Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Review

by Mark R. Leeper (markrleeper AT yahoo DOT com)
November 17th, 2003

    (a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

    CAPSULE: In 1805 Jack Aubrey, captain of HMS Surprise, is obsessed by the mission to capture or sink the
    French ship Acheron. More so than in any previous
    film we are brought aboard a fighting ship from
    Britain's war against Napoleon. The story may be slow except for some really exciting action scenes, but the historical detail is probably the best for any film about the period. If you like Aubrey (or even
    Hornblower) stories this film from director Peter Weir is a must. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD is about life at sea and it is about little else. When the film starts you are on His Majesty's Ship Surprise, crew 197 men, and you will be there for 138 minutes getting a fascinating education of what life was like on a British fighting ship during the Napoleanic wars. There are a number of good films about shipboard life in the British Navy in the early 1800s. It seems to be a period that grabs the imagination of writers and filmmakers. There is DAMN THE DEFIANT, BILLY BUDD, and CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER. But none of them is as intensely a survey of shipboard life as is MASTER AND COMMANDER. There is an overall plot of the Surprise's mission to capture or sink the French privateer Acheron. Acheron is bigger, faster, and has twice the number of guns of the Surprise. And the viewer will be on the Surprise until that mission is accomplished.
The year is 1805 and Captain Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe), captain of the Frigate HMS Surprise is under orders to chase the French privateer Acheron. Acheron is bigger, faster, and has more than twice Surprise's guns. The Surprise is overmatched, but Aubrey is a man committed to capturing his prey. The chase is not like a Star Trek or even a Hornblower story. When the Surprise is so badly outgunned, it loses battles. At one point it is forced to flee from the enemy. The encounters with the enemy are widely separated, but in between is a fascinating education in what life is like on a ship of war in the early 19th century. Aubry does not have Hornblower's 20th century values. For example, when it seems an important object lesson, he has no aversion to ordering a flogging. (This is something Hornblower did only once, and then only because he was forced into it.) Yet Aubry seems a reasonable man who maintains a good relation with even the young midshipmen on his ship. On request over dinner he will tell of what it was like serving with Admiral Nelson. He even makes puns. But he does not allow the crew to question his Ahab-like determination to hunt and if need be lose his ship and crew stalking his powerful foe. The only man who can question him at all is his best friend, ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).

The real star of the film is the HMS Surprise (played by the HMS Rose floating in a tank at Baja, Mexico). As we see it is almost a floating city. As Aubrey tells his crew, "This ship is our home; this ship is England." We see a wide variety of aspects of shipboard life: the maintaining of the ship, the preparing food, the painfully primitive medical procedures, the battle station responsibilities, the action in a storm, and the crew's crowded life in the darkness below decks. The film is almost without women except for one quick sequence when the ship stops for supplies. We get to know the ship well. The enemy ship is implacable and kept impersonal, seen only from a distance, for most of the film. Curiously Crowe, who usually seems a bit rigid in his roles, seems less stiff than naval commanders usually are portrayed on film. Laughton as Bligh and Peck as Hornblower seem to have backbones of steel rods. Crowe's body language is much more flexible and informal. And while at times he is dedicated to his duty, he seems a little too willing to reinterpret those orders to help his friend. Much more than in other films we are told the commander's philosophy of battle.

While many of the action scenes are enhanced greatly by CGI, great care was taken to keep the digital effect undetectable. I am usually bothered by digital effects and in this film I never consciously noticed them in spite of their extensive use. The battle scenes are realistic and exciting, but blood seems to be kept to a minimum.

MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD is a big film. It is produced by 20th Century Fox, Miramax, and Universal, and bears all three banners. I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. (Oh, that piece of classical music that they use so liberally after battle scenes is Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Talis," long a favorite of mine.)

Mark R. Leeper
[email protected]
Copyright 2003 Mark R. Leeper

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