Like a cannon blast across the bows, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a thunderous, almost defiant declaration heralding the arrival of a force to be reckoned with. Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the seafaring heroes of Patrick O’Brian’s intelligent, thrilling historical novels, have arrived on the screen, in a film as masterful and commanding as the novels themselves.
That the film was made at all is no surprise; more surprising, indeed, is that it took so long to happen. With twenty volumes published between 1970 and 1999, O’Brian’s tales of a forceful captain and a refined doctor serving in Nelson’s Navy in the days of Napoleon have won a wide and admiring readership. (O’Brian died in 2000 while writing what would have been the 21st in the series.)
I haven’t read enough historical fiction to be able to verify the assessment of The New York Times that O’Brian’s novels are "the best historical fiction ever written"; but I’ve read enough O’Brian to know that they’re cracking good yarns, elegantly written, thrillingly plotted and satisfyingly shaped, vivid in characterization, memorable in incident, impeccably authentic in period detail. Aubrey and Maturin are as distinctive and persuasive a pair of characters, and their unlikely friendship is as compelling, as any I have encountered in fiction.
Unfortunately, great source material is no guarantee of a great film — and herein lies the film’s real surprise. At a time when anachronistically up-to-date attitudes, language, and behavior are virtually de rigeur for period films, when slavish obeisance to focus groups and marketing strategy aims for the broadest, shallowest possible appeal across gender, racial, and cultural lines, when dumbed-down moral conflicts spell out with leaden heavy-handedness which party audiences are meant to support, Master and Commander charts an altogether different course.
Here is a film that is gloriously, unapologetically specific, a film that spurns condescension and pandering, made with the novels’ own flawless authenticity and obsessive attention to historical detail, with characters who talk and think and argue like grown-ups and like men of their time and place.
All of this would be achievement enough — but beyond that, Master and Commander is also the new high-water mark for sheer technical achievement as a seafaring period film. It is simply the most accomplished such film ever made, bringing to life with unprecedented vividness the experience of life on the high seas in an 18th-century warship, facing brutal storms and deadly sea battles. From the creak of the timbers to the bare feet of the men on the rigging, from the shattering course of a cannonball to the wincing exigencies of naval field surgery, Master and Commander never feels less than utterly persuasive.
An important part of the film’s historical context is its matter-of-fact Christian milieu. In the books, Aubrey is Anglican and Maturin Roman Catholic, and though neither is devout, their Christian heritage remains part of who they are; and this is carried over into the film.
Maturin, an enthusiastic naturalist, is fascinated by the varieties of animal life on the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin would later make many of the discoveries leading to his theory of the origin of species. As Maturin comments on some of the changes that certain Galapagos species seem to have undergone, someone asks whether the animals were changed by God. "Certainly," Maturin muses thoughtfully, adding, "but did they also change themselves? That is the question…" There, in two lines of dialogue, are faith and science, creation and evolution, taken for granted to be in harmony, not conflict.
Later in the film, Aubrey leads the crew in the Our Father and invokes the Christian hope of resurrection as part of a burial at sea. All of this is presented simply and matter-of-factly, without comment or judgment. Even in a disturbing episode involving a superstitious rumor of a Jonah-like curse, the film refrains from outright religion-bashing.
Crowe (A Beautiful Mind) is effortlessly commanding as Jack Aubrey, celebrated captain of the HMS Surprise, a leader whom men would gladly follow into battle against a larger, faster, more powerful enemy, or into a deadly storm with a damaged ship. Given a better written, more complex character than his protagonist in Gladiator, Crowe rises to the challenge, successfully synthesizing Aubrey’s genial charisma and iron-willed leadership, his weaknesses for classical music and stupid jokes, his fondness for his men and his ability to have them flogged or even send them to their deaths when necessary.
The real revelation, though, is Bettany as Maturin. Previously best known for over-the-top roles in A Knight’s Tale and A Beautiful Mind, Bettany is astonishingly good in a far more restrained and demanding role, projecting erudite intelligence and sophistication, and making Maturin’s passion for zoology as palpable as Aubrey’s love of his ship.
Director Weir (Witness, The Truman Show) hones the story’s focus to laserlike intensity. Choosing as his template the tenth novel in the series, The Far Side of the World, about an extended naval engagement between Aubrey and a larger, more powerful enemy ship (in the film’s lone concession to demographic necessity, the enemy is changed from an American frigate to a French privateer), Weir confines the action almost entirely to the Surprise. There’s no obligatory romance, not even a token female character (though women and romantic elements can be found elsewhere in O’Brian’s series).
Instead, Weir focuses on moral and existential issues, especially questions around whether or when moral obligations such as keeping promises or completing one’s mission may become contingent upon circumstance. Ironically, as Aubrey and Maturin lock horns over whether to continue to pursue the ship’s mission, each winds up arguing alternately for a rigorous and an open-ended interpretation of duty. At first, debating the viability of their mission, Aubrey is the rigorist and Maturin the voice of discretion, but later, when Aubrey makes a promise to Maturin on which he later wishes to renege, Maturin is the one insisting on moral rigor while Aubrey pleads circumstantial necessity!
This ambiguity, along with the fact that both characters are sympathetic and likable, is what elevates these conflicts above so many military-movie clashes pitting a hard-nosed by-the-book officer against a more nuanced subordinate or other foil (cf. K-19: The Widowmaker, Crimson Tide, etc.).
Instead of merely eliciting a knee-jerk reaction, Weir invites us to contemplate the issues. It’s typical of his even-handed approach that when he raises the theme of power corrupting, he immediately provides a counter-example in the celebrated Admiral Nelson, the most powerful man in the British Navy, for whom Aubrey has nothing but the utmost respect and admiration.
For all that, Master and Commander is more about action than ideas. Not that the film is non-stop battle scenes; on the contrary, action junkies are liable to be bored to tears by what passes for hot pursuit in an 18th-century sea battle, which amounts to anxiously watching another square-rigger somewhere near the horizon. Yet Weir maintains tension throughout, punctuated with clever bits of strategy and excitement, and only when necessary boiling over into all-out combat.
Although Weir adapts freely from his source material, borrowing bits from various books and only broadly following the outline of The Far Side of the World, the result is faithful to the spirit of O’Brian’s works, and few but the most exacting fans will have reason to complain. For those not familiar with the Aubrey-Maturin books, no cinematic adaptation of any book in recent memory is as likely to make viewers want to go out and get the book. Master and Commander is that good. It’s easily one of the year’s best films.
Directed by Raoul Walsh (The Thief of Bagdad) from a screenplay adapted by Forester himself from his first three novels, the film deftly balances some of the best age-of-sail sea battles ever filmed with a love-interest storyline in which Hornblower finds himself unexpectedly taking on a female passenger, Lady Barbara Wellesley (Virginia Mayo).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.