Directed by Peter Weir and John Collee; based on the novels by Patrick O’Brian
Written by Peter Weir
Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, George Innes, Robert Pugh, Max Benitz, Max Pirkis, and Lee Ingleby
Length: 2 hours and 18 minutes
Genre: Action, adventure, drama
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Description from IMDB:
“During the Napoleonic Wars, a brash British captain pushes his ship and crew to their limits in pursuit of a formidable French war vessel around South America.”
In 1805, the HMS Surprise, an English warship, is tasked with tracking down the French privateer ship, Acheron, which has been seen near Brazil. Leading this vessel is Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), accompanied by his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), and a ship of 195 other souls. Aubrey, in his obsessive search for the French ship, pushes his crew to the limit through deadly storms, vicious naval battles, and both literal and figurative doldrums. The Surprise is crewed by men and boys, all of whom rely upon one another to survive, and military discipline is the skeleton of the crew’s morale. “Lucky Jack”, as they call him, is their figurehead and inspiring leader who is forced to make difficult decisions at every turn as to whether he will continue searching for his prey, or acquiesce to the wants of his crew.
Much of the film takes place while the ship is recovering and licking its wounds; after the initial battle with the Acheron at the beginning of the film, and later in the wake of a storm that Aubrey forced the ship to sail into in an attempt to take his quarry. However, this down time between the action allows the viewer to see the crew interact with locals in South America, and how they spend their time. Dr. Maturin performs an operation on a Midshipman Joe Plaice (George Innes) as the rest of the crew watches in admiration and wonder, while dinners at the officer’s table show a lighter side to the men when not on duty. Aubrey cracks jokes among his officers and Mr. Allen (Robert Pugh) even begins a sing-along much like one performed by the main crew.
The HMS Surprise is the underdog of the film; as is seen after the first battle with the Acheron, it is out matched by its prey and must find other ways to succeed rather than standard tactics. One example of this is the use of a decoy of the ship’s lanterns on its stern. Midshipman Calamy (Max Benitz) is sent out to deploy it and, after doing so successfully, the ship is able to sail off with its lanterns doused and come around behind the Acheron. Another clever ruse Aubrey develops after seeing Dr. Maturin and Midshipman Blakenly’s (Max Pirkis) stick bug, is to paint the Surprise as a whaling ship and lure in the Acheron; thereby using its namesake to turn the odds in their favor.
“Lucky Jack” is the muscle and sinew of the crew that holds it together and keeps it together. Beloved by the men, he does not confine himself to the officer’s company and, thanks to years working his way up the position of captain, he is respected for his knowledge and ability as a seaman. Though he is well-liked, he does have to make difficult decisions, including cutting the ropes that would allow a man overboard to return to the ship in order to keep it from being dragged down into the depths. He confides in his friend, Dr. Maturin, though their relationship does sometimes become strained due to Aubrey’s strict adherence to duty and Maturin’s moral objections to some of his decisions. However, it is this relationship that keeps Aubrey from being single-minded in his pursuit of the Acheron and allows him to remain a strong leader.
Superstition does come into play since this is a story about 19th century sailors. Midshipman Plaice starts the rumor that the Acheron is actually a phantom ship sent by the devil to bring them all down to oblivion. His ominous words carry weight in the night and become Midshipman Hollom’s (Lee Ingleby) undoing. Hollom is the tragic figure of the film and his fate is sealed by his fellow crewmen’s superstition. As officer of the watch, it is his job to decide whether to prepare for battle when seeing the Acheron, and it is his unfortunate fate to always be on watch when the phantom ship appears. He doesn’t fit in with the men, despite his attempts, and it is only worsened when whispers begin of his being cursed.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) is an intense look at the lives of English seamen in the 1800s. Based on the novel by Patrick O’Brian, the film allows the viewer to look at all different walks of life on an English ship and shows the bravery of the men who served on them. I can’t speak to the film as an adaptation, but it stands on its own merit in execution and identifiability. There is an inherently macho appeal to the film; a fraternity built in shared struggle is often the most sound, and this movie is a testament to that sentiment. When looking for an adventurous tale with flawed characters that are easy to identify with, once could do much worse.
Verdict: 4 maritime underdog stories out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of the word “mister”, people who like watching 19th century ships sail the ocean, fans of swashbuckling, those who enjoy men yelling, and those looking for something a little less Pirates of the Caribbean and a little more Moby-Dick.
Not recommended for: Land lubbers, yellow bellies, Mr. Hollom, Dr. Maturin’s desire to study the life on the Galapagos, those who dislike English accents, or people afraid of deep water.