Droid defines the Decades Best Films – #2 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
There’s the old saying “They don’t make them like this anymore.” I am tempted to use this to describe ‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World’, but I’m wondering if they ever did actually used to make them like this. ‘Master and Commander’ is a rousing action adventure that involves us from the get go, and is impossible to take your eyes off.
From the opening shot of a black moonlit ocean, filled with ominous foreboding, ‘Master and Commander’ draws us in and keeps us enthralled. The first minutes are dedicated to the orientation of the ship. Guiding us through the layout of the ship, both above and below deck, we hear only the wind on the sails and the creaking of the mast. As we explore the lower decks, we glimpse the cannons (each carved with a nickname, such as “Sudden Death”), and see the men asleep in their bunks. It’s 1805, the English are at war with Napoleons France, and this is the HMS Surprise. A shape is spotted in the heavy fog and we’re introduced to Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). The shape is a French ship of superior size, speed and strength, called the ‘Acheron’, which fires on the Surprise and destroys its rudder. Aubrey evades the Acheron by guiding the Surprise into the fog and safely out of harms way, and then it’s time to regroup. And thus begins a game of cat and mouse seamanship between Aubrey, and the unseen Captain of the Acheron.
Russell Crowe is terrific as Aubrey. It’s a charismatic performance that makes believable a leader of men prepared to follow him into peril. There is great humour in the performance, and Crowe portrays an intelligent man almost wickedly delighted with the challenge of fighting against the odds. Twice Aubrey is caught off guard by the Acheron, and must think his way out of a tight spot. You can see his mind working, and Crowe gives a hint of a smile when he comes up with a plan. He is also terrific in scenes that portray his caring for the men under his command. A young Midshipman is injured during the initial attack, and must have his arm amputated. Aubrey visits him at his bedside and shows care for him. This helps humanise Aubrey, developing his character and making his character more relatable.
Aubrey is joined by Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), ship doctor and amateur naturalist, who serves as Jack’s friend, and also his voice of reason. Bettany is very good as the one man on the ship who can stand objectively outside of the rank and file of the Navy, who can challenge Aubrey, and who Aubrey can confide in. Bettany portrays Maturin as a talented surgeon, who has ended up in the Navy not for King and country, but possibly to see the world and satisfy his interests as a naturalist. The Navy serves his needs as it provides him with the opportunity that he otherwise may not get. Maturin provides a nice counterbalance to Aubrey’s borderline zealot.
Based upon the series of twenty-something books by Patrick O’Brian, and adapted by Peter Collee and director Peter Weir, ‘Master and Commander’ is a wonderfully intelligent, authentic feeling action adventure. What an underrated director Peter Weir is. He’s made some terrific films, including The Truman Show, Witness, Gallipoli and Fearless. Here he captures details that involve us in this time and place. The bustling life on the ship, the stately dinners for the Officers, the blood soaked floor of the infirmary and a subplot involving a potential ‘Jonah’ on the ship, which shows the superstition that can develop amongst the men when things aren’t going their way. The dialogue feels natural, with a feeling of it’s time and Aubrey is written with a perfect balance of intelligence, humour, bravado and empathy. He’s a wonderfully written character, a natural leader, who is admired by his men because he is intelligent and bold. Aubrey actually sums up his own character when advising Midshipman Hollum, who has been labelled a Jonah by the ships crew, when he says “Its leadership they want. Strength. You find that within yourself and you will earn their respect. With that respect, true discipline goes by the board.” When he says it, you believe it. When Hollum unconvincingly responds “Yes sir. Strength. Respect. Discipline.”, the look on Aubrey face tells it all. He can see Hollum doesn’t have what it takes.
The film really looks terrific, and every kind of weather is thrown at us. From the icy cold, to the wildly stormy seas, dense fog and sunscorched days, it’s beautifully shot by Russell Boyd who deservedly won one of just two Academy Awards (this was up against Return of the King, which won every category it was nominated in). The action scenes, with two ships firing cannons at each other, chaotic battles as the men board the French ship, and a terrifying storm which threatens the entire ship are perfectly executed and provides an exhilarating nautical adventure that stands miles apart from the usual action films released these days. There’s no nauseating hyper editing, no over abundance of CGI or unbelievable wire-fu heroics from any particular individual. Just the confidence of a talented director who trusts the material.
The score is wonderfully understated. There are many scenes that have no score at all, just the sound of the ocean, but quite often when it is used, it is provided by Aubreys violin and Maturins bass, playing Bach, Mozart and Corelli. Action scenes have a more traditional score, but serve only to provide punctuation to the visuals. The films other Academy Award went to Richard King for Sound Effects Editing, and it’s understandable. The sound design is spectacular. The wind on the sails, the creaking ship, the crashing seas provide an ambience that envelops us, while the ear splitting cannons, gun fire and particularly the scene during the wild storm that splits the mast is terrifyingly real. It’s amazing sound design.
‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World’ is an anomaly in Hollywood. An intelligent, entertaining and rewarding action adventure that features wonderful performances and clear, well staged action scenes. This film combines elements of three different O’Brian novels, so there are at least 17 more to plunder. It’s incredibly unlikely to happen, but here’s hoping the stars might align and we see more adventures of the real Captain Jack and the HMS Surprise.
The list so far…