April — 1805
Napoleon is Master of Europe
Only the British Fleet Stands Before Him

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a bit of a cumbersome title, but it's tacked on to what I consider a very, very well-done film. Let's start with the history and context.

This film is an adaptation of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, comprising 20 complete (plus one incomplete) novels written by Patrick O'Brian between 1970 and 2000. The current node there doesn't give much information beyond a list, so: that series is the single, episodic story of the friendship between two men. Their names are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. The former is an officer in the Royal Navy, while the latter is a penniless physician and amateur naturalist when they meet at the outset of the first book. The time is the Napoleonic wars, and the place is the English naval base at Gibraltar. From that humble beginning, they begin a friendship that will literally span the globe and decades, despite O'Brian's admitted massive japes with the flow of time. As he put it, at one point there just wasn't enough of the Napoleonic Wars to fit everything, so a good seven to ten of the novels all take place in some sort of phantom 1812 or thereabouts.

The film. It's a bit of a throwback to the sea epics of the 1920s and 1930s, but with a bit less swashbuckling and a bit more grim reality. Life on board a man-of-war is brutal and difficult, and this film makes no bones about it.

Perhaps the most important thing to say about the movie is this: while it does not directly adapt any of the books, it takes elements from roughly the first eight novels and tacks them on a base plot from one of the novels (The Far Side of the World contains the basics of the chase around South America, although the quarry is an American frigate in that book) and does it incredibly well. The movie opens, literally, on the high seas - we are given no context other than the opening silent text, reproduced above.

The film takes place on board the ship HMS Surprise, a 28-gun frigate of the Royal Navy (with one or two exceptions, scenes ashore on deserted lands or on board an enemy vessel). The setting and plot of the movie is given to us before the first line is spoken, again in text overlay:

28 Guns   197 Souls   N. coast BRAZIL
To Cpt. J. Aubrey
'Intercept French privateer ACHERON en route to Pacific
…Sink, Burn or take her a Prize'

And with that, we're off. There's nothing else needed. This film, at its heart, is a contest between two men, one we see and one we never do, up close - Jack Aubrey and the unknown captain of the Acheron. The subplots and asides and flourishes of the story, of life afloat, of life at war, of life in the Navy - all these serve to reinforce the fact that this is a contest. In the Age of Sail, necessarily, great powers of authority were laid on the shoulders of those men who captained the ships that made for Empire; for they were at most times months from home port and Admiralty orders. Especially when cruising alone, the captains of these ships had an authority not much short of absolute and dictatorial in the service of their Navy's regulations, if they could hold their authority over the crew. As such, the chase of the Acheron by the Surprise, although it has the character of obsession and megalomania (and to be sure, at one point, it will be admitted that the chase is being carried far past the length of orders' reach) is in fact the clash of nations.

As Jack Aubrey tells his crew before the final battle, which will surely involve a boarding and resultant close combat: "England is under threat of invasion. And though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England."

There are no women in this film, save for one or two glimpsed from afar. There are men, and their ships, and their war. That is all. There is no romance, little art, and almost no world other than the ships. There is duty and pain and determination and triumph and loss and horror and exhilaration.

This role was the one that Russell Crowe was born to play. Jack Aubrey is described as a big, blond, beefy Englishman, with a twinkle in his eye unless in combat, where he wears the aspect of a lion. Crowe steps into the gauzy description of Jack Aubrey and settles it around himself and makes it real; having seen the movie, I cannot imagine Jack Aubrey without thinking of Crowe, despite my having read all the books, some many times, prior to having seen the film.

Unfortunately, the casting — or perhaps the portrayal, or maybe the writing — of Maturin is not nearly as well done. Paul Bettany isn't able to pull off the Doctor's withdrawn, dark, scruffy poise; he's far too pretty, for one thing, and comes off as petulant when Dr. Maturin is meant to come off as tightly in control of his rage. It's not enough of a problem to derail the film, however; the movie is too short for us to really understand that this story was originally about their friendship. Although it is made clear in the film, its depth can't possibly be plumbed, and we substitute the thrill of the chase. This is appropriate. One reason Maturin is less convincing, I believe, is because one of the most important parts of his character has literally no time given it in the film. Maturin is, in fact, an intelligence agent of great skill and determination in the books. However, with the movie taking place entirely aboard ship, with no traffic with the rest of the world involved, there is no opportunity for Bettany to show us that side of Maturin.

The rest of the cast is excellent. James D'Arcy as the young Lt. Tom Pullings and Robert Pugh as the Master Mr. Allen are particularly well chosen for their roles.

Much of the movie was, in fact, made afloat in the South Pacific aboard the ship HMS Rose, a replica frigate built in 1970 by a Rhode Island historian in Nova Scotia. It was the only replica frigate afloat at the time of filming, and Twentieth Century Fox purchased it for $1.5 million. Other scenes were filmed aboard a replica of that replica, built inside a giant tank originally used to film Titanic. Great lengths were taken to chase authenticity, from props and replica period pieces to the cast (crew) undergoing significant intense training on shipboard skills and living together apart from the movie crew during filming. My favorite piece of trivia regarding the ship itself - 27 miles of rope were manufactured for the film, because the ropes used in Napoleonic times had a left-hand lay whereas modern rope is right-hand lay.

During the filming of the movie, a replica of Captain Cook's vessel was in fact sailing around the world. Peter Weir sent a crew to film aboard that ship while it rounded the tip of South America, using that footage for HMS Surprise's traversal of those same waters. He filmed an actual typhoon to get footage for storms in the movie.

If you like sea stories, war movies, or historical fiction — see this movie. If you like all of those, you're in for a special treat. Be sure to see it on the largest screen you can find, with the best sound system you can find, as the production does not skimp on cinematography or sound production. Nominated for several Oscars at the 76th Academy Awards, it only brought home two — but those for Cinematography and Sound Editing.

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

Directed by Peter Weir

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