Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Director: Peter Weir
Principals: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany
Rating: PG-13 (intense battle sequences, primitive surgery and brief language)
By Gregg Tubbs
(UMC.org) -- If your Christmas wish-list included a taught, intelligent, atmospheric and rousing high-seas adventure, check your front doorstep. Thanks to the masterful direction of Peter Weir and another incredible performance by screen chameleon Russell Crowe, your package has just arrived! Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a naval war epic of tall ships and heavy weather that never loses sight of the dynamics and dramas of the individual souls, locked together in a fight for survival and victory at sea.
Master and Commander is based on Patrick O'Brian's books about 19th Century British sea captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and his adventures during the Napoleonic wars, at the helm of the HMS Surprise. His best friend, ship doctor, Stephen Maturin (Crowe’s Beautiful Mind co-star Paul Bettany), is the Dr. McCoy to his Capt. Kirk. Their mission is to hunt down the French battleship Acheron, which is off the coast of Brazil, and sink or capture her for England. Aubrey is called “Lucky Jack” because of his uncanny ability to win out against the steepest odds, and he’ll need all his luck to best the larger, faster and apparently cannonball-proof Acheron.
|Russell Crowe plays 19th Century British sea captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander. Photo © Copyright 20th Century Fox|
The film revolves around two encounters between the HMS Surprise and the Acheron. The first, at the very start of the film, ends with the Surprise soundly beaten by the superior Acheron. The final battle comes at the end of the film, when Aubrey gambles on superior seamanship and some of his famous luck to defeat their adversary. Sandwiched between these two brilliantly staged battles are essentially a series of interwoven character studies—Aubrey and Maturin, the crew, officers and the ship itself—creating a fascinating look at life aboard ship in 1805.
Aubrey is a strong willed man of action, bound by duty, king and country. Maturin, the healer, is Aubrey’s conscience, whose gentler worldview includes a love of nature and respect for life. Both characters are complex, and Crowe and Bettany bring them vibrantly to life. On deck, Aubrey is the strong, charismatic leader who inspires his men to do the impossible. But below deck, particularly with his friend Maturin, we see his more human side—a man who sometimes hates the hard choices of duty, who indulges in silly puns during suppers and is moved nearly to tears at the sight of a wounded young midshipman. For his part, Maturin will dive into hand-to-hand combat, when the need arises, and when given the choice between the chance to examine an exotic island’s wildlife and his duty to their mission, he chooses duty, just as his friend Aubrey would.
|Aubrey (right) is a strong willed man of action, bound by duty, king and country. Maturin (left), the healer, is Aubrey’s conscience, whose gentler worldview includes a love of nature and respect for life. Photo © Copyright 20th Century Fox|
Duality is the theme of the film—pairs of people, pairs of adversaries and paired concepts and beliefs—some of them complimentary, some contradictory. Aubrey and Maturin are an obvious pair that are explored: the captain with his telescope, the doctor with his microscope. But less obvious are the paired ships, the Surprise and its ghostlike counterpart the Acheron. We spend most of the film becoming intimate with the Surprise, while the Acheron remains a specter, draped in mist, appearing from nowhere. The dual concepts of authority and leadership are also explored, especially when Aubrey must recognize the difference between true leadership and merely exercising his authority. When his quest to capture the Acheron threatens to become a matter of ego, Aubrey must learn when to ease-off for the sake of his men and their morale.
The film also compares the dual concepts of superstition and religion and the unusual way the crew blends them. They’re obsessed with the idea of “luck,” whether it’s their faith in “Lucky Jack” or their distrust of a junior officer they see as a jinx. As the Surprise is being refitted for battle it drifts on a calm windless sea, without rain to replenish their fresh water supply. The miserable men look for someone to blame for their misfortune. They target a junior officer who lacks Aubrey’s charisma and aura of good luck. They even use the Biblical story of Jonah to support their claim that he’s a bringer of misfortune. Of course, the young officer is not to blame, but this doesn’t prevent the crew from hounding him until tragedy results. Later, Aubrey chides the crew by leading the group in prayer, asking for forgiveness for their sins toward the young officer. It’s the human moments like this that set Master and Commander apart from typical action films and makes it both exciting and thought-provoking.
|The dual concepts of authority and leadership are explored in Master and Commander, especially when Aubrey must recognize the difference between true leadership and merely exercising his authority. Photo © Copyright 20th Century Fox|
Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.