Retrospective: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)


Some movies have a bittersweet air about them and some movies have sequels which mean that they outstay their welcome, Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean are good examples. Some movies deserve another movie and Master and Commander is possibly the best example of this sort of movie. I’m a huge fan of the book series by Patrick O’Brian and as an historian with a particular interest in naval and military history I have a particular interest in this period, both in a fictional and historical context. This is only of secondary concern in this retrospective due to the strength of the story and how well it manages the most intangible thing by always having a sense of place in between the action and the character development of the principle cast.

Let’s set sail onwards to the Napoleonic world of 1805, where the state of the world is equivalent to a world war conflict. This is a world where the odds are already stacked  against Britain as their naval dominance in Europe is lost and Napoleon is talking of invasion. We are introduced to HMS Surprise, a small 28 Gun Frigate, a ship which is old and starting to become obsolete for its role. It has 196 souls on board with orders to capture, sink, or destroy a French ship called Acheron. The two most important figures in this floating village are Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey and his surgeon and friend Steven Maturin, played respectively by Russell Crow and Paul Bettany in what I think is one of the best roles in their careers as both complement each other really well. As in novels, they hold very different political views and demeanors. Jack is happiest at the centre of the battle and leading his men to victory while Steven is a naturalist and interested in the study of nature while being politically very liberal. Their clashes, tensions and lasting friendship is the core of the movie.

The ship is small but has a very strong hierarchy. It is full of class divide between the captain and his officers, and the officers to the petty officers and so on. But this doesn’t stop good relations between officers and men. We are introduced to various members of the crew on a foggy night and this introduces us to one member of the crew who is nervous and spots a sail. He cannot decide whether to beat to quarters (action stations where all the crew go into fighting positions) but eventually a younger officers makes the decision for him and shows the importance of appearance.

This attack is very realistic and shows what happens to an outmatched vessel on the defensive, from the deck being torn to shreds to the surgeon at the bottom of the ship slicked in the blood of the wounded and dead while the battle goes on above. The escape from doom is clever and surprisingly long in fruition. Those expecting Pirates of the Caribbean quick solutions will be disappointed. This battle reveals tensions between Jack and the rest of the officers as they are keen to head home from the battered ship. The ship that instigated the attack becomes Jack’s focus, forcing his crew to the limit to capture it.

I always find the development of characters through bonding events such as meals songs and common action is a surprisingly rare occurrence on film so it’s always a joy to see a movie where that is the main way of getting to know the characters. The vessel travels the globe in the attempt to capture Acheron, which they discover is double the gun power and the latest in ship design and completely outmatches Surprise in every way. The primary combat is the weather with a tired lonely crew being driven to the limit. In the long dead time in nautical travel we see the Royal Navy three shift system in action as well as a look at biological science in the 19th century and its surprisingly deep impact elsewhere including warfare.

The movie is built around music from various sea shanties as well as a wonderful selection of classical music played by the principle cast. The music forms part of the plot and the importance for the characters is profound. An empty chair has huge emotional significance. Characters are opened up without a word of dialog though the manner of the music and the way it’s played.

What it is at the core of the movie is the human relations and friendship against a clearly defined problem and their attempts to overcome it, whether it be the French, the weather or a difficult crew member. It stays true to spirit of the books (a different proposition to being true to a novel) and combines some of the nicest moments from 21 books, but there were many moments they didn’t cover and that is a huge shame as these are some of the greatest stories of Napoleonic wars. It is nicely shot and gets the feel of a ship, actions, tactics, and uniforms which are all by in large rather accurate. The charisma of Jack and the his nature with the rest of the crew makes the earlier comment about it being a village at sea a good way of describing the life on the ocean waves. It has a relaxed pace that makes you forget that it’s effectively a chase movie.

It’s a movie which could do with a sequel to return to this beautiful world in another situation, develop the characters further and return to O’Brian’s glorious naval world.

Review by Harry Riedl

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