I love the ocean; the smell of seaweed in the morning as it is carried in one a cool ocean breeze full of freshness. I love the blue expanse of the ocean on a clear day and the gray sore mood of the teaming whitecaps when the sky turns sullen. And I love the nights on the high sea where the pitch black sky is pinpricked by millions of tiny twinkling lights which stretch from horizon to horizon reminding us all in one gesture that we are small, insignificant, and yet not alone.
And as I love the ocean so to do I love the majesty, tradition, and honor of naval service. As a child I lost myself in the exploits of C.S. Forresters Captain Horatio Hornblower, and his gallant frigate the HMS Bounty. I read all the books and let my imagination take me to places long since change by time and circumstance. And when I graduated from High School I left home and joined the U.S. Navy and spent some 15 years living the adventure and traveling to places I never would have experience without proudly wearing the uniform.
Now that I am now retired and an amateur naval historian, I know well the stories of the Napoleonic Wars, that epic struggle between Britain and France for mastery of the seas, and know well the part Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson played in Englands eventual victory.
So when I first heard that a period piece in the guise of Master and Commend: The Far Side of the World (hereafter referred to as Master and Commander) was coming to the silver screen, I practically frothed at the mouth awaiting its arrival.
The Story Line
Master and Commander opens with the following caption: April 1805 Napoleon is master of Europe. Only the British Fleet stands before him. Oceans are now battlefields. Telling and true for from the middle of the 16th century mastery of the sea opened the door to lands armies alone could not knock on. And in order to transport armies and goods over long distances naval supremacy was a must. At the beginning of the 19th century, Spain was a declining naval power, while Great Britain and France fought running battle for dominance of the worlds oceans, culminating in The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but that is a different tale
Directed by Peter Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously 1983, Witness 1985, The Truman Show 1998), with screenplay by Weir and John Collee, Master and Commander is based on two novels by Patrick OBrian, part of a twenty-book series of Royal Navy Captain Lucky Jack Aubreys adventures spanning the later 18th early 19th centuries. This particular installment followed Captain Aubrey, superbly portrayed by Russell Crowe (The Crossing 1992, L.A. Confidential 1997, Gladiator 2000, A Beautiful Mind 2001) as he captains the 24 gun 6th Rate frigate HMS Surprise. Aubreys orders are to intercept French 4th Rate 44-gun Frigate Acheron currently en-route to the Pacific Ocean with the intention of making war in those waters off the coast of Brazil. Aubrey is to either sink, burn, or take the French warship as a prize.
In the first five minutes of the movie however the larger, faster, more heavily armed Acheron draws first blood, when materializing out of a fog bank she delivers a devastating broadside to the HMS Surprise, damaging the ships bowstrip, mainmast, and rudder, severely crippling the ship. If it werent for the same prevailing fog, the quick thinking of Aubrey and able rowers, the HMS Surprise would have surely been lost and well, the movie ended.
Against all opposition Aubrey decides not to sail home for a refit of his shattered vessel, but to effect repairs at sea in a quite little inlet off the Brazilian coast. Repairs completed the game of cat-and-mouse is taken up again as the HMS Surprise chases the Acheron around Cape Horn into the Great South Sea (Pacific), where she looses her mizzen topmast and a well liked seaman.
The chase final ends at the Galapagos Islands (of all places) where British whalers are currently plying their trade, creating the perfect backdrop for the Acheron to do her worst, and for the climatic battle scene to take place.
My Thoughts and Impressions
As it unwinds, mostly onboard the HMS Surprise, the plot evolves into an extended game of cat-and-mouse: encounters with the aptly named Acheron as the "phantom ship" are in juxtaposition with prolonged glimpses into life onboard a 19th century Royal Navy Frigate. We are treated to little interaction with the French crew, save through spyglass. Most of the human interplay is reserved for Aubrey and his mixed crew of seasoned naval veterans, conscripts involuntarily impressed into service, young midshipmen, and powderboys who are far too young to see battle.
Weirs concentration on the HMS Surprise and her crew brings home a realism seldom seen in Hollywood productions; indeed the battle scenes between the HMS Surprise and the Acheron seem cursory to the telling of the lives of men too harshly lived. And Weirs passion for detail is evident in every frame as he brings to life O'Brian's rich historical details -- the sailors' routine, the pettiness and superstitions, the grim realities of 19th-century navies, the realistic battle scenes, the blood, and horror, and heroism, the honor and devotion to duty and country, are all portrayed in a stark often macabre reality.
The cast is rich, varied, and too numerous to list in narrative, but the relationship between Aubrey and his old friend, and ships doctor, Stephen Maturin, portrayed by Paul Bettany (Mood Swingers - 2000, A Knights Tale -2001, A Beautiful Mind 2001, The Heart of Me -2004) is well worth exploring and receives the most attention throughout the movie. Maturim is Aubreys alter ego, his rational voice, and his musical partner. It is through their music that we are treated to the two mens attempt to bring civility to an otherwise uncivilized pursuit. But Maturin is Aubreys intellectual equal (Aubrey's military mind and almost mindless devotion to duty is offset by Maturin's humanity, conscience and scientific curiosity). They are both endowed with a similar sense of honor, and know each other well enoughalthough we are not told from where their relationship sprangto playfully, and oft-times earnestly challenge their respective positions, though Aubrey has to obvious upper hand; as captain the final word is his. Their friendship was made warm and believable by their obvious onscreen chemistry; the closeness they shared while locked in a battle of wills made me wish for the same kind of uncompromising male friendship in my life. Watching their verbal spars in the officer's mess and their infrequent musical duets together (Aubrey play the violin and Maturin plays the Cello) was for me clearly one of Master and Commander's greatest pleasures.
Though through necessity there is nautical speech peppered throughout Master and Commander, it is only used to lend realism to the story, and contemporary speech is used otherwise. The use of contemporary chatter is designed to keep the less nautical engaged in the movie drawing them deeper into the action, allowing them to care, and enveloping the story in a cloak of humanity as the HMS Surprise pursues the Acheron across two oceans.
In the final analysis, as the credit rolled I felt cheated; I wanted more; the movie ended just as the Aubrey and Maturin were once again engaged in play, and the ship was clearing the decks for action, once more in pursuit of the Acheron after Aubrey learns a prickly bit of information. This is testimony to the movies draw, it has everything one would expect from a high-seas adventure movie set in the 19th centuryexhilarating battles, menacing weather conditions, honor, bravery, devotion to duty, treachery, superstition, God, and a wonderfully cast of characters that brings life onboard the HMS Surprise to a point where you can virtually taste and smell the salt laden sea spray on your lips and feel the fresh sea air on your skin.
Cast of Characters:
Russell Crowe - Capt. Jack Aubrey
Paul Bettany - Dr. Stephen Maturin
James DArcy - 1st Lt. Pullings
Edward Woodall - 2nd Lt. Mowett
Richard McCabe - Mr. Higgins
Robert Pugh - Mr. Allen
Ian Mercer - Mr. Holler
Tony Dolan - Mr. Lamb
Max Pirkis - Blakeney
Lee Ingleby - Hollom
Jack Randall - Boyle
Max Benitz - Calamy
Richard Pates - Williamson
Joseph Morgan - William Warley
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older
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