Master and Commander

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, based on two novels by Patrick O’Brian, immediately reminds filmviewers that World War I was not the first world war, that is, a war fought on more than one continent and on the high seas. The year is 1805; England is the sole part of Europe not controlled by Napoleonic France. Captain Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe) commands the HMS Surprise, which in the waters off northern Brazil is ordered to capture or destroy the Acheron, a French warship that is sailing in the Atlantic bound for the Pacific. There is no doubt that the orders will be carried out, and indeed the naval war brings to the screen some of the realism of battle that has been the motif of such recent efforts as Saving Private Ryan (1998). What is most interesting about the film is the way in which a crew survives for months away from home, physically and psychologically, while subjected both to the vagaries of battle and weather. The battle scenario is somewhat conventional. The cannons of the French ship reach a more distant target than those of the Surprise, so in the first two encounters the French ship proves to be militarily superior. However, the ably commanded Surprise manages to avoid defeat both times. Although his orders restrict him to the mid-Atlantic, he decides to pursue the French “Moby Dick” to the Galapagos and beyond. In the final encounter, the Surprise lives up to its name by pretending to be a pirate ship in distress and then by launching a mortal attack on the French ship. Master and Commander may thus appear to be a pro-war film, but that would quite a reversal from the message in Political Film Society awardwinning director Peter Weir’s The War (1994). The most interesting part of the film is how the various personalities of the officers and crew play out. Aubrey enjoys particular respect because he served under the legendary Lord Nelson, and he retells a few amusing anecdotes of the experience. The ship’s physician, Dr. Stephen Marurin (played by Paul Bettany), is also a naturalist, who is eager to collect new species for a presentation before scientists in London. One of the junior officers, Hollom (played by Lee Ingleby), proves unfit for command and suffers an ignominious fate. And a thirteen-year-old Lord Blakeney (played by Max Pirkis) serves as protégée to both Aubrey and Marurin, showing zeal in collecting new species and competence in commanding older men. Perhaps the most redeeming aspect of the otherwise delightfully old-fashioned character of the film is the music, which ranges from melodious singing by the crew to chamber music duos by the commander and physician and a film score that includes majestic music by Corelli and Vaughan-Williams. MH

Scroll to Top