Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World
Growing up in the fifties my infatuation with film covered many genres; one of my favorites was always the swashbuckler action flick. Usually the star of these films was actors like Errol Flynn, swooping around on ropes between the ships. Now, after years have past I have found that realism can be even more exciting than the fantastic adventures that used to view back then. Based on the incredibly accurate novels of Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander takes the audience on a trip through time to where crossing the ocean was not for the faint of heart, it took courage, intelligence and dedication. Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) commands the HMS Surprise, a ship of fleet commissioned in the British Royal Navy in 1805. While not the largest or best armed ship the men of the Surprise set out upon the seas to defend their King and country. The adversary of the Surprise is a French war ship, larger, better armed but without the advantage of the wily captain at the helm of the British ship. What elevates this film far above the typical action/adventure genre is the interaction of the characters aboard the ship. These are not mere stereotypes; they come across as real men that lived in those difficult times.
The captain is a man of duty, pragmatic and self assured in his abilities to command. His best friend and counterpoint is the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). The good doctor is more introspective, extremely intelligent and fascinated with the science of biology. The two are often engaged in some minor conflict or another but beneath it all is an enduring friendship. In more reflective moments the two can be found performing classical duets, the captain on violin, and the doctor on the cello. This gives the odd but reassuring touch of home in the wilderness of the sea. This film shows the importance of the human spirit in adversarial environments. The seas where cruel then as man set out on them, reflecting the indomitable human nature that runs throughout O’Brian’s novels this film is the ultimate in man over nature stories. The interaction with the crew may seem harsh by today’s standards, the Captain’s word is absolute law, and there can be no reservation in obeying, no debate. Not only does military rank decide your life but your social caste colors ever aspect of a man’s existence. This film is an epic that supercedes any done in the genre. Watching this film you are back there on the ship. The attention to detail is superb, it goes to show what the craftsmen in Hollywood can do that will never be duplicated by computers. Filmed at sea and in the huge tank used for the Titanic, this film delivers realism above and beyond the call of duty.
Crowe is without a doubt one of the finest actors around today. His ability to put on a role like a familiar pair of jeans and completely inhabit his character shines here. His almost laconic presentation here works. He plays the captain as a man of few words, one that thinks out each situation but who is not afraid to go on gut instinct when the situation demands. His character commands the ship as the actor commands the screen. There is no doubt to the power and abilities of the Captain and this is due to the abilities of Crowe in his craft. After all he is playing a man whose slightest order may decide whether the men live or die. Bettany is perfect as the friend and confidant of the Captain. He comes across as an intelligent man, a doctor and surgeon that took to sea to explore his love of biology. Bettany plays the doctor as a resourceful man, even able to guide the removal of a bullet from his own body. In this film the ship itself is a very real character. You see every rope ever plank, hear the creaks and groans of the ship as it fights the turbulent sea. The interaction of the rest of the cast adds to the overall realism. These are men born into their place in society, from the high born officers to the lowly sailors. Each are bound by dedication to the crown, a motivation that may seem strange in today’s world but was very much a part of life in 1805.
Peter Weir is a director of proven abilities. With a resume that includes Picnic at Hanging Rock, Year of Living Dangerously and Dead Poet’s Society, Weir has shown that he can handle himself with style in any genre he takes on. Here he crafts a film that absorbs the audience, draws us into this world. He also avoided the danger of just recreating the swashbuckling flicks of my youth like The Sea Hawk. He set out to take the action of films like that in infuse it with an intelligent story and fully fleshed out characters. We live in a time where the most remote part of the world is only an 18 hour plane ride away. Weir shows us what it was like to travel the seas protected only by a mass of wood and a strong commander. His use of set design is imaginative; you can tell that real sets where typically used. No CGI possible now could recreate the waves crashing over the railings, battling against the crew.
The disc is well done and available in several configurations. I have to recommend the collector’s edition if only for the plethora of extras it provides. All incarnations of the DVD include an incredible audio track. The surround effects of the seas, especially during the battles and the forceful storms bring the ship right into your home. The directionality of the surround speakers is exceptional. Every little sound is locatable by your ear. The sub woofer gets a workout as the waves crash and cannons thunder. The video is only acceptable in the widescreen versions. The scenes demand the full vista of the original aspect ratio, cutting these frames is an affront to the viewer. If you opt for the collector’s edition you can enjoy the HBO first look featurette, a look at translating O’Brian’s novels to the screen and a look at the arduous filming of the movie. This film may have been largely overlooked at the Oscars but it should not be overlooked as a DVD to own and enjoy.