‘Intercept French Privateer ACHERON en route to Pacific
INTENT ON CARRYING THE WAR INTO THOSE WATERS
…Sink, Burn or take her a Prize’
Based on the long-running book series by Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World celebrates its 15th anniversary today. Released back in 2003, it was overshadowed at the box office by another swashbuckling adventure, the first instance of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. It was nominated for ten Academy awards, but there was little it could do against Return of the King’s clean sweep, although it did rightfully take home the two awards in which that movie was not nominated in: sound editing and cinematography. At the time it was underappreciated, but Peter Weir’s high seas epic is a special and unique blockbuster spectacle deserving of a second look.
Master and Commander takes place in the early 19th century, a time where Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor and was set to conquer all of Europe. Captain Jack Aubrey (played with the perfect amount of aplomb by Russell Crowe) commands the Surprise, a British warship, tasked with finding, engaging and if possible capturing the Acheron, a French privateer.
The movie opens early in the morning, as the first sailors rise to prepare for a new day. We’re given a quick look of where most of the film takes places: the Surprise. Amongst the creaks and cracks of the ship, there’s a sense of calm as we tour through the ship’s holds. But it is ephemeral. As Captain Aubrey looks towards the horizon after being warned of a phantom shape in the distance by midshipman Hollom, he notices a few flashes of light off in the distance, and immediately tells everyone on deck to fall to the floor. Surprise had not been on their side this time. The Acheron unleashes a flurry of volleys against them; it turns out she has been on the lookout for them, too.
The brutality and violence of such an engagement is handled quickly and intensely. Bodies lie bloodied on deck, masts are shattered. The Surprise barely has a moment to react and counterattack; she and her crew are quickly being shredded to ribbons. They manage to scrape by with their lives to fight another day thanks to an auspicious veil of fog.
He may have had the weather gauge, but we had the weather gods.
Director Peter Weir uses this opening scene to quickly introduce us to both the little wooden world in which Master and Commander takes place and the people who inhabit it. Although the set pieces in the film are impressive, inventive, and immaculately presented, the people is where the heart of the film resides. In the aftermath of the attack, Captain Aubrey goes down to the infirmary to visit the wounded. His personal friend and the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), informs him of the butcher’s bill, how many were lost and wounded in the attack. The captain is dismayed to realize that a son of an old friend of his, Lord Blakeney, a mere thirteen year-old midshipman (a naval cadet), has been gravely wounded in one of his arms. In this era boys that young would be active participants in war, serving as part of their education.
Amputation is necessary and the film makes no qualms in showing us a young kid going through this horrible procedure. Later on, Captain Aubrey visits Blakeney and gifts him a book about the life and victories of Lord Nelson, a near-legendary British Admiral in his own time. Grateful for it, Blakeney asks Aubrey if he has ever served with Lord Nelson, and is amazed to find out that indeed he has. Just by Russell Crowe’s facial expressions alone, we can see the concern and care he has for Blakeney, as he does for everyone in his crew. As Blakeney flips through the pages in the book, we come upon an illustration of Lord Nelson. He too lost one of his arms in the service of his country.
His father would have understood. He knew the life. His mother, however…
Master and Commander is a film concerned mainly with two things: uncompromisingly showing us what life was like serving on a navy ship during wartime back in that era, and equally showing us the kind of camaraderie and fellowship that is formed in such an environment. The first is achieved not just with violence, but by inundating the film with appropriate nautical and naval jargon (although less so than the books it is based on) and barely explaining any of it. Characters speak as you would expect them to speak, appropriate to the era and their station. Although it would seem like this might be confusing for the audience, thanks to some deftly written dialogue and staging we’re easily able to figure out what it all means by inferring and through context. In the opening moments of the movie, after the phantom is seen, midshipman Peter Calamy orders the crew to “beat to quarters.” We aren’t sure what this phrase actually means, but nor do we need to. The crew immediately and urgently prepare for a potential incoming battle. That’s all that we need to know. Terms such as these are peppered throughout the film without explanation and yet in ways that we are all able to understand.
Run like smoke n’oakum!
This kind of detail adds a lot of personality and provides the film with a genuine sense of immersion in its historical setting, and it’s not just how the cast speaks. The crew is dirty, disheveled, wearing ragged clothes and living in poor conditions as best they can. An extra ration of grog and their dreams of being home again are the best they can aspire to.
