Overlooked & Underseen: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
I'll admit to you all right now, I'm not the biggest Russell Crowe fan. I can't explain it, really. There are just certain actors I just don't click with, and Crowe is one of them. He was fantastic in LA Confidential, but, I dunno, he just isn’t my cup of tea. So, when Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was released in 2003, I didn't go see it in the theatre. In my ignorance, I thought, "Oh, it's a dry history film AND it stars Crowe? No thanks!" Boy, was I wrong. My (now) husband said one day, several years back, "Hey, we should watch Master and Commander. It's fantastic." To which I replied, "That would be a hard pass." Now, it isn't often my husband steers me wrong when it comes to recommending a movie. It's rare he picks something that I actively hate watch (I'm looking at you, 2009’s Halloween II). But he wore me down after a couple of weeks and on we popped in Master and Commander.
I’m so sorry, Peter Weir. This movie is so good. Seriously. We rewatched it again within the last couple of months and I knew I had to write about — I wanted to remind those of you who have seen just how amazing it was, and get those of you who haven't watched it, to get it watched ASAP.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is based on Patrick O'Brian's series of novels featuring the characters Jack Aubrey, an English naval captain, and Stephen Maturin, his ship’s physician. The first three of O’Brian’s novels were culled for the film. The aforementioned Crowe plays Aubrey and Paul Bettany plays Maturin. The year is 1805 and Aubrey’s ship, HMS Surprise, is sailing the Atlantic in pursuit of the Acheron, a French privateer. Aubrey and crew are ambushed by the Acheron and are so heavily damaged that some want to give up. The Captain is rather hard-headed and declares, once they get the ship back in working order, they are going back in pursuit of the French ship. They are, once again, attacked by the Acheron, which is clearly the superior ship. The crew is none too happy, but the Captain won’t listen. Dr. Maturin, Aubrey’s close friend (really, his only friend), tries to get him to see the error of his ways, but the Captain is having none of it. He will, however, stop off at the Galapagos Islands to let the doctor do some exploring. Time there is cut short because they find out the Acheron is close. Naturally, Dr. Maturin is pissed off; he was finding all sorts of specimens to take back with him. Once back out on the sea, an accident nearly kills one of the crew and Aubrey orders them back to the Galapagos in order to save their life. By chance, Maturin spots the Acheron on the backside of one of the islands and once again the chase is on!
Now, I’m not on an expert on British ships or battles of the Napoleonic war (yes, I understand it isn’t based on specific battles, here), but what Peter Weir manages to do here is quite extraordinary. One really gets a sense of what it was like to live on a ship. Of course, Captain Aubrey’s quarters are rather nice, but the rest of the crew pretty much lives in squalor. To say their food is unappetizing is putting it mildly. The crew is made up of all different types of “men”, and I put men in parentheses because some of the officers in are just children. These kids have their whole lives mapped out for them by their fathers without any choice. The youngest of these officers in training appears to be 10. These children are right there in the mix when it’s Surprise v. Acheron. Honestly, it is harrowing to watch these battles and I freely admit I cried twice during the film. Weir does not shy away from the graphic nature of war. His direction of these scenes is nothing short of stunning. The sound of two battling, centuries-old warships is one I won’t soon forget. For a film nearly 14-year-old, the CGI is really top notch. I’ve seen movies made in the last two years that don’t look as good as this one.
I feel that Peter Weir gets the short shrift when people mention great directors. Just look at some of his output apart from Master and Commander: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Gallipoli (1981), The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Witness (1985), The Mosquito Coast (1986), Dead Poets Society (1989), and The Truman Show (1998). Any of these would be well worth your time if you haven’t already seen them. But, please, put Master and Commander on your watchlists today. You won’t regret it.