The year was 1805 at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. France and England were in a seemingly relentless life and death struggle for control of the seas. In those days the oceans were where the major battles were fought. Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) has drawn an especially difficult assignment. As Commander of the British man-of-war "Surprise" he has been ordered to pursue the bigger, faster and highly elusive French privateer "Acheron" and "burn, sink or take her a prize." Furthermore, unbeknownst to his crew Aubrey has been ordered to chase the "Acheron" all the way to Brazil and beyond if necessary. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is director Peter Weir's unforgettable account of this high stakes game of cat and mouse. This is not the kind of film that I ordinarily enjoy very much but much to my surprise it worked for me on a great many levels.
As the film opens we find the "Surprise" under attack by the "Acheron". In the course of this battle royale the "Surprise" is severely damaged and its rudder disabled. Although I am not usually a big fan of special effects I thought that they were used quite effectively in this film. I definitely got the sense of what it must be like to be a participant in such a battle It was painfully realistic I thought. Meanwhile, in retaliation "Surprise" manages to score several direct hits on the French boat. Unfortunately the cannon balls were unable to penetrate the hull of this newly designed ship. If it were not for the fact that the "Surprise" was able to manuever itself into a foggy patch this ongoing battle would have been over right then and there. Much to the chagrin of his crew Captain Aubrey vows to track down and capture or destroy his nemesis "no matter the cost". Many of the men complain that this is a suicide mission and want no part of it. We follow the crew of the "Surprise" as it pursues the "Acheron" down the east coast of South America. One of the things that is most striking about this crew is that many of the sailors appear to be just teenagers. In fact there are a few young boys on the ship who seem to be only 12 or 13 years old! I simply cannot imagine being placed in these kind of circumstances at such a tender age.
Along the way we meet other members of the crew. Paul Bettany does a workmanlike job in his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Maturin the ship surgeon. Maturin is a close personal friend of Captain Aubrey and is not afraid to tell the boss when he is convinced that he is making the wrong decision. We also catch a glimpse of how the officers and crew spend their down time. We discover that Captain Aubrey enjoys playing of all things the violin! My wife especially enjoyed the work of James D'Arcy as First Lt. Thomas Pullings and Edward Woodall as Second Lt. William Mowett. She is a big fan of Charles Dickens and noted that these colorful charactors could have been created by Dickens himself! One of the most poignant scenes in "Master and Commander" is when Captain Aubrey has to make a split-second decision to cut loose a young sailor who went overboard while trying to repair a sail. It seems that the mast snapped and fell over dumping the young man into the sea with it. Tragically, the weight of the mast threatened to capsize the entire boat and so the decision was made to cut the mast loose to save the crew. It was a heartbreaking moment to say the least. Oh, the burdons of command!
The pursuit of the "Acheron" continued right around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America and right on into the Pacific. Before the final climactic battle the ''Surprise" stops at the Galapagos Islands. While there we catch a glimpse of some of the exotic birds and mammals that are indigenous to this island. For just a brief moment you get the feeling that you are watching some kind of sci-fi flick. Dr. Maturin has been waiting all his life to see specimens like this but duty calls and the Captain orders the ship onward and outward in pursuit of its real prize. Before long the pivotal final battle will take place.
I was quite surprised to learn that "Master and Commander" The Far Side of the World" is one of the most expensive movies ever made. This film was nominated for an impressive total of 10 Academy Awards including "Best Picture" and came away with two awards. I thought that the photography throughout this film was magnificent. Meanwhile, I would be remiss if I failed to make mention of the incredible music score much of which was written and perfomed by the noted Australian violinist Richard Tognetti (no relation). In fact, Mr. Tognetti acually coached Russell Crowe on how to play the violin in preparation for this film. One final word. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is a great family movie. Just be prepared for a couple of scenes that feature some very necessary but gruesome medical procedures performed by Dr. Maturin. The good doctor even assists in surgery on himself! As the President might say this could be used as one of those "teachable moments" to explain to your kids about the horrors of war. "Master and Commander" turns out to be a film that greatly exceeded my expectations. This is not usually the kind of film I go for. Highly recommended!
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