Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Dir. Peter Weir. Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Max Pirkis

From whatever side you look at it, Master and Commander feels like a movie that was destined to be forgotten. It’s a movie about sailing and naval combat and intrigue which premiered the same year as Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. It would have been an awards darling if it hadn’t premiered the same year as Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which racked up all of the Oscars not just for itself but for its two superior entries in the series. (When we time-travel back to 2003, I’m going to have a lot to tell those people, but one thing I know I’ll say is that they need to divest themselves from their addiction to colons.) And yet Master and Commander is fortunate to have been made for $150 million when it was, because there’s not a movie studio in the world today that would have pitched out that much money for a fairly realistic movie based on a series of books that the great huddled mass of teenage boys had never touched. It’s appropriate for this movie, though, because Master and Commander is the story of a ship, the HMS Surprise, whose captain makes a point of punching above his weight.

Master and Commander is one heck of a submarine movie, by which I mean it derives its suspense not from actual naval combat but from the chase itself. Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe), an officer in the Napoleonic Wars, is assigned to eliminate the French privateer Acheron from the seas. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that Acheron is the superior vessel; it sneaks up on Aubrey, aided by the wind, and virtually cripples the Surprise in their first encounter. Aubrey’s nickname is “Lucky Jack,” and he has luck on his side in that encounter. If not for a bank of fog which a team of rowers tow the ship into, Surprise would probably be at the bottom of the ocean. Not long after, Acheron manages to surprise Surprise again, once more dealing the ship damage that puts Aubrey into a tricky spot; this time, he uses a clever miniature mock-up of Surprise, using ship-lights and a lifeboat, to draw Acheron off the scent in the dark. Much of the rest of the movie involves Aubrey’s crusade to turn the tables on a much more powerful, modern craft, and his machinations, to no detriment of the film, are more interesting than the payoff. Master and Commander recognizes that Surprise versus Acheron around the Galapagos Islands is a battle between two ships far removed from the front lines of the real war; this fight does not have the stakes of Austerlitz or Waterloo, and so the focus has to be on the people instead.

The crew is largely anonymous, grunting words which are hard to hear over the storms and cannons and winds. For the most part, they seem an amenable lot; the crew reflects their captain, who is a mostly amenable man himself. Their personalities are obvious from the get-go, and are filled in through collective experience. Killick, Aubrey’s steward, is cranky and loyal. Bonden (Billy Boyd, taking a break from Pippin) is cheerful, Warley is lively and popular, Joe Plaice is the old sage. The midshipmen are less anonymous, perhaps because they’re all so much younger than the obviously seasoned seamen. Hollom (Lee Ingleby) is afraid of his own shadow, easily twice as old as some other midshipmen but unable to pass the test for lieutenant; he is clumsy personally and professionally, and his death is at once a sad moment for the viewer and a great relief for his fellows. Calamy (Max Benitz) is adventurous, a little impulsive, and already seems prepared to lead other men. Blakeney (Pirkis) loses part of his arm in the first engagement with Acheron, but bounces back with relative speed; he has some daring, but seems like he could be happy in profession that took him away from naval combat. Calamy and Blakeney are purposeful bite-sized versions of the ship’s captain and the ship’s surgeon, a newer version of the tension between action and observation.

Aubrey and Maturin (Bettany) are the odd couple of the film, one that isn’t presented immediately but which grows organically. In the beginning it is not clear that the two of them are particularly close, but little hints pop up as battle recedes and day-to-day sailing takes over. The two of them play music together: Aubrey takes violin and Maturin the cello. They refer to each other by their first names, even in front of the other men. Maturin to Aubrey’s left at dinner, and Aubrey runs out a pun with a long fuse, getting his naturalist friend to choose against “the lesser of two weevils.” By the middle of the film, we see that Aubrey even goes to Maturin for counsel, and Maturin is more than willing to share his opinion. While both appear to be extremely well-rounded, Maturin is more the renaissance man in a time period when, if one had the enviable means, one could know just about everything there was to know. Maturin is a doctor and a fair cellist, acquits himself with his sword in combat, appears to speak Portuguese fluently (aside from goodness knows what else), and is something of a recognized naturalist, with a specialty in entomology. He seems largely apathetic about the war itself, but not for lack of courage; the most impressive show of personal bravery in the film occurs when he does surgery on himself, forced to remove a bullet and a scrap of fabric beneath when he is accidentally shot by a crewmate. He is always a little acerbic and brisk, but is not too haughty to spare a kind word here and there, or to mentor Blakeney after his amputation. Like Aubrey, Maturin doesn’t speak of a family, but seems given to fatherliness commensurate with the rank and respect he maintains on ship.

Among the men, who like Maturin and are comfortable with him as a doctor and a shipmate, Aubrey is something of a demigod. He has a reputation among the men as a fighting captain; maybe more important to the clinically superstitious crew is his nickname, “Lucky Jack.” A largely anonymous quote about Robert E. Lee, who was not yet born during the events of the film, remarked that “His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances, and take them faster, than any General North or South.” Aubrey is much the same way, and while “surprise” and “lucky” surround him most often, “audacious” is the right word for him. Especially in the early going of the film, one of the common refrains is, “She’s out of our class.” Acheron, as Aubrey learns from a characteristically fortunate piece of reconnaissance, is newer, larger, heavier, faster, and better-armed than Surprise; in short, Acheron has every advantage. And yet Aubrey, who has orders to dispose of Acheron (which, as Maturin finds out later, are exceeded rather rapidly), has decided he won’t be bettered by the French ship. Regardless of the cost he seems intent on destroying a ship which, in neutral conditions, would blast his out of the water. Aubrey’s first over-pursues Acheron in a raging storm, which is one of the film’s most exciting sequences; in pushing the speed of Surprise, his mizzen comes down and nearly sinks the ship; Warley goes overboard and, maybe a minute before he might be rescued, sees his connection to the ship hacked away.

What’s nice about the movie is that, without saying anything about it or being too sappy, it recognizes that Aubrey and Maturin need each other, and that the success of Surprise is dependent largely on their degree of cooperation. Aubrey decides to end his pursuit of Acheron on the Galapagos Islands after Maturin is wounded, and Maturin, who recognizes the biological treasure trove for a naturalist like himself, practically walks out of surgery into specimen-collecting. (The contrast between this scene and the one where Aubrey yells, “We don’t have time for your damned hobbies, sir!” is stark.) While doing so, he spies the Acheron, realizes he has to give up on his research, and hurries back to the ship. Yet victory would be largely impossible if not for a spark in Aubrey’s brain struck by Maturin’s love of nature; Aubrey is inspired by a stick insect, camouflaging itself for protection. Such a device turns out to be Aubrey’s plan for victory.

There’s still a place for a straightforward, old-fashioned, formulaic action-adventure flick in cineplexes, even if that movie is in its advanced death throes. Master and Commander is that kind of movie: it’s exclusively male and homosocial, nationalistic, based on combat and territorial wars, complete with a little twist at the end, and yet it succeeds because it relies on its characters and their wellbeing for tension, not excessive special effects or a harebrained plot that needs a diagram to be explained properly or slavish devotion to a brand. Form follows function is still a pretty fair artistic principle, and Master and Commander, to its credit, is not frilly. (There’s nothing inherently wrong with a frilly movie, but it would be a mishmash of style and genre.) It presents with relative simplicity the pace and stakes of its universe and follows through without deviations.

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