ship.
I have the two-disc collector’s edition and it really is a beautiful DVD set. The set looks like old parchment, with line drawings of Crowe and the ship. The special features are located on the second disc and there are plenty of them and they are enjoyable to watch. I also found that I learned from the special features, especially about the different techniques used in the production of the film.
Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars