Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Written by: Peter Weir & John Collee
Based on: Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World, by Patrick O’Brian
Directed by: Peter Weir
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy, Billy Boyd, Max Pirkis, Lee Ingleby, Edward Woodall, Richard McCabe
Even though I’m a military history buff and like a great deal of literature about navies, naval strategy and tactics, warships and naval officers, I have to admit that I’ve never read any of the late Patrick O’Brian’s 20 books which feature Capt. Jack Aubrey, Royal Navy, and his friend and ship’s surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin in a series of adventures set during the Napoleonic Wars.
I also have to confess that I tend to be biased in favor of more modern conflicts (the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the two Gulf Wars and the Middle East wars) than I am of the Napoleonic era, even though as a kid I did read a few books about Austerlitz and Waterloo, two of Napoleon Bonaparte’s most famous battles.
Thus when 20th Century Fox released Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003, I really had no interest in watching it; even though I like Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential and Gladiator, I’m not drawn to his movies in the same way which Harrison Ford used to get me to buy tickets to (and videotapes/DVDs/Blu-rays of) The Star Wars Trilogy, Indiana Jones, Witness, Working Girl and the Jack Ryan flicks he starred in back in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, while I was looking for low-priced Blu-ray discs to add to my still-modest collection back when I still lived in Miami, I happened to come across Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which was adapted by writer-director Peter Weir (Gallipoli, Witness) and co-writer John Collee (Happy Feet) from not one but two Jack Aubrey novels, Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World.
As in most cases of adaptation, the movie shifts quite a few things around to tell the story of Capt. Aubrey’s (Crowe) dogged pursuit of a heavily armed French privateer in the early 1800s.
Apparently as to not alienate either 20th Century Fox, its partner studios Universal and Miramax or U.S. audiences, Weir mixed and matched elements of the two source novels and changed the HMS Surprise’s American privateer quarry – the two novels being set during the U.S.-British War of 1812 – to a French one – the Acheron.
To accommodate this change, Weir also sets Master and Commander in 1805, either before or after the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s greatest – and final – victory.
The movie’s plot is fairly simple: a heavily-armed French privateer – a sort of officially-sanctioned pirate ship, essentially – is making her way to the Pacific via the Cape Horn route, and the British Admiralty has ordered Aubrey and the Surprise to capture or sink her before she starts preying on British merchant and whaling ships.
As luck would have it, the Acheron is a newer, bigger and more heavily armed warship than the Surprise, and when the two ships first cross paths it’s the French who get the first licks in, damaging Aubrey’s ship and killing and wounding several of the crew.
The Surprise and her skipper, though, are not easily beaten, and Aubrey, a brilliant if sometimes unorthodox tactician, orders his crew to set sail first to Brazil and repair the ship, then find out where the Acheron is heading and dog her tracks like hounds after a fox.
This, of course, is only the bare bones synopsis of Master and Commander; The Far Side of the World. And because this is, after all, a Peter Weir movie, it’s really a combination of deep character-driven and period action-adventure which gives viewers an accurate look at 19th Century naval warfare and life aboard a non-steam powered sailing warship.
The most important element in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is the Holmes-Watson (or Kirk-Spock and/or Kirk-McCoy) friendship between Crowe’s Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany’s Dr. Stephen Maturin.
Both men are intelligent, witty and charismatic, even though Aubrey’s job description entails the taking of other men’s lives and Maturin’s main duty is to preserve lives (even if he must, at times, hack off limbs or plug musket ball wounds with coins in order to do so).
The film has quite a few scenes in which Aubrey and Maturin share a love for music – they perform off-duty violin-and-cello duets to ease their war-related woes and entertain their fellow officers in the wardroom.
But, like all friends, Aubrey and Maturin don’t always agree, as this exchange clearly shows:
Dr. Stephen Maturin: They’re exhausted. These men are exhausted. You’ve pushed them too hard.
Capt. Jack Aubrey: Stephen, I invite you to this cabin as my friend. Not to criticize nor to comment on my command.
Dr. Stephen Maturin: Well, shall I leave you until you’re in a more harmonious frame of mind?
[He stands and is about to leave]
Capt. Jack Aubrey: What would you have me do, Stephen?
Dr. Stephen Maturin: [turns back to him and knows what to say] Tip the ship’s grog over the side.
Capt. Jack Aubrey: Stop their grog?
Dr. Stephen Maturin: Nagle was drunk when he insulted Hollom. Did you know that?
Capt. Jack Aubrey: Stop 30 years of privilege and tradition. I’d rather have them three sheets to the wind than face a mutiny.
Dr. Stephen Maturin: You see I’m rather understanding of mutinies. Men pressed from their homes, confined for months aboard a wooden prison…
Capt. Jack Aubrey: I respect your right to disagree with me, but I can only afford one rebel on this ship. I hate it when you talk of the service in this way. It makes me feel so very low. You think I want to flog Nagle? A man who hacked the ropes that sent his mate to his death? Under MY orders? Do you not see? The only things that keep this wooden world together are hard work…
Dr. Stephen Maturin: Jack, the man failed to salute. There’s hierarchies even in nature. There is no disdain in nature. There is no…
Capt. Jack Aubrey: Men must be governed! Often not wisely, but governed nonetheless.
Dr. Stephen Maturin: That’s the excuse of every tyrant in history, from Nero to Bonaparte. I, for one, am opposed to authority. It is an egg of misery and oppression.
Capt. Jack Aubrey: You’ve come to the wrong shop for anarchy, brother.
Of course, this contretemps blows over eventually, but it shows that these men have different ideas and aren’t afraid to be honest with each other.
Another dimension that is interesting in Master and Commander; The Far Side of the World is the portrayal of life aboard a sails-only warship. Weir and his cinematographer Russell Boyd take the viewer into the cramped and definitely not very Love Boat-like confines of a 19th Century frigate – played in the film by a 20th Century recreation which was bought by Fox for the making of this movie – to show how hard those men and boys of navies back then had to live, work and fight.
Not only do the men of the Surprise have to cope with the Acheron, but they must often eat poor quality food, carefully ration fresh water, and endure extreme weather conditions ranging from heat in the tropics to hurricane-force winds and high waves when they round Cape Horn on their way to the Pacific.
Another hard-to-believe-now detail is the presence of young boys aboard warships of the era. Not only are there teenaged midshipmen who are training to be officers in the Royal Navy, but there’s one who doesn’t look like he’s more than 12 or 13. They might be kids, but they have to live – and sometimes be hurt or die – with the older sailors and officers they serve with. (One wonders if director Nicholas Meyer read any of the Patrick O’Brian novels before the making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan….)
Though I bought Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on a whim, I’m glad I did. It being a Peter Weir movie, it is both intelligent and exciting, with heart-stopping – and stomach-turning – scenes of battle and nature’s wrath as Jack Aubrey takes his ship and crew on a perilous journey halfway around the globe.