Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

| November 17, 2003

Just the title is daunting: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. You’re pretty sure this won’t be a Pauli Shore flick. No. This is the title fit for an epic sea movie, like Moby Dick (1930 with John Barrymore or 1956 with Gregory Peck) or Das Boot or The Caine Mutiny. It is a movie that absolutely lives up to its title.
It is the spring of 1805 and Captain Jack Aubrey has been given orders to travel alone and track down a French ship, The Acheron which is heading for the South Pacific to attack British interests. He is supposed to give chase as far as Brazil, but like Captain Ahab and his whale, Aubrey is bettered by his opponent and will risk all to take her prisoner.
“Lucky Jack” is played by Russell Crowe. He has been aboard the HMS Surprise for 20 years so we see him and the ship as one. She is his home. She is England. One of the good things about this movie is that we don’t see the Surprise as the biggest ship in the navy. Not even close. She is but one ship in a vast armada. Captain Aubrey is not the highest ranking officer in the fleet – in fact he was probably seen as expendable considering the task he was given was relatively minor compared to the vastness of the British Empire. But he is an officer in the Royal Navy and will do his duty.
What makes Master And Commander better than most contemporary movies is that it takes the time to give us lots of little details on what life at sea was like on these vessels. This made even the watching of a sailor go from bow to stern visually interesting and the movie more engaging. It is several story lines that mesh wonderfully together so that we see them as one, not a disjointed mess that many movies become. It will be on my top 10 list for the year.
Crowe is on a roll with classic parts. His career is approaching the zenith that not many attain. Beginning with The Insider and followed by Gladiator, Proof of Life and A Beautiful Mind, he is beginning to look like Tom Hanks starting with Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile and so on.
The ship to ship battle scenes are well photographed. You get the feeling that modern warfare at the time was not a matter of rounds per second, but rather rounds per minute. Nothing laser guided – but everything dependent upon the wind and how you could maneuver your ship. The upclose battles are not as solid. The swordplay scenes are very trick – lots of quick close ups and fast cutaways so the swordsmanship does not have to be learned (not like Errol Flynn in Robin Hood). I found myself thinking “blah blah blah, if this is all you’re giving me, then let’s get to the predetermined end of the fight.” When director Peter Weir gave the actors time to breath and direct strategy, it was much more interesting. Case in point: when Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis) directs the gun crew to shoot down at the Acheron’s guns because they are attempting to shoot at the Surprise’s water line, we feel the immediate threat of the battle. Pirkis, by the way, is amazing in his first film role (he must be all of 13) as is another Max, Max Benitz who plays Midshipman Calamy. Paul Bettany (A Knight’s Tale), who worked with Crowe on A Beautiful Mind plays Dr. Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon. He is the conscience to Aubrey. While not second in command, he is the one counselor that Aubrey trusts the most. Especially intense is a scene where he must perform surgury upon himself to remove a bullet. Quite ghastly.
Master And Commander will probably command much attention come Oscar time. And very well deserved. See this one on the big screen in the theater. This is NOT a rental!

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