Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

This Ship is Home

Film essay by: Witney Seibold


            Some little boys had cowboy fantasies. I could never get into that. Horses scared me, the characters in westerns were always so sweaty and dirty and icky, shot each other in brutal gunfights, and lived in a constant state of uneasy war with evil Indians. Not for me.

            Some little boys had sport hero fantasies. The very fact that I write film essays as a hobby should indicate juts how important organized spots are to me; I do know that there was a Super Bowl recently, although I couldn’t tell you who the winner was, despite having been told by various friends. I think it was the Falcons. No. It was whoever was playing the Patriots. That’s right. The Patriots were the team to beat, and the underdogs beat ‘em. Good show, underdogs. I think the Patriots are from New England. All of New England apparently, although I thought most sport teams came from cities.

            Some little boys had pirate fantasies. Viking fantasies. Hobo fantasies. Biker fantasies. Just like cowboys, those groups struck me as dangerous and filthy criminals. There were few common little boy fantasies, in fact, that did appeal to me. I did, wholeheartedly, fall into the spaceman and monster fantasies a lot, though. Space aliens, space ships, dangerous intelligent creatures. I liked that stuff. Those were my weaknesses. Show me a six shooter and a horse, and I’ll sneer a bit before giving you a quizzical look. Show me an alien egg and a jetpack, and I’ll follow you to the alien queen’s lair.

            And, I must confess, I had a soft spot for the sailor. Not necessarily a Naval officer, mind you, but life on a ship was warmly inviting. The romance of the open sea, the thought of setting out onto the watery horizon, the ocean breezes whipping through your hair, using the stars to guide you, and occasionally stopping off as tropical paradises for relaxation and pineapple juice. That was the life for me.

            I had few chances to flex my sailorboy muscles. Ironically, I hated going to the beach, so my opportunities to encounter actual boats was few and far between. One fateful summer, thanks to my stint in the Boys Scouts, I was able to visit the Marina every day for two weeks in order to earn my small boat sailing merit badge. Friends and I (hi, Wes!), after much training, were allowed to take our boat out into the open ocean for a few hours. We pulled ropes, tied riggings, sailed where we wanted. We even rammed another small boat containing some more Scouts, throwing our trash into their little ship in the process. It was one of the finer days of my adolescence.

            So, when going into see Peter Weir’s 2003 film, I must admit I already had a slight, yet unknown at the time, prejudice favoring it. I say unknown for while I always had the little boy seafaring fantasies, they had been dormant for years. Thank you, Peter Weir, for reawakening them.

            “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is one of the best films of the last 20 years. It is proof that a film can be, at once, historically accurate, intelligent, warm, adventurous, funny, poignant, light, scientific, inspiring, and simultaneously quaint and grand. And it can achieve all this without a lick of melodrama, without a single forced dramatic conceit, without a whiff of falsehood. It may be about the English military, sea battles, chases, dramatic seas storms, daring escapes, and painful executive decisions, but it’s never once cartoony, never once falls into the trap of the melodrama.

            In fact, the film works so well because its own story takes a backseat to its very tone. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is bookended by two grand sea battles, and contains all manner of pursuits and setbacks in the interim, but uses those events merely as anchors to a simple depiction of life at sea. Yes, chasing down and claiming Napoleon’s ship The Acheron is paramount to Capt. Jack Aubrey and the crew of the HMS Surprise, but that particular mission n is not the be-all and end-all of life aboard this little British frigate. It is merely one of many, many tasks that punctuate a life at sea.

