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

Russell Crowe captains in the marvellous Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Russell Crowe (Captain Jack Aubrey), Paul Bettany (Dr Stephen Maturin), James D’Arcy (First Lt Thomas Pullings), Robert Pugh (Master John Allen), Max Pirkis (Midshipman Lord William Blakeney), Max Benitz (Midshipman Peter Myles Calamy), Lee Ingleby (Midshipman Hollom), Richard McCabe (Mr Higgins), David Threlfall (Preserved Killick), Billy Boyd (Barret Bonden), Bryan Dick (Joseph Nagle), Joseph Morgan (William Warley), George Innes (Joe Plaice), Mark Lewis Jones (Mr Hogg)

There’s a reason so much of our everyday language comes from naval terms. There was a time when Britannia ruled the waves: and for almost as long we’ve had a history of stories of great fictional sailors. If your archetype is Hornblower, then following close behind is Patrick O’Brian’s 21-novel sequence following the career of Captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon/spy friend and colleague Stephen Maturin. There have been many, many attempts to bring this series to the screen, but you could never have expected that the eventual film would be as triumphant as this. I saw this film on my birthday years ago – the same day I was thrown a surprise birthday party – and I enjoyed it so much that just seeing that would have been treat enough, even without the surprise party (which was also marvellous).

It adapts elements from several O’Brian books – principally elements of the first, Master and Commander,and the tenth, The Far Side of the World, (hence the unwieldy title). The film throws us into the mid-point of Aubrey’s (Russell Crowe) career, with the captain of the Surprise tasked with protecting British interests in the Southern oceans from the onslaught of the French ship Acheron during the Napoleonic wars. Early skirmishes find Aubrey and the Surprise on the back foot, out-matched and out-gunned by the more modern, sleeker, more powerful French ship (quickly known as “the Ghost” by the crew, stunned at her ability to catch the Surprise on the hop). As well as following Aubrey’s struggle to best the Acheron, the film also explores the complex relationships on board during the dangerous mission, and specifically Aubrey’s close friendship with Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), ship’s surgeon, naturalist, sceptic and his confident.

Peter Weir’s film is, I’ll say it here, a masterpiece of both boys-own adventure and action, but also of the intriguingly warm and human relationships (and also the stresses and strains) that come when you throw a group of nearly two hundred men in close confines together for months at a time. It’s also a masterclass in authentic world creation. You can see in seconds the time, effort, research and imagination that have gone into recreating the world, the rules and the structure of the ship and its crew – and it has paid off in spades. There is not a foot put wrong, either in the recreation of the ship described in the books (the early shots of the film, the camera panning through the decks of the ship, capture everything from the geography of the ship to the names of the individual cannons) or the world of the navy. 

Weir’s film is technically superb. The photography is beautiful, the sound and editing totally immersive. Weir understands the detail counts for nothing, if the actual action of sailing, the dramatization of man’s struggle with the wind and water, isn’t engrossing. Not a single sequence in the film that shows the ship at sea – struggling with wind, tides, storms, fog and mist – falls flat. You feel like you are there, being buffeted by wind and rain, living every beat of the dangers the men face from the elements. The professionalism and skill of the sailors is brilliantly captured by the actors – who practically lived as sailors for the months of filming – and, with the music superbly worked to complement the adversity the sailors overcome, the scenes of naval skill are brilliantly done. I love them – it almost makes me want to become a sailor (almost). 

Master and Commander also works as a superb study of men, and brilliantly brings to life the two heroes from the book. Russell Crowe is wonderful as Aubrey, the film expertly using his charisma. Aubrey is a natural leader who adjusts and adapts his style to meet the needs of the men he deals with. He’ll share pun-filled gags at the dining table about his personal encounters with Nelson – but follow it up with a sincere anecdote of Nelson’s patriotism when he sees that something else is needed to avoid disappointing a young midshipman. With some men he’ll take a firm line, with others he will try words of encouragement. He’s an inventive and flexible thinker, able to adapt his plans and ways of working to meet new challenges and shows no pride or rigidity in his planning.

We also find out much about him from his genuine, heartfelt friendship with Stephen Maturin, his intellectual surgeon. Embodied damn-near perfectly by Paul Bettany, in one of those performances that feels like the character has literally walked from the pages of the book. Maturin and Aubrey’s friendship gives the film its heart. Genuinely close, with the one often teasing the other (usually around naval rules and regulations, around which Maturin displays a playful lack of understanding) they also speak freely to each other, and with honesty. When Maturin feels Aubrey is pushing the crew too hard in his obsession to best the Archeron he will speak up; when Aubrey feels the need to remind Maturin that a promised naturalist trip to the Galapagos will need to be cancelled due to the demands of war (“We do not have time for your damn hobbies sir!”) he feels no reluctance to say so. It’s a friendship that bobs and weaves through the tensions that come from almost permanent contact, but it’s a true, very strong bond that sees both men going to great lengths in the film to make sacrifices of the things they hold dearest for the sake of each other. 

And we see a lot of how they think in their shared mentorship of young midshipman (barely a teenager) Lord Blakeney, played with a superb assurance by Max Pirkis. From Aubrey, Blakeney learns the confidence, authority and flexibility needed for command. From Maturin he learns the intellectual curiosity and humanity that broadens and widens his horizons. It’s a reflection that, as a team, the two men make one marvellous man. 

Weir’s film also shows that the pressures of command and responsibility, worn so lightly (it seems at times) by Aubrey, can also crush men. As if in contrast to Blakeney’s growing confidence, the film also throws in Midshipman Hollom (played with tragic weakness by Lee Ingleby), a man approaching his thirties who has missed all the opportunities to become the man he would want to be. Nervous, weak, eager to please but insecure and uncertain of himself – exactly the qualities that automatically alienate sailors yearning to put their faith and trust into a leader – Hollom is a man who can listen to everything Aubrey has to say about becoming a leader, but has not the strength of character to implement it. And, strikingly, the film also shows that this weakness alienates not only the men who look to him for leadership, but also his companions and even (to a degree) Aubrey himself. In a single storyline, the weaknesses and dangers of this self-contained world (and the impact it can have on people) are superbly captured.

The film works alongside all this because its sense of adventure, of derring-do, of gripping, fist pumping bravery, skill and excitement of high-seas adventure grip the audience completely. There has never been a better film made about naval warfare or ships at sea (and there probably never will be). Mix that in with a superb story of personal relationships and men under pressure at sea (and the cast is uniformly brilliant), with sacrifice and also good fellowship at every turn, and you’ve got a simply faultless film. Master and Commander failed to launch a new franchise – and that has to be one of the greatest losses to film history that I can imagine. Weir’s direction is simply superb, Crowe and Bettany are perfect and the film is a brilliant adventure. I could watch it every day and never get tired of it.

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