MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
Directed by Peter Weir
Screenplay by Peter Weir & John Collee
Based upon the novels of Patrick O’Brian
I was always curious about this book series. When I worked at Barnes & Noble, O’Brian took up at least one shelf with his sea-faring adventure tales, hardcover and trade paperback. They were obviously very popular because B&N didn’t give up that much prime real estate to one person unless the books were moving at a brisk clip. This “privilege” was usually reserved for authors that were so well known that even people who didn’t read books knew their names, Stephen King, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, even Shakespeare; although Will wouldn’t sell as well if schools didn’t force the children to buy his books. I never read any of O’Brian’s books, so I can’t make any comparisons or critiques in regards to the adaptation. I am aware that the majority of the film is taken from the 1st and 10th books in the series, which is why the film has such a long title. So long in fact that in smaller towns, the marquee will probably read: “Master Comm” and one of the m’s will be a ‘3’ on its side.
The film takes place off the Brazilian coastline and is set in April 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars, which had been raging for six years by that point in time. Our hero is “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, captain of the H.M.S. Surprise. Russell Crowe is a commanding presence as Aubrey, a striking figure whose confidence is contagious. As Jack Aubrey he reminds me of a cross between Errol Flynn and John Wayne. In this situation, I would follow him into battle.
Also on board is Stephen Maturin, the ship's doctor. He is Aubrey’s good friend and confidante. Serving under Aubrey are officers. They are sons of noblemen learning their craft and earning their commission, some as young as 14 years old. Next in line are the warrant officers, who have specialized skills like the Bosun, who is responsible for the rigging. The rest of the crew, by order of rank, are comprised of able seamen, ordinary seamen and landsmen, finding themselves in the queen’s service for one reason or another.
As the film opens, the Surprise quickly finds itself under attack from the French warship Acheron. The Surprise is damaged but able to escape. The creation of this first action sequence was very impressive, putting you in the center of the cannon fire and the resulting damage. You expect to walk out of the showing with at least a splinter. The French stay in hot pursuit, keen to capture the Surprise and her crew for Napoleon.
That task will not be easy, though. Aubrey is a masterful captain who can get the most out of his crew’s abilities. He is well respected by the men from his previous exploits, having risen to captain in her majesty’s navy, and also because he gets involved with the men, serving by their side in time of storm or battle. His ability to outthink his opponents with ingenious plans is on display with the creation of a false stern, allowing the Surprise to escape in the dark of night.
While being chased westward around Cape Horn, the men have to survive the elements and each other as they try to outrun the Acheron, which is faster and outguns them. When one of the sailors tries to shoot at a bird flying around the boat, he hits Maturin in the arm. Aubrey moves Maturin off the boat to the Galapagos Islands to perform the surgery, but since no one else comes close to having any medical knowledge, Maturin has to remove the bullet himself.
Aubrey lets the crew have a little R&R on the islands, which in turn gives Maturin a chance to play amateur naturalist almost 30 years before Darwin made the trip. He collects plants and animals all over the island, but when he discovers the Acheron approaching, he and his assistants drop everything and race back across the island to warn the Surprise.
We see a depiction of life on a sailing vessel at the turn of the 19th Century, getting glimpses of characters and relationships that are probably more fleshed out in the books. Every shot is filled with wonderful and seemingly accurate details. The production design team deserves kudos.
Although it’s probably not as accurate an adaptation as it could be for hardcore fans of the series, this film does an excellent job of introducing us to this world. It is one of the few film adaptations where I left with an interest in reading the books. Unlike, for example, Mystic River. After seeing that film, not only did I have no interest in reading the novel, but I also had contempt for the author’s writing ability.
One glaring change that I learned afterward is that in the novel an American warship was chasing the Surprise, taking place a few years later during the War of 1812. Although the producers deny it, they probably gave into the marketplace, thinking an American audience would be turned off if Americans were the bad guys. It’s probably an accurate assumption because America is a filled with jingoistic crybabies. Just turn on talk radio if you doubt me. Since movies are made to make money, who can blame the producers for not wanting to upset a sizable segment of their audience. France has a fifth of our population, so the producers made the right choice, especially since Jerry Lewis isn’t in the film.
All my praise doesn’t mean there weren’t awkward moments in the film. When I first saw Maturin played by Bettany. I thought, “Does Aubrey have an imaginary friend?” in reference to their work togther in A Beautiful Mind, which in case you were wondering I thought was very average and did not deserve any awards, especially Best Adaptation since the film and the book have almost nothing in common except getting the names right. Let me move on before thoughts of that untalented hack Akiva Goldsman fill me with hate and bile.
We have a few scenes where the doctor is confidant/counselor of the captain, Kirk and McCoy leapt to mind, and most of their exchanges were interesting, intelligent arguments, although the scenes of them playing cello and violin didn’t look right. It’s hard to fake playing an instrument.
Another flawed scene is one discussion where Maturin whines about not being able to go to the Galapagos Islands. It went on far too long, considering that the Acheron was chasing them. This scene might speak to their friendship and mutual respect as an explanation to why Aubrey let the argument go on for as long as it did, but their mission of battling the French seemed much more important than collecting some new plant. If they had been caught, Maturin’s journals would have been for naught, so I questioned Maturin’s not understanding. He does get his wish later, but I think he would have forgone the trip if he knew his ticket to the island was a gun blast.
Also I was surprised that Aubrey’s last ruse worked. Once the battle started I let it go, but I still questioned its plausibility. Thankfully, there was moment where the French captain tricks Aubrey, making the French seem like competitive equals.
This is a smarter-than-usual adventure picture where the explosions are actually integral parts of the story. Pick up your anchor off the couch and go see this on the big screen. Waiting for cable or home video won’t do the film justice.