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


Ebert: Rolling Stone:1/2 TV Guide:

Warning, minor plot points revealed!

I fear that The French have now and forever doomed themselves by not participating in our debacle in Iraq.  Their unwillingness to take part or help after the fact in the massive clean-up of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" has cost them dearly.  They are now officially our unofficial enemy.  What started earlier this year with The Merovingian in The Matrix Reloaded has come full circle with The French crew of baddies at the helm of The French warship Acheron that is threatening the very freedom of the British Empire in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  Damn those French forward thinking peace loving scoundrels!  Damn their progressive unbridled intelligence to Hell!  They sicken me.  

According to renowned Naval Historian and gourmand, Lawrence "Pearlmutter" Fisher, I have learned that the true villains in the novel from which the film is based are actually Americans!  The movie attempts to explain this away by mentioning that the ship itself was built in America but was commissioned by The French.  Therefore we, the American audience, are able to take pride in the fact that the American built Acheron was the most formidable and magnificently designed vessel of her time.  While at the same time we are able to cheer as she is vanquished and captured by British Commander "Lucky" Jack Aubrey who shows those filthy French what it means to be master of the seas.  

French bashing and accuracy to the novels aside, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a fantastic film.  I loved it!  It's an action movie and history lesson rolled into one.  It's like something you would see if the History Channel had an $80 million dollar budget for each show.  Being a fan of both Russell Crowe and The Sea Captain on The Simpsons, I knew that I would enjoy this film.  

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a combination of books 1 and 10 in the popular series of novels by Patrick O'Brian that bring to life the world of the British navy in the early 1800's.  The story focuses on the captain and crew of HMS Surprise and follows her adventures and battles in and around the Galapagos Islands and Cape Horn.  The above mentioned Acheron is the enemy French  "ghost ship" that outmaneuvers them at every turn and then slips away unscathed.  

Much of the film follows, in amazing historical detail, the daily life on board a 19th century battleship.  The Captain is a fair and good natured man who will push his ship and crew to, and sometimes beyond, the brink of their abilities.  The ship's physician and best friend to the Captain, spends his downtime as an obsessive naturalist.  The junior officers are mere children (teenagers mostly) thrust into positions of authority and the rest of the crew is comprised of men ages 6 to 60 who seem, for the most part, to enjoy their swashbuckling lives under "Lucky" Jack's Command.  

The special effects of the film are stirring.  I know that a great deal of it was shot in the huge ocean tank set that was used for Titanic.  The peril of the sea seems very real both in battle and at the mercy of nature.  The scenes of storm are as equally impressive as those of battle.  The way the ships splinter as they are ripped apart by cannon balls is harrowing.  After watching the battles and the raging weather that the ships endure it's amazing that anyone who lived at sea survived the 19th Century.  

Although it's not a special effect, an astounding level of period detail was used in the accurate recreation of both ship and crew.  The doctor's tools, surgical manuals and methods, as well as his naturalist equipment is all very interesting.  So too is the workings of the ship itself and the stratification of duties carried out by it's crew.  Even the most mundane function aboard ship is recreated as it would have been executed and the results are fascinating.  

The actors all do a fine job but none of the performances are of Oscar caliber.  The film itself, and perhaps director Peter Weir, could be nominated but this is the year of Return of the King.  (At least it damn well better be!)  Russell Crowe is great as Captain Aubrey.  From what I've been told I don't think he or Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin fit the physical profiles that were created in the books but not having any preconceived notions I was able to enjoy the performances.  I actually thought Bettany stole the show most of the time.  His was the character that was most entertaining to watch.  It was fun to watch the dynamic between Aubrey and Maturin as well.  Their arguments as well as their violin and cello recitals exhibit a complementary balance between the two men that is similar to the characters they both played in A Beautiful Mind.  

Max Pirkis does a splendid job as Lord Blakeney.  The youngest of the junior officers (perhaps 12 or 13 yrs. old) who learns valuable lessons from Aubrey as well as Maturin.  Billy Boyd (aka. Pippin in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) plays crewman Barrett Bonden.  He's just one of the crew and not really exceptional except for the fact that every time you see him you think "Hey!  That's Pippin of The Shire!" 

I really liked Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  It is a very well made film and I recommend you see it at the theatre if possible.  Much of the thrill will be lost if you wait to watch it on DVD or television. 

I do not think the series will continue on film.  It's done OK at the box office but it was bested by Elf and it would probably be hard to get actors like Crowe and a director like Weir to reprise their roles.