Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) / Drama-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and brief language
Running Time: 138 min.

Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Jack Randall
Peter Weir
Screenplay: Peter Weir, John Collee
Review published April 21, 2000

With adventure films all the rage these days, like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Pirates of the Caribbean, it would seem an opportune time to launch another saga, based on the popular Aubrey-Maturin epic series (there were about 20 books in all) written by Patrick O'Brian.  These were a series of historical novels taking place during the time of the Napoleonic wars, following the exploits of Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe, A Beautiful Mind) and his friend and companion, Stephen Maturin (Bettany, A Knight's Tale), surgeon and insatiable scientist. 

Although the stories told are fictional, the novels were known for trying to be as realistic as possible in the depiction of the lives of the 19th Century British naval seamen, showcasing the dialects, phrases, battle routines, and general day-to-day conversations.  There is usually an overriding story as well, but it is merely a vehicle by which to give you all facets of the naval vessel, in combat and in peace.  Yet, it is also more than that.  It is also the story of two friends with different motivations and outlooks on life.

The same can be said about the film version of these books, Master and Commander, although the actual battle scenario takes up the a good deal of the running length.  Like Peter Jackson's take on Tolkien, Peter Weir strips a lengthy and descriptive book down to only the most cinematic elements, which means fighting, squabbling, floggings, and cannon fire occur whenever possible.

"Lucky Jack" Aubrey is the commander of the British Frigate, the HMS Surprise, currently sailing near "the far side of the world", as the Americas were viewed in these times.  It is the time of Napoleon, and France was the enemy to be defeated, so when a large French warship is also in the vicinity, the two vessels go to battle.  Although clearly mismatched by a larger, faster, and much more powerful ship, Aubrey remains undaunted in his duty as a Naval commander, utilizing his resolve and ability to motivate his men into war against seemingly insurmountable odds.  Meanwhile, his friend and ship doctor, Stephen Maturin, is fascinated by the local fauna of the region, such as the flightless bird, the swimming lizard, and many other animals unheard of up to that point.  But how can he ever hope to have a chance to study when Jack wants to continue his suicidal quest to defeat the French ship?

Just as Aubrey's strength and courage have earned the respect and admiration of his men aboard his ship, so does his portrayer, Russell Crowe, do the same for the movie-going audience.  It's a fine performance that not many actors working today could have delivered, at once showing commanding power while also being quite vulnerable to his own doubts about whether he is doing the right thing.  Paul Bettany also portrays Maturin in complementary fashion to Aubrey's macho persona, balancing the theme of brain vs. brawn nicely, but not in a way that is overly ostentatious.

The budget of the film stands at a loft $135 million, and while one expects a movie that takes place on the ocean to be costly, I'm not entirely sure where most of this money went.  The cinematography is occasionally arresting, but not nearly of the breathtaking variety, with the murky looking ocean and unattractive islands providing the only background most of the time. 

Weir employs a great deal of character touches and at least half of the film is about the men and their dealing with each other, putting the plot involving the French warship aside.  The style by which this is done will likely split many viewers, as we have become accustomed to adventures that are always forward moving, and not lending well to character study and bits of contemplation.  My personal feeling is that this is a welcome change, as the story of one man's folly to take down the impossible vessel would play out like another rendition of "Moby Dick", and thus not be altogether interesting on its own. 

All of these little things add up by the end of the film into something quite substantial, and we actually have grown to like these men and their own little world.  We enjoy watching their adventures and ways of looking at things, and when engaged in battle, we watch on the sidelines and root for them to win as if we are there. 

Master and Commander is one of those movies that will have a hardcore audience, particularly among manly adventure lovers and aficionados of historical fiction.  One man's treasure is another man's trash, and for all of the admirable qualities, great character touches, and extensive looks into the lives of 19th Century seamen, more mainstream audiences will likely be bored by the perceived lackadaisical plotting and unnecessary side stories.  To each his own, I say.  Watch this if you're the kind of person that favors tales about friendship and valor over rousing battles and swordplay, and be richly rewarded with a tale of adventure that you'll wish will never end. At least there are Patrick O'Brian's 20 original books to delve into if you crave more.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo