|"Master and Commander:
The Far Side of the World"
When I was about 10, I prized war movies above just about anything except the discovery of an unseen rerun of "Star Trek." My test of a worthy war movie was simple: If I saw any girls' names in the opening credits, it failed.
There are no girls of any consequence in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." This is a movie about men and ships, duty and obsession, combat and killing, luck and leadership -- pure guy stuff from stem to stern. Russell Crowe and his cast of unknowns are fighting men (and boys) with two enemies: a seemingly unsinkable French frigate and the always implacable sea. Director Peter Weir of "Truman Show" and "Year of Living Dangerously" fame should have added a third enemy -- fear -- but this is a tale of gallantry so there isn't much wallowing in weakness.
"Master and Commander" passed the girl test, but it tested my patience for high seas epics in which:
The poopdeck of moviedom is worn pretty smooth with those plot devices. Filmmakers return to these elements because they're trustworthy tools for building a high-seas adventure -- the trick is to fashion a movie whose familiarity breeds warm recognition rather than cold contempt. "Master and Commander" pulls this off, for the most part.
It's not one of the Great Films such as "Schindler's List" or "Jaws" that show us something we've never seen before. It does, however, find fresh ways to retell stories we've heard a dozen times already. Interior shots bring to mind the cramped, nasty innards of a 19th-century warship, and amazing sound and visual effects make the combat about as lifelike as mere moviegoers can stand. When cannon balls hit home, wood splinters rather than explodes. Gunners' cannons have pet names. Bread at the captain's dinner table has worms.
Much of the credit here rests with production designer William Sandell, who did similarly impressive work on "The Perfect Storm" and "Air Force One." It feels real because he made it that way; the closest comparison I can think of is the banana-draped bulkheads of "Das Boot" (a better movie because it had a better story).
This story begins and ends with Captain Jack Aubrey, a Brit whose mission is to intercept a formidable French frigate off the coast of Brazil. The story, lifted from the first and 10th installments of Patrick O'Brian's 20 "Master and Commander" novels, goes like this: It's 1805 and Napoleon has conquered Europe and has his eyes on British Isles. If Britain's fleet can sink enough French shipping, perhaps Mr. Bonaparte can be kept on his side of the channel. Aubrey's best friend is Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, who played Crowe's imaginary roommate in "A Beautiful Mind"), the ship's surgeon, whose hobby is collecting rare specimens of plant and animal life. Captain Jack is constantly explaining nautical matters to his doctor, who is constantly reminding the captain that he's pushing the men too hard, pushing the ship too hard, pushing himself too hard. Think Dr. McCoy before the invention of anesthesia.
The captain, the doctor, a one-armed pre-teen midshipman (a scene-stealing Max Pirkis) and a scary soothsaying sailor (a crusty George Innes) chase their prey (or are they being chased?) into the South Pacific, where a stop in the Galapagos Islands provides some of nature's best lessons in defense, deception and adaptation. It's one of those moments when you realize every period movie is a commentary on the time of its creation as much as the time in which it is set. The doctor wonders if these strange species with their amazing adaptations are the work of God alone, or if they help things along. His one-armed apprentice proves an able naturalist. Creationism vs. evolution and an inspiring story of a brave boy overcoming a disability. How 21st Century can you get?
The movie tempers its rip-roaring battles with dollops of humor that humanize the heroic Captain Jack and his crew. He's a hilarious drunk prone to corny puns and knowing wisecracks. When the doctor's getting ready to go explore the Galapagos fauna, it's suggested that a plant be named after Lucky Jack : "Make it something prickly and hard to eradicate," the captain recommends.
"Master and Commander" is a good story, well told. I'm not convinced it soars to the heights some critics are conferring upon it -- it doesn't shed much light on the grand mystery of what draws men to the sea -- but these days movies have gotten to be so routinely insipid that a good old fashioned sail-and-cannon epic will do in a pinch. Even one with no girls in it.
