Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
December 3, 2001
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James DArcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Jack Randall, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby, Richard Pates, Robert Pugh, Richard McCabe, Ian Mercer, Tony Dolan, David Threlfall, ,
Master and Commander is another of those films that lures would be cinema-stay-aways back into theatres, the kind of people normally put off by the bravado of big box office movies. Films like Gladiator and Titanic had this intangible quality also, as well as being box office smashes, great action films and having a top notch cast, they also had the historical value that appealed to those not otherwise interested in film. With a grounding in reality, a historical setting and a semblance of plausibility, Master and Commander reaches beyond the usual film audience.
All that said it still manages to grip the action movie soaked palates of the masses and deliver in spades what it promised in the hype.
This film is literally brimming with underused British talent, such as Ian Mercer who plays Mr. Hollar, but would be better known to UK audiences as Garry Mallet from Coronation Street. The fact that all of these guys are fine actors may have been overlooked by some, as without a project like this to throw themselves into they can be guilty of working on dross, belying their true talents.
With so much British talent involved, the film takes on the feel of an almost bloodier version of ITV’s Hornblower, with the ruggedness of Sean Bean’s Richard Sharpe thrown in. Indeed, Paul Bettany (Dr. Stephen Maturin) is on familiar ground as he played the dastardly Prince William of Orange in Sharpe’s Waterloo.
Of course the important thing that distinguishes Master and Commander from the ITV dramas can be summed up in two words, Russell Crowe. The British actors are great when given the minor supporting roles, as they revel in them and treat it much like theatre, but when the film calls for the screen to be dominated with such a fervour that you daren’t avert your eyes even for a moment, you need look no further than Crowe.
In Gladiator Russell Crowe emerged as a true Hollywood heavy weight, and has since gone on to vary his roles in films such as A Beautiful Mind. Seeing him here in the action hero guise is where he looks at his most comfortable, and at his very best. The man oozes charisma, and is all the more believable as a military leader because of it. You can see from his demeanour that men would indeed follow him, and trust their lives to him.
Of course one man doesn’t make a film, and Master and Commander is something special. Director Peter Weir, who was shamelessly passed over for an Oscar with the Jim Carey masterpiece The Truman Show, steps back into the chair for the first time since 1998. You’d think after Truman, he’d have had his door beaten down with offers but he seems to have been quiet for the last 5 years. He’s sure come back with a bang now though.
Master and Commander is set during the Napoleonic Wars, when elsewhere a certain Richard Sharpe was calling officers ‘bloody fools’, and features Crowe as Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey. Aubrey has been despatched to intercept and capture or sink a French frigate – a privateer ship that has been raiding British supply ships in the Pacific.
The first engagement comes however when the French fire upon the British from within a fog bank, taking them by surprise. It’s only ‘Lucky’ Jack’s luck that they happen upon another fog bank and are able to escape. Aubrey quickly learns that the French ship has twice as much firepower, twice as many men and a revolutionary hull design making her almost impenetrable to canon fire. Naturally this only serves as a challenge to Aubrey as he pushes his men to the limit, and strains their trust in him to the maximum as he pursues the French further.
The main relationship of the film focuses around Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his best friend Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). The doctor is a peaceful man who is intent on exploring the new world to learn about its creatures, and generally anything he can. Aubrey on the other hand just wants to catch the French, as it becomes more a case of personal pride rather than duty. Their friendship is well played by both actors, particularly Crowe, who manages at the same time to be both caring and understanding while being forceful and unyielding.
The two clash over the nature of their orders, the apparent futility of pursuing a more powerful foe and even the relevance of superstition aboard a ship. The crew believe that their run of bad luck that has seen them go without rain and wind for days is due to the presence of a ‘Jonah’; a sailor among them who has been cursed and is causing bad luck for the whole ship. Naturally Doctor Maturin dismisses this as superstition, but Aubrey believes that the unrest among the crew is justified and potentially dangerous.
Then Mr. Hollom, a midshipman who’s become unpopular with the crew is singled out as being the cursed sailor responsible for their run of bad luck. The character of Hollom is a very unfortunate one, and his attempts to become accepted are one of the many underlying sub plots running through the film.
Like all great war movies, the characters need to be well fleshed out and given a decent back story so that when the inevitable happens it’s all the more meaningful. Master and Commander certainly delivers on this score. It should also be applauded for not pulling its punches in the manner that central characters are dealt with during combat, not all deaths are heroic and some are downright sudden and wasteful.
The combat sequences themselves are epic in scope, and accurately chaotic for the time. The presence of children in the battle scenes only adds to the senselessness of war, as many of the midshipmen are in their early teens yet are still expected to fight as men.
Gladiator is regarded as a triumph of film making, yet flawed due to a plodding script. Master and Commander doesn’t have this weakness, it has all of the grandeur of Gladiator with a tightly woven script and excellent performances.
It is hoped that Master and Commander is the first of what will be a series of films based on the novels by Patrick O’Brian. On the strength of this movie there’s no doubt that there’ll be more, and this must be a strong favourite come Oscar time next year.
A truly excellent film, with an outstanding cast.