Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:18 - Released 11/14/03

The latest from talented director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show) is Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World, a 19th-century seafaring tale based on the novel by Patrick O’Brian and adapted for the big screen by Weir and John Collee. Taking place almost entirely at sea (except for a short segment shot on location at the Galapagos Islands—the first film ever to be shot there), it recalls one of the more dangerous periods in nautical history, namely, the Napoleonic wars, when hostilities between France and England resulted in a kind of open season on the high seas. It stars Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, the skipper of the HMS Surprise, and Paul Bettany (who just starred with Crowe 2 years ago in A Beautiful Mind) as his trusted friend and confidante, ship surgeon and naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin. The film is thrilling and well-crafted for the duration of its 138 minutes, with great performances by these two actors as well as a large cast of able seamen in supporting roles. It gives what appears (at least to a landlubber like me) to be an accurate account of what life must have been like for seafaring men 200 years ago, before radar, depth charges, or steel, when the success of a warship depended upon its cannons’ ability to shatter the enemy’s wooden hull, the speed with which the crew could aim, fire, and reload those cannons (and not get blown up doing so), and the captain’s cleverness in maneuvering his craft using only the wind, sails, and rudder to avoid destruction.

Some historians might say that in 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte was enjoying his most powerful and successful period. Just a few months after his coronation as emperor of France and just a few months before his most famous victory at Austerlitz, he was riding high on a wave of popularity and needed only to defeat the immensely strong British navy in order to be the most powerful ruler in Europe. As the film points out, while Napoleon was busy conquering country after country on his home continent, his ships were sailing all over the world in search-and-destroy mode, hunting for British vessels, which were reciprocating the gesture. This is exactly the mission given to the Surprise, which is ordered to find the French frigate Acheron off the eastern coast of South America, sink her, and return with her valuable cargo as spoils of war. Although the Acheron was a much larger and more deadly ship, the Surprise boasted a few advantages, such as her speed and maneuverability, and the excellent record of Capt. Aubrey, who is known to his men as “Lucky Jack.”

The first engagement between the two ships is a surprise for the Surprise, as the Acheron sneaks up and attacks, inflicting massive damage, but Aubrey is able to evade her and escape into a fog bank. From this point on, we follow Aubrey and his crew as they engage in a game of cat-and-mouse with the French vessel, trailing her south through the freezing waters around Cape Horn and on up the western side, using several clever and daring maneuvers, feints, and even decoys to outsmart the Acheron’s crew. Eventually they end up near the Galapagos, where Dr. Maturin, much more interested in checking out the many undocumented species of flora and fauna on the legendary islands than sewing up more battle-wounded men, asks Aubrey to put the war on hold for a while and let him catch and sketch a few wild beasties.

It is not so much the main story, however, that makes this film so effective, but the interpersonal relationships director Weir and company have woven into it. Though I have not read O’Brian’s novel, I have no doubt it is laden with character development and relationship interaction, and Weir has chosen wisely in making this an important part of his project, even if it meant a longer running time than is standard. The action scenes—showing the two authentic period vessels blasting away at each other with cannon fire—is exciting, and the beautiful cinematography by Russell Boyd, with breathtaking long shots of the ships on the flat ocean, both looking like toys in the glinting sun, is impressive, especially as it is accompanied not only by the original music of several composers, but many well-known pieces by the old masters. But the way these men interact with each other is the key to making us understand what their lives are really about, and that is what is most important to me. In addition to the friendly but occasionally antagonistic relationship between Aubrey and Maturin, we learn of a young midshipman, played with surprising skill by newcomer Max Pirkis, who sees the glory of seafaring but gets a personal lesson in the horror of war, as he works to move up through the ranks as a young officer. We see the men, both officers and lowly seamen, singing together to pass the time, just like the old stories we’ve all seen; it’s a cliché, but this company pulls it off with such honesty it’s unquestionable. And we see the way one man’s bad luck can turn everyone against him until his status as a “jinx” fulfills itself in a way no one could have expected.

For those interested in nautical history or the Napoleonic war period, this is a must-see, but I daresay it would be enjoyable to just about anyone who likes a good seafaring yarn, not romanticized like the cartoons or summer action pictures, but simply told with honesty and verisimilitude, the way it really must have happened. ****½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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