Master and Commander is the kind of film that truly transports the viewer into another time and place, if you allow it to. The sailors salute the officers with the appropriate deference; rarely do characters speak or act out of turn. You have your commissioned officers, standing officers, the ship’s crew, the royal marines, and so forth. Officers and seamen are not to mingle. This difference is plainly shown one night when the crew are above deck, loudly singing a sea shanty. Midshipman Hollom gets carried away and attempts to participate, but everyone quickly falls to silence (they however also have another reason for this reaction). Captain Aubrey looks upon in somewhat disapproval. While these lines might be broken in another film in an attempt to make the officers more relatable or down to Earth as such, Master and Commander does none of this. To better get this sense of decorum across, Peter Weir didn’t allow the officers and seamen of the cast to interact or befriend each other before filming. In fact, when they were training and preparing for the shoot, every cast member wore a t-shirt that explicitly detailed their rank and position.
Look Hollom, it’s leadership they want, strength. Now you find that within yourself, and you’ll earn their respect. Without respect, true discipline goes by the board.
And yet it’s not all serious business in Master and Commander, for either the sailors or the officers. Throughout the film we can catch the characters in unguarded moments, such as when the officers are all having dinner together and joking with one another (being a bit in their cups certainly helps). Although usually charmingly stoic, Captain “Lucky” Jack brings some lightheartedness to the picture when his officers press him for an anecdote about Lord Nelson, and he responds by recounting the first time Nelson spoke to him: he asked him to pass around the salt. We can see young Calamy visibly frustrated by such a silly story, but Aubrey turns the mood around by talking about the second time he talked with Lord Nelson, about how he provided him with a true sense of patriotism and love for his country. What follows is a toast to Lord Nelson and then a bit more joking around from the Captain.
Some of the most special character moments in the movie come from the relationship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. In private conversation with his friend, Captain Jack lowers his defenses. During one of his lowest moments after a tragedy on the ship, he asks Stephen about the feelings of the crew on the matter, and pleads to him to talk to him as his friend and not as his captain. Stephen serves as both his friend, his doctor, his psychologist and part of his conscience, helping him navigate not the treacherous waters of Cape Horn, but rather the minds and hearts of the people aboard the ship. Often Aubrey is taken aback by his friend’s advice and hits back, but we’re left with a sensation that deep down he will always value what Stephen has to say.
This is a ship of war, and I will grind whatever grist the mill requires to fulfill my duty.
These two men couldn’t be more different. Aubrey is a career navy man devoted to King and Country, while Maturin is an intellectual with an interest in biology and animal life. Together they complement each other and one wouldn’t function without the other and indeed neither would the entire ship and crew. What truly makes their relationship work is the absolutely wonderful chemistry that Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany have with one another. You get a real sense that they’re longtime friends and have spent a considerable amount of time together in service of the British Royal Navy. They know their ticks, likes, and dislikes. During their free time, they even enjoy playing music together, Aubrey on the violin and Maturin on the cello, much to the chagrin of Mr. Killick, the captain’s steward, who would prefer music he could dance to over the classical pieces they perform.
But this sense of true friendship is felt across the entire crew. We get to meet a massive cast of unique characters, from officers, sailors, cooks, carpenters and young cadets. Great care has been put in fleshing out much of the minor characters and their relationships with one another. Master and Commander makes them stand out as much as possible with the limited time they’re given, just with a couple of lines of dialogue here and there or the way they carry themselves. They’re all made in some capacity memorable and irreplaceable. And this is what matters most in the film, and what it does best: putting the human element first over the grand spectacle. One of the finest sequences and character pieces in the movie involves a visit to the Galapagos Islands–this is one of the few movies that has actually filmed on location there–in which Captain Aubrey’s resolve is tested.
As Roger Ebert put it, “like the work of David Lean, it achieves the epic without losing sight of the human.” And you really can’t put it any better than that. Master and Commander doesn’t lose itself in its set pieces, spectacle, and gorgeous cinematography. Instead, Peter Weir focuses on what truly matters and what makes a movie of this kind endure. I’ve been told in the past that movies of a certain scope and scale are only appreciated on the big screen, and I can’t really agree with that notion. If spectacle and destruction (no matter how “highbrow” it might be) are the only thing a movie can offer, then that movie is no good. Too often do the blockbusters of today forget about crafting their characters and imbuing them with a sense of humanity and depth. I remember the first time I watched Lawrence of Arabia ages ago was on some horribly faded, “pan and scanned” version on a rinky-dink 14-inch TV. Sure, I could not fully appreciate the film’s visual splendor at the time, but I fell in love with it all the same. The personal journey and the relationships of the characters are what mattered to me. And for me it is the same with Master and Commander. Movies like this just aren’t made anymore.