Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – 5 stars
I’ve seen this film, conservatively, a dozen times. I cannot turn it off. It is flawless, and I never tire of watching. It is not just an exemplary historical drama and period piece, which would appeal to me more than others, but it is one of the finest films ever made.
Based on a Patrick O’Brian novel, it is 1805, the time of the Napoleonic wars, and we travel with Captain “Lucky Jack“ Aubrey (Russell Crowe), a protégé of Lord Admiral Nelson. Aubrey’s ship, The HMS Surprise, is hunted by, and then pursues, a French privateer with twice her guns and speed. As Aubrey drives his crew and spars with his more humanistic friend and subordinate, ship surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), we are immersed in the customs, allegiances and frailties of the crew. Director Peter Weir (Witness) provides the feel of an early 19th-century war vessel, a routinized machine held together by the lash, grog, duty, honor, deep-seated universal superstition, and a shared sense of oneness with the sea.
The action sequences are jaw-dropping. The final sea battle is the most effective and stunning rendition of combat on film, save for the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Weir is expert at close quarter action and translating the ebb and flow of a battle that has been explained in its strategy at the outset. What follows is a stunning, intelligible melee’, and the only respite is a brief, awesome aerial tracking shot to provide scope and a quick catch of breath. And then, Weir dives right back in. The scene is even more impressive given the film’s commitment to authenticity. As with Spielberg’s triumph, Weir has made, in the opinion of one reviewer, “one of the most historically accurate movies of this century”.
Yet for all its visual delights and precision, the film is also memorable in its depiction of numerous secondary characters. Yes, the philosophical interplay between Aubrey and Maturin is well-honed, and both actors more than occupy the roles – their engagement is both familial and genuine, with a constant pull between friendship and chain-of-command. But the midshipmen, some as young as 12, and the salty crew, are the true stars. To see the former in such distress, under such pressure, and in the midst of terror and violence is heart rending. When one (Max Pirkis) must have his arm amputated, it is hard to choke back tears, such is his strength and vulnerability (if you have a son, it is doubly difficult). The mental breakdown of another young sailor is equally poignant. These boys, thrown into carnage, still do their duty, and Weir goes to great lengths to portray their bravery in tandem with their innocence.
The film is also unreservedly old fashioned in its championing not only of manly camaraderie, but valor, pluck, and devotion to country. Most war films follow a certain post-Vietnam philosophy, often clumsily injected into period pieces of prior times. The combatants’ first devotion is to each other and then to the goal, and they are guided by training and solidarity. When the training fails and/or the goal is revealed as corrupt, or bleakness eclipses all, things break down, and atrocity normally follows. Which is all very modern and ignores any sense of longing for the sting of battle or patriotic instinct, both generally derided or characterized as the province of dimwits and cannon-fodder. It is always the smart guy anti-hero who says, “This is hell, we need to get out alive and with our souls intact, and [for the less cynical] the only thing that matters is the man next to you”’ or some such trope.
Not here, as Weir flatly rejects anachronism save for a few moments with the good ship doctor, but even Maturin’s more liberal stances are suited to his position. To put a finer point on it, there is a wonderful scene where one of the young midshipman, Calamy, implores Aubrey to share a tale of his service under the great Nelson. At first, Aubrey parries the request with a joke (Nelson once asked him to pass the salt, he laughs). The boy’s disappointment is palpable, and then Aubrey obliges:
Capt. Jack Aubrey : The second time… The second time he told me a story… about how someone offered him a boat cloak on a cold night. And he said no, he didn’t need it. That he was quite warm. His zeal for his king and country kept him warm.
Capt. Jack Aubrey : I know it sounds absurb, and were it from another man, you’d cry out “Oh, what pitiful stuff” and dismiss it as mere enthusiasm. But with Nelson… you felt your heart glow.
[him and Calamy share a smile]
Capt. Jack Aubrey : Wouldn’t you say, Mr. Pullings?
1st Lt. Tom Pullings : [sincerely] You did indeed, sir.
As fewer people know or cherish history, it will become a less desirable vehicle for entertainment. And that just ain’t going to change. But there will be this film and a few others that stand the test of time. Huzzah!
On HBO Max.