Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review

by Harvey S. Karten (harveycritic AT cs DOT com)
November 7th, 2003


Reviewed by: Harvey S. Karten
Grade: B-
20th Century Fox
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: John Collee, Peter Weir, novels by Patrick O'Brian Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D'Arcy, Lee Ingleby, George Innes, Mark Lewis Jones, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis
Screened at: UA 64th St., NYC, 11/6/03

    The French today would be as likely to go along with the foreign policies of their neighbors, the British, as they would salivate at the thought of a fish and chips dinner washed down with a Wimpy. They were like this off and on, but while the war in Iraq divides the two great European nations, their basic affiliations with one another are far better now than they were in the early part of the 19th Century, when Napoleon opted quite forcefully to take control of the seas from the domination of the sceptered isle. Since the balance of power would be determined largely by who controlled the oceans, we're not surprised that the followers of Lord Nelson took the most swashbuckling efforts to blast Napoleon's ships out of the waters, even if those vessels were on the coastlines of Brazil and Ecuador the far side of the world.

    While scholarly histories of the period might bring you no closer to an understanding of the emotions of the sailors, we're lucky to have at our disposal the historical novels of Patrick O'Brian, which critic Richard Snow declared in "The New York Times" to be "the best historical novels ever written."

    That may be so, but while Peter Weir's film based on his and John Collee's adaptation of two of those books features solid visuals, a cool soundtrack, decent acting (albeit nothing of Oscar-worthy attention), it embraces an altogether conventional, nearly humorless and unexciting totality. The conflict between the ship's captain, Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), and the vessel's doctor and naturalist, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), is blown up in an attempt to evoke a considerable schism, while in truth the controversy between the two friends is at best luke- warm.

    This overall evaluation is not to diminish the merits of the project. Americans were once quite fond of reading about Napoleon as well as our own War between the States, but given the general decline in readership by a TV-addicted people, this film serves visually to inform us of the spirit of men aboard warships circa 1805. A few decades before Robert Fulton invented the steamboat the greatest single breakthrough in the history of transportation in that people no longer had to depend on nature's capriciousness for motility you hoisted your sails, and if the wind calmed the waters, you'd be (as Coleridge once said) "as idle as a painted ship/ Upon a painted ocean." Immobility does indeed plague the British Naval vessel HMS Surprise during its perambulations about the globe, leading many on board to fret that the captain's gung-ho orders would be for naught.

    "Master and Commander" deals with a brave band of men under the strong leadership of Captain Jack "Lucky" Aubrey, who after getting clobbered around the coast of Brazil by the superior ship of the French enemy assumed that they would hobble home to Portsmouth in Britain. But the captain, with the tenacity of President Bush in his struggle to democratize the Middle East, feels compelled to make repairs on the Surprise and pursue the faster Gallic foe having been cheered on by the movie's only women, a group of Amazonian Indians awestruck at the sight of the white men on their shores. While the crew appear divided at the wisdom of the decision, the principal discord comes from Aubrey's best friend, Stephen, who would have delighted in stopping for a week or so by the island of Santz Cruz in the Galapagos to take back indigenous species from an unusual looking beetle to iguanas (this was years before Charles Darwin was to make his momentous voyage to that unique archipelago in search of missing links).

    While the Surprise fights the vagaries of nature and the two men battle unconvincingly, the real center of "Master and Commander" comes from the visuals particularly the humongous waves around the Cape of Good Hope and the cannons, guns and swords of the surprised French and embattled English, the former discovered accidentally while the doc and 12-year-old Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis who resembles early Prince William and whose activities in the war recall the fact that boys that age and younger were employed in the American Civil War, particularly to load guns and take care of supplies). The battles, however spectacular and violent, are nothing to crow about (no pun intended though Mr. Crowe does get to wordplay badly when he reminds his shipmates to pick the lesser of two weevils).

    We've seen better from Peter Weir, who surprised us in the past with his ability to evoke menace and rich texture("Picnic at Hanging Rock" about three schoolgirls and their teacher who mysteriously disappear during an outing), survivors' grief; ("Fearless," about a man whose life changes when he survives a plane crash and is drawn to a woman who lost her baby); and American consumer-driven fantasies ("The Truman Show," about a man unwittingly living life as a 24-hour-a-day TV show). "Master and Commander" does not sink by any means, but is a reasonably see-worthy, you-are-there exploration of life aboard an early 19th-century vessel that may or may not inspire viewers to seek out O'Brian's novels (or, for a bit more cash, to visit the amazing Galapagos).

Rated PG-13. 135 minutes.(c) 2003 by Harvey Karten at
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