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Film Review - Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Period sea-faring stories have always had an air of romance and adventure about them, dealing as they do with dangerous voyages of discovery and war, usually in far away parts of the world. As such they usually make very good subjects for the widescreen cinema in which the isolation of a small, rather fragile wooden ship in a vast and very inhospitable ocean can be shown to best effect.
'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World' is one such story, brought to the screen by Director Peter Weir in 2003. The film is based on a series of 21 novels, the first of which was written and published by the author Patrick O'Brian in 1969, and the last of which was unfinished at the time of his death in the year 2000. O'Brian's novels cover the entire period of the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the 19th century and they focus on the two key central figures - Jack Aubrey, the Captain of H.M.S Surprise, and Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon and his good friend.
These two characters also form the central relationship of the movie, but the movie is only loosely based on an amalgamation of at least three of O'Brian's books. Even the title of the film is derived from two separate stories - 'Master and Commander', (the very first novel from 1969) and 'The Far Side of the World' (published in 1984). The result is one of the best of seafaring tales, and a first class period war drama, which is reviewed on this page.
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WHAT'S THE STORY ?
The date is April 1805 - the height of the war against Napoleon and the year of the Battle of Trafalgar - and a British warship, the frigate H.M.S Surprise, is on patrol in the Western Atlantic close to the north coast of Brazil. Captain Jack Aubrey has received his orders from the British Admiralty - he is to capture or destroy the Acheron, a French privateer intent on spreading the war across the ocean to the New World and the Pacific Ocean.
The film begins with the first encounter between the two ships as the Acheron - a vessel superior in fire power and speed - takes Aubrey off guard as it appears out of the mist one morning, all cannons blazing. It requires all of the Captain's guile to avoid disaster and escape from the French ship. It's the first time but it's not the last. A few days later almost the same thing happens, and again all the Captain's experience is required as he makes desperate attempts to save H.M.S Surprise.
Each encounter only strengthens Aubrey's resolve; he is determined to vanquish the Acheron come what may and regardless of the consequences. It is a singled-minded resolve which takes him round the Horn in pursuit of the French ship and puts him into some conflict with his good friend and confidante, Stephen Maturin. There is another issue of contention between the two men. Aside from his medical work on board, Maturin has a deep fascination for nature, and a desire to view the animals of the Galapagos archipelago. Unfortunately, despite promises to the contrary, Jack Aubrey's commitment to the war cause means that Maturin's desires are very low on his list of priorities, and he is forced to renege on his promises..
The dispute between the two is only a minor diversion however. Their long term friendship will see them through, and it seems that eventually Maturin will indeed get his wish to study the island wildlife when a very serious injury requires a period of recuperation on dry land. But events, including the return once more of the Acheron to the vicinity of the Galapagos, ensure that the action moves swiftly to its conclusion with one final battle royale between H.M.S Surprise and the Acheron.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Captain Jack Aubrey
Dr Steven Maturin
1st Lt Tom Pullings
2nd Lt William Mowett
Ship's Master, John Allen
Captain Howard (Marines)
Coxwain Barrett Bonden
Captain's Steward Killick
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Peter Weir
- Patrick O'Brian (novel)
- Peter Weir, John Collee (screenplay)
YEAR OF RELEASE - 2003
RUNNING TIME - 132 minutes
GENRE - Historical Drama
GUIDENCE - Realistic but not sensationalist depiction of violent war and injuries
ACADEMY AWARDS :
- Richard King (Best Sound Editing)
- Russell Boyd (Best Cinematography)
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
Best Picture / Best Director / Best Art and Set Design / Best Film Editing / Best Visual Effects / Best Sound Mixing / Best Costume Design / Best Make-Up
KEY CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCES
Russell Crowe is very credible as Captain Jack Aubrey. He doesn’t play him as a man with 21st century moral values. He plays him as a man of his time, as he believes in the practical necessity of giving an insubordinate rating a flogging when the occasion demands, and he is not entirely free from old naval superstitions. For all that Aubrey is brave, loyal and clever, and indeed decent when judged by the values the 19th century. He does come across as a likeable man who commands the respect of his crew.
Steven Maturin is a welcome cultured relief from the coarseness of the ship's crew. In his capacity as the ship's doctor, he works to save life, but in his free time he likes nothing better than making music with Aubrey, or finding bugs and birds to study on the landfalls they make.
The rest of the crew seem believeable, both the rank and file and the officers, some of the whom are played so well it is almost difficult to imagine the actors in 21st century clothing. I particularly like Robert Pugh as the Sailing Master, and James D'Arcy as Tom Pullings. David Threlfall gives an enjoyable performance as a thoroughly miserable old salt who serves as the Captain's steward, while Lee Ingleby is quite moving as the tragic Midshipman Hollom. And Max Perkis played Midshipman Blakeney in his first film acting role at the age of 13. He was just one of several young actors who give credible performances - a useful reminder of the fact that even children were roped into the armed services in days gone by (and still are in some countries).
I guess most people would choose a battle scene. The battle scenes after all are where the action is, and the tussle between the Surprise and the Acheron is what the film is all about. The climactic battle is expertly shot.
But I think where this film really scores is in the fine period details and the authenticity of the characterisations. Though I am no scholar of this era and the ships which sailed then, the behaviour and manners of the men, and particularly the ship’s officers, seem entirely credible, and I’m sure that is a tribute to the director, the writers and all the cast. For these reasons I choose scenes set in the officers' quarters as the best. There are meal sessions when Jack Aubrey and his senior officers dine together, and the conversation ranges from friendly banter to discussions of war and tactics. These scenes are so well handled and show real life on board a sailing ship in a way unmatched by any other film.