            A little background before I continue. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is based on a series of 20 ½ novels (the 21st was never completed) by British author and translator Patrick O’Brian, who wrote the series from 1970 to 1999. They are the author’s best-known works, and have amassed an enormously devout cult following in England and Australia. The books are known for their historical authenticity, and almost persnickety detail of sails, riggings, military structure, and ship life in general. They are told in an almost confusing vocabulary of ship shoptalk, and idiomatic maritime terms. To date, I have read the eighth book, The Ionian Mission, and the 17th, The Commodore. The stories of the books, like the film they inspired, are less about the climaxes and stories (O’Brian sometimes even skips the climax entirely, going straight to the scene after it and how the character reacted) as they are about the relationships on a ship, and the studies of the frigates themselves; a LOT of detail is poured into exactly how the ship is operated, how the military related to the “common” crew, which ropes pull up which sales, what chores needed to be done to keep the ship clean, well-constructed, rebuilt, etc. O’Brian plunges us into this world, not pausing for a glossary or slowing down to tell us land-lubbers what all of this means. More than giving us a drama, the books give us a documentary approach to an era that O’Brian obviously had little boy fantasies about. And then, at least with the two books I’ve read, they merely end without much of a dénouement, implying that you’ll just have to continue sailing.

            The 2003 film is based on the first in the Aubrey/Maturing series, Master and Commander, and the 10th, The Far Side of the World. Hence, the films’ double title.

            The film takes place in the South Seas in 1805 during the Napoleonic wars aboard a British ship named The Surprise. The oceans are constantly being patrolled by French and English frigates, and sea battles are not uncommon. In 1805, children were often called into military service, so much of the command crew are boys aged 9-15. The Surprise is commanded by the resourceful and determined Capt. “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), a tough-minded and rambunctious and daring captain, whose derring-do often lands him in trouble, but more often serves the needs of his mission. Jack’s best friend is the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) who is a medical man by trade, but a budding naturalist at heart. He is the quiet realist to balance Jack’s haughty military mind. The current mission of the Surprise is to hunt down a French ship called The Acheron which seems to have an impenetrable hull, and has been looting all of the local whaling ships.

            And that’s the whole plot of the film: Catch a boat.

            Seeing as the film is based on an often inconclusive series of books, and has and oft-unintroduced supporting cast, we’re plunged in medias res into the wars being fought, and with the relationships already firmly in place. We meet the ship’s master Mr. Allen (Robert Pugh), a jolly veteran. We meet the first Lieutenant, Mr. Pullings (Tom D’Arcy), a scarred leader. We meet the aging midshipman Mr. Hollom (Lee Ingleby), an unambitious coward. We meet the shiphands, like the grizzled Mr. Lamb (Tony Dolan), and the sharp-eyed helmsman (Billy Boyd). And, most amusingly, we meet the put-upon ship’s cook Mr. Killick (David Threlfall), who is amused by very little. The only character we’re really properly introduced to is Mr. Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a 10-year-old midshipman who loses his arm in the film’s opening battle, and spends the rest of the film inspiring the rest of the crew with his intelligence and resourcefulness. The rest are simply already living on the Surprise at the film’s outset, and it’s up to us to get to know them. Every action we see, from the icky looking meals, to the gathering of supplies and water, to the navigation and steerage, we, hence, know has happened countless times before. This, the film is saying, is just what life was like in 1805 on the Surprise, and we’re not going to throw in anything false to guide you. You must navigate just as we must.

            Between the film’s two giant sea battles are a series of episodes that distract from the Surprise’s mission. They try to hide in fog. They sail too far south, and get caught in an ice storm. They create a decoy to outright the Acheron when it gets the drop on them. They realize, though the unintentional reconnaissance of one of the crewmen, just why the Acheron has been so difficult to bag. Jack makes some risky decisions, like taking pursuit when all expect him to return to England to refit. A storm causes a mast to break, and they lose a crew member. The winds stop for a few weeks, and cabin fever sets in. A crewman disrespects an officer, and is punished duly, much to the chagrin of the officer disrespected (the consequences and superstitions of the crew lead to a tragic event). A trip is promised to Dr. Maturin to go to the Galapagos Islands, and then rescinded at the last minute, causing animosity between Maturin and Aubrey. Maturin is accidentally shot, and must repair himself. And, thanks to an unwitting biology lesson, Capt. Jack learns the best way to claim the Acheron.

            I’m not sure of I got the order of events exactly right, but, in a film like this, the order is hardly the point. The experience is.

