Silence. The doldrums. A ship, the HMS Surprise, drifts on a breath of wind. Two men, teenage boys really, stand on the foredeck with spyglasses in hand. Before them, an enormous fog bank is rolling in and within it, one of these young midshipmen spots a shadow. The order to beat to quarters bellows out and the silence shatters under a rolling drumbeat calling the sailors to battle stations. From the stern cabin emerges a man. Tall, blonde, confident he can only be the Captain of the Surprise. The men part like the sea before him. On deck, he is Master and Commander. This time he sees the shadow but now it belches a broadside of iron and flame. This is how Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World begins.
Captain ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is leading the HMS Surprise in pursuit of the much bigger, much faster French frigate Acheron. Lucky Jack has spent most of his life on the high seas, much of that spent with his best friend, confidant and ship’s doctor Steven Maturin (Paul Bettany). He leads an able crew – including First Lieutenant Thomas Pullings (James D’Arcy), Coxswain Barrett Bonden (Billy Boyd) and Master John Allen (Robert Pugh) – across the wild Atlantic waters and into the tropical Pacific in an attempt to stop the Acheron from turning the tide of the burgeoning Napoleonic wars.
Based on a long-running series of novels by British author Patrick O’Brian Master and Commander is a much more intimate epic than others set in this time. Its focus is at once narrow and broad. A relatively small cast of characters travel great distances and through them, we learn almost everything there is to learn about life on the high seas in 1803. The film is packed full of detail and the actual naval warfare often takes a backseat to B plots depicting Maturin’s desire to explore the Galapagos, discipline on the ship and the superstitions harboured by the sailors. For a film that cost $150 million to make, new viewers might be surprised at how much time it spends around a tilting dinner table.
A great deal of time is spent with the sailors but the Master and Commander of the title is never far away. Crowe dominates the screen as Aubrey and is as much at home scaling the rigging as he is wielding a cutlass or a glass of fine red. Already an imposing physical presence in 2003 Crowe has only become more so as he’s aged growing into a Falstaffian character actor in the likes of True History of the Kelly Gang or a barrel-chested lead in Unhinged and this year’s The Pope’s Exorcist. Crowe’s bullish anger, soft-spoken sensitivity and loyal camaraderie all become part of Aubrey, tools that the Captain uses with more grace and efficiency than he does his sword and pistol. Whether comforting young Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis) who loses his arm in the film’s opening, doling out praise and justice in equal measure or debating that same justice with Maturin Captain Aubrey is a leader, through and through.
The Aubrey-Maturin relationship is the film’s most important facet. Captain Jack Aubrey has spent almost his entire life in the Royal Navy. Dr. Steven Maturin meanwhile is a physician by trade and a naturalist by passion. Having spent his life studying and treating patients he has little knowledge of or patience for the Navy’s harsh discipline and barmy superstitions. This makes him the perfect foil to Aubrey who is driven not just by his loyalty to the Crown but to that of his men and the rewards they will reap through capturing enemy ships. It is a delicate relationship as on the ocean Aubrey is law though Maturin is a civilian surgeon and so able to argue against the naval discipline that demands men be shackled and flogged for the smallest crimes. A delicate balance but a necessary one, rather like a good marriage.
Aubrey and Maturin eat together with the rest of the higher-ups that make up a small fraction of their nearly two hundred strong family. They also spend time in Lucky Jack’s sprawling cabin plucking away at their instruments – violin for Aubrey and cello for Maturin – or reading or debating matters of nature, duty and justice. Theirs’ is a crackling yet well-grounded friendship that trickles down into the rest of the cast. Many of the officers particularly Lieutenant Pullings and the overeager Midshipmen see Aubrey as a dashing father figure. Others, like Bonden and Master Allen see him as a leader they would follow through Hell. Even the men he disciplines for insubordination in the film’s most tragic sequence remain his loyal soldiers and fight bravely beside him in the film’s climax.
What is most remarkable twenty years on from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is the film’s depiction of male friendship. Far from the kind of “Retvrn” culture war nonsense propagated by the Far Right, Weir’s film is a stirring story of the love one man can have for another – platonic or otherwise is up to the viewer’s interpretation – and how through that love any obstacle can be overcome.
The Aubrey-Maturin relationship not only enriches the film it is the film. Without his friend, Dr. Maturin would never have gotten to visit the Galapagos. Without Maturin’s visit Aubrey would not have had the idea to disguise the Surprise and the entire crew would have been killed or captured in their final confrontation with the Acheron. The macro events of the film play out in micro, intimate conversations between the two men. When Maturin is accidentally shot and Captain Aubrey halts the chase to see to it that his friend can have the bullet safely removed Dr. Maturin asks Jack if he stopped because of his injury Jack smiles ruefully and says, “No not at all, I just needed to stretch my legs.”
Peter Weir’s film has legs. Though not the smash success 20th Century Fox hoped for the film received 10 Oscars nods and won two for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing as well as a BAFTA for Best Director. No sequel appeared and Weir effectively retired after his 2010 film The Way Back but Master and Commander had the kind of staying power that very few movies have. Many viewers come for the naval battles and most stay and keep coming back for the rich depiction of seafaring life in the early 19th Century. Like the tide Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World can always be relied on to entertain, to thrill and to make the heart glow.