Then there are the scenes when Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin meet together to make music. Steven is possibly the only man the Captain really trusts, to the extent that the ship's doctor can feel free to say anything he wants even to the point of making almost mutinous statements about the conduct of affairs. The scenes where the two men play old tunes together on violin and cello provide brief yet charming respites from the ever present dangers of life on board The Surprise.
Although the main theme of the battle between the H.M.S Surprise and the Acheron came from a novel which was set in 1812, this movie was set 7 years earlier. The reason for the change of date would seem to be clear; in 1805 Britain was at war with France. But in 1812, Britain was at war with America, and in the novel, the adversary of H.M.S Surprise was an American ship. (It probably wouldn't have gone down too well in Hollywood and at the box office if our hero was fighting against the Americans!!)
In a film without any female casting credits, it was briefly contemplated that a romantic interest for Jack Aubrey could be introduced; Keira Knightley was considered for the part, but I think thankfully, the idea was dropped.
Some of Russell Crowe's violin playing is done by the actor himself, who learned the instrument for this role.
Paul Bettany’s character is a keen naturalist, and the opportunity (largely thwarted) to set foot on the Galapagos Islands and study the wildlife which lives there, fills him with wonder. His brief musings about how the strange birds and reptiles of the island might have come into being, is very clearly intended to show him as a fictional and junior forerunner of Charles Darwin. So when 'Creation', a film biography about the great man, was made just a few years later (with the same writer John Collee) there wasn’t really any question as to the casting of the lead - Bettany took the role.
This was apparently the first ever film to location shoot in the Galapagos.
The dialogue throughout is full of merit for its believability as the language of navy sailors in days gone by.
The toast 'To wives and sweethearts - may they never meet' as issued by Captain Jack Aubrey, is a nice funny line, but it's a genuinely accurate quote which dates from old Royal Navy traditions, in which each day of the week featured a different toast. I believe this one was usually reserved for Saturdays.
There's a few other nice moments of humour and wit, such as when Aubrey invites Maturin to commemorate him with one of his discoveries on the Galapagos Islands:
'Name a shrub after me - something prickly and hard to irradicate.'
The most common criticism levelled against 'Master and Commander' is that it's overlong, and nothing very much happens. It's true that the battle scenes only take up a fraction of the running time, so if all you want is a mindless all action feature then maybe the movie is not for you. But if you can appreciate a well crafted script and believable characterisations, then the criticism is entirely unjustified. Indeed, I argue elsewhere that some of the best sequences have little to do with war and violent action.
No doubt also, some afficionados of Patrick O'Brian's novels will not like the liberties taken with adapting them for the screen, but that is the nature of film work, and for me the story works perfectly well.
I do find it hard to believe that Steven Maturin's injury, to say nothing of poor Blakeney's amputation, could heal quite so rapidly and cleanly in the days before antiseptics, but I guess both characters were needed for the plot, and that for me is a minor quibble.
IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM...
Amazon Instant Video Rental
All 20 completed Master and Commander novels in hardcover
WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT IT
The great strength of this movie is the feeling of authenticity which pervades the entire 132 minutes - the acting, the speech patterns, the music and the costumes, the set design and the sights and sounds of the battle scenes. There is the brutal tearing of flesh as cannon balls rip through the wooden hull of the ship and then through the limbs and body parts of the sailors. There is the chaos of men fighting hand to hand with swords, and there is the squalor of the unhygenic conditions as Maturin performs cranial surgery on the ship's deck and hacks off a patient's arm with a dirty blade, and humorously discusses with Aubrey the weevils which are crawling over the dinner plates. And there are the humdrum duties of the crew, as they sweep the decks and repair the scars of battle. You can really believe this is what life would really have been like on a 19th century warship. It is no wonder that the film attracted a multitude of creative and technical Academy nominations.
Many war films will rely on a love interest to break up the unremitting tension of violence; Master and Commander uses the beauty of music and the natural beauty of the Galapagos Islands, and it works really well in the interludes between H.M.S Surprise's encounters with the Acheron.
And finally - and I seriously suggest this - the closing credits are worthy of mention for the musical score which accompanies them. The credits are long, but even before they commence, the music has begun, and for almost a full ten minutes we are treated to a rich medley of traditional and classical pieces - if you like this kind of music, and I certainly do, it's almost like a free concert at the end of the movie, and it's such a shame that most people would probably leave or switch off without listening to it. My advice is to watch the closing credits to the end.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is one of the better films of the last decade, an enjoyable piece of period drama with believeable characters in a seemingly authentic setting, and the story of the relentless battle of wits between the captains and crews of two warships, expertly told.
I recommend the movie to all who enjoy good dramatic action, good acting and a good script.
SOME OF MY OTHER HISTORICAL AND WAR FILM REVIEWS
The film 'Zulu' relates the events of Rorke's Drift. It is a historical epic, the story of a heroic defence against seemingly impossible odds - a British 'Alamo' This is a review of the film
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This is the story of a Bruno Stachel, a young but talented WW1 German pilot, and the film follows his progress as he hones his skills and notches his kills. But Bruno has a flaw - he is ruthlessly ambitious to win Germany's top honour - the Blue Max
- Enemy at the Gates
In 1942 the battle for Stalingrad is raging. The beleagured Russians are looking for heroes to inspire them, and deadly sniper Vassili Zaitsev fulfills that role. But German Major Koenig has one mission in life - to eliminate the Russian sharpshooter
- Eye of the Needle
Henry Faber is a heartless German agent who will stop at nothing to complete his mission .... until, that is, he meets Lucy - someone who finds his heart; someone he cannot despatch with his usual ruthless efficiency
The last days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker at the end of World War Two, has been documented often in factual programmes. This film is the first serious movie by a German director to tackle this sensitive aspect of his country's history