When he stepped into a meeting with Fox bigwig Tom Rothman, director Peter Weir had no idea which project he was about to be pitched. Rothman rose from his chair, left the room and came back with a sword in his hands. He gave it to Weir and said nothing. The director studied the sword, looked up at Rothman and said, “O’Brian?”. He was right.
The Surprise has new orders
Patrick O’Brian wrote twenty novels about the early nineteenth-century adventures of a British frigate called HMS Surprise and its captain, Jack Aubrey, whose best friend is the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin. This movie takes elements from several of O’Brian’s books, and it starts in 1805 as the Surprise has been ordered to go after the Acheron, a French warship that is superior to the Surprise. The struggle between these ships takes the Napoleonic Wars to a place as far off as the Pacific Ocean. Captain Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is a well-liked, respected leader with a dedicated crew. He doesn’t lose sight of what’s important, to hunt down and destroy his enemy, but there’s also a sensitive side to his character. He truly appreciates his friendship with Maturin (Paul Bettany), a man of science and the arts who doesn’t care about the military goals of the mission. These are men whose passions largely differ, but they have one thing in common – music. Aubrey plays the violin, Maturin the cello, and when darkness falls they play together; this is how they recharge their batteries.