AT HOME OR AT A THEATER?
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Patrick O'Brian's revered "Master and Commander" saga is finally reaching the big screen, and is given the royal treatment in Hollywood as befits the beginning of a potential major franchise. Director Peter Weir and star Russell Crowe don't disappoint.
Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Crowe), master of the HMS Surprize, is given orders by the admiralty to track down the French warship Acheron in the waters off of the Americas and track it as far as Brazil, with the orders to take her if possible, and sink her if not. He commands a crew including the ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who is an amateur naturalist as well as Aubrey's best friend. The two often end their evenings by playing duets on violin and cello.
The Acheron proves to be a superior ship in size, firepower and speed, and creates havoc for the Surprize, which barely escapes sinking in battle. Aubrey must use all his wits to outwit his clever adversary, but also wrestles with his own motivations; does he chase the Acheron out of loyalty, duty or pride? And what price will he pay to find the answer to that question?
The "Master and Commander" books are very well researched. The 20-novel series features detailed accounts of life in the British Navy in the Napoleonic era, as well as battle tactics, the political climate of the times and life in general at the dawn of the 19th century.
That a movie was to be made of it was met by anticipation but also skepticism; fans of the series (and they are a rabid lot) were concerned that the careful, meticulous research O'Brian put into the novels might be washed away in a storm of Hollywood clichés.
Well, there's reason to celebrate (and reason for dirges -- more in a moment). Although Russell Crowe is perhaps too Hollywood-handsome for the role of the somewhat pudgy Aubrey, he carries the charisma of a leader of men. His performance is such that you believe he is the kind of man you yourself would follow without hesitation to the gates of Hell and back. The movie also captures the brutal and cramped conditions in which swabbies of the British Navy lived and worked.
Better still, the raw courage it took to fight a naval battle is noted, as cannonfire obliterates hulls and decks, causing wood to splinter in a thousand directions, acting as lethal darts. Rarely are the cannonballs themselves seen by the naked eye, but the damage they inflict to vessel and flesh is well in evidence.
The movie is well-cast, with faces that have the look of the 19th century; most bear scars of battle, or the more insidious scars of years of toil on a tiny vessel in the midst of the unforgiving ocean, imperiled by both the elements and merciless foes.
Aubrey is a decent sort but a stern taskmaster as captain; he knows the crew's ability to perform amid hellish cannonfire and terrible storms will mean the difference between returning home or taking a long nap in Davey Jones' locker.
Weir filmed on the Galapagos Islands, one of the most remote and fascinating places on earth. It is where Charles Darwin was motivated to formulate his Theory of Evolution, and remains today, due to preservationist efforts, nearly pristine. The scenes with Maturin on the island are priceless.
But there are a few marks against the film. In the novels, the American Navy was Aubrey's adversary. Here, perhaps so that the American audience isn't offended, Aubrey fights the French. Also, some of the expository scenes drag, leading to the audience shifting in its seats uncomfortably during the 2.5-hour movie.
Crowe continues to be one of the most compelling stars in Hollywood; he's really hit his stride not only as an actor, but as a screen presence. The movie is much better when he's onscreen than when he's offscreen. Also, his chemistry with Paul Bettany as Maturin is undeniable; they bicker, but they are still the closest of friends, and the two play well off each other.
Weir walks a tightrope over a pool of hungry sharks in making this movie, and I think he does as good a job as it's possible to do under the circumstances. The ship's interior is made to feel cramped without making the audience too claustrophobic. The emptiness of the ocean and the isolation of the English vessel on it is noted but not overdone. And while he did compress some of the action, eliminate scenes and beloved novel characters, he makes the movie, uh, move.
"Master and Commander: Far Side of the World" is an epic piece of filmmaking. While the storyline may not be new, it is well-told. It is a combination action movie, adventure flick and history lesson all rolled into one neat package. Students of history will love this one, as much if not more so than lovers of action. What more can you ask of a franchise?
AT HOME OR AT A THEATER?