            And by plunging us into the experience, director Peter Weir has, in effect, given us a new home. A warm and comforting place. A place where we depend on the smarts and strength of those around us, and are encouraged to be smart and strong. And we simply live there. We’re not in the ship to see a play, to see characters strutting and fretting their fateful hours upon the stage. No, we are there with friends, and co-workers. The food must’ve been terrible (we see big plates of glop more than once), and the crewmen’s quarters probably smelled like stale armpit 24 hours a say. The cabin fever could only be discouraged by the occasional chugs of grog and the shouted sea chantey. But this is our home, we know it well, and we love it. For some reason, we love being at sea.

            A note on the film’s special effects: In an era of filmmaking (this was just a few years ago, mind you) that has most everyone creating fake-looking cartoons out of CGI, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” has come of the most convincing-looking effect in that it shied away from CGI techniques. For long shots, a real ship was taken into the sea. For close-ups, an actual ship was built on a large hydraulic system to move it about. It’s rare that we get the combination of shoptalk, realism, and hard work that makes an audience feel like the fictional thing actually exists somewhere; that it can actually be operated; that should the audience find themselves on that ship, they might have a fighting chance at operating it themselves. Occasional shots of CGI were used, but in such a way that it blended perfectly with the background. Most people ooh and aah over a CGI creation like Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings,” noting that the animation was very good. I’m far more impressed with special effects that you can’t really notice. And “Master and Commander” has maybe one or two shots that are markedly false (and even then, you’d have t have a sharp eye to spot them). Some backgrounds were inserted, and some of the Galapagos animals as well, but for the most part, we’re seeing real wood splintering, real sails billowing, real water splashing, a real anchor drifting silently below the surface of the water.

            Many special effect artists (and editors and composers have said this as well) feel that if they’ve done their job just right, no one will notice they did anything at all. I think that’s a healthy approach to special effects in an era of special effects-infused action spectaculars. The effects (like the editing and the music) should serve the film and not distract from it. That function succeeded in “Master and Commander.”

            A note on the performances: In the books, Aubrey and Maturin are rowdy and rambunctious. They often get drunk, often sleep with each other’s wives, and are more generally troublemakers. Actually seeing them on screen, though, it was wise for Crowe and Bettany to tone them back a bit. Surely, we see them drinking and being rowdy occasionally (Aubrey even toasts at one point: “To our wives and lovers. May they never meet.”), but we have a more desperate need to see the true nature of their friendship, which, it turns out, springs from their differences rather than their similarities and need to have a drinkin’ buddy. They fight about duty, about what the men need, about their vastly differing priorities on this mission (the ship’s doctor was not technically an officer), and then sit to play beautiful string duets together. This is not a friendship fueled by animal passions. This is a friendship fueled by respect of intellect, and admiration of instincts. And, of course, of the need to have a worthy adversary when in need of some mindful loquacious parrying.

            Crowe plays Aubrey with gusto, making him heroic without being a Gilgamesh. Making him a grand leader without being a myth. In a quaint epic we need a quaint epic hero, so Crowe is sure to infuse his leader with some very human flaws: he’s surely not an intellect, he makes a few unpopular decisions, he forces friends to cut others loose, and very often puts the mission before his friendly promises. Dr. Maturin, while a realist and a fine doctor, can rarely see the importance of military conquest. He almost whines at some points, wondering aloud why such extreme measures must be taken to ensure military victory. These are the last questions a military man wants to hear asked.

            A note on the film’s music: To be sure, “Master and Commander” has three composers. Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon, and Richard Tognetti all contributed to the incidental music, and fine incidental music it is. But what I liked more, and what you’ll probably notice more, was the use of the Bach and Corelli to enhance the film’s mood. Occasionally the film takes small intermissions where we simply watch the ship sail by, or the anchor drifting along as a lovely baroque string duet plays softly on the soundtrack. These interludes serve to connect one incident to another, but also to remind us how calm things can be on a ship which is always bustling with activity and is on a mission of war. The film’s soundtrack album is a good primer for those unfamiliar with classical and baroque music.

            “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 2003, including Best Picture, Director, and Visual Effects. It only won two, however (Cinematography and Sound Effects), losing most of its categories to “The Lord of the Rings,” which won 11 awards that year (beating out other great films like “Lost in Translation” and Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River”). It has since slipped into a semi-obscure state. Whenever I mention the film to friends, they remember seeing ads for it, and remember wanting to see it, but then forgetting about it entirely when “Lord of the Rings” was doing so well at the Oscars. It is a pity that such a grand film as this has been forgotten so quickly. It is widely available on video, luckily, and while much of the glory of the big screen must necessarily be lost in the transfer to home video (no matter how good your home theater system is, a theatrical experience will always be superior), it can still readily be seen.

             A bit of personal disclosure: I have seen “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” probably over a dozen times. There was a brief period in my life when, after having bought the super two-disc edition of the film, I would come home from my late night job, slip it into the player, and watch as much of it as I could in bed until I became drowsy. Watching the film cheered me up, made me happy. It became something of a ritual with me, so I know the film well (I lied above about not being sure about the exact order of the events).

            But I assure you, it’s not for nostalgia or personal reasons that I write so extensively about the film, and recommend it so highly (there are future essays I will write which stem almost entirely from personal memories). It really is a fine film. A great one I’d say. Remember that feeling you had back in December of 2003 when you thought about seeing “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” and go back to it. Go out to your local video shop, and rent the video (or you can borrow mine). Dim the lights, cuddle up on the couch, and be transported to your home on the Surprise.

             My inner little boy was allowed to run around there for a bit.

Published in: on February 21, 2008 at 12:25 am  Comments (7)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice essay and I think I’ll take your advice and watch M and C tonight.

  2. Wonderfully written! I fully agree that M&C is one of the best films this quarter century. Like Bridgid I’m going to make it a movie night.

  3. It’s one of my favorite films as well. I understand it’s being released on Blu-ray High Definition disc very soon. It may well be my first purchase in the new DVD format. I can’t think of another film which so richly deserves being watched in full detailed glory.

    The soundtrack is marvelous, but I don’t recall hearing music by Mendelssohn during the film.

    Mozart, Corelli, Bach, Vaughn Williams and Boccherini, yes.

  4. A good essay praising an unjustly neglected masterpiece. One day,sadly,M&C may be regarded as the last great historical film epic.I especially appreciate your point that special efects should serve the film, not the other way around.While I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan (the book more than the movie), Return of the King should never have won the Best Picture Oscar against M&C.
    Forgive my few quibbles:no Mendelssohn on the soundtrack (I have it),and the ship sailed south, not north. .

  5. This was my choice for the best picture of 2003, and yes, it was robbed. I also rank it as one of those best picture nominees that should have won but did not. I am proud to admit that I saw it at the movies…on the big screen TWENTY-SEVEN TIMES, a personal record for me, and I have every single ticket stub to show that! It is currently my top favorite movie of all time, and even owning it on DVD doesn’t stop me from pausing if I see it on cable. It is a glorious movie; a great movie, and a movie about real humans with their little mistakes, but still managing to rise above their troubles to be truly heroic. Captain Jack Aubrey is one of the finest characters in literary fiction, and Lord knows that if I was going to be trapped on the proverbial desert island, I’d want him by my side. This may also be my favorite of all of Russell Crowe’s performances, and I loved him as Maximus, Bud White and Jim Braddock. I started reading the books prior to the movie’s release, and he is so Jack that it comes close to my idea of perfect casting.

    Thank you for such a brilliant essay, and reading it on my birthday was one of the best gifts I could have received!

  6. Wonderful essay and I was one of those people who did not so much look for heroes as get interested in parts of history that no one else around me gave second thought to. I fell in love with tall sail ships when I saw The Elissa in Galveston way back in the early 80s…I only wish someone had introduced POB to me while I was growing up…what an adventure it would have been to wait for the next book to come out!

    Just one ITSY BITSY niggle…they were rounding Cape Horn, which is at the very tip of South America and so they went too far SOUTH towards the Antarctic.

  7. Thank you all for your encouraging comments! It’s very heartening to know that this film has a following after all.
    And I’ll have you know I have corrected the erroneous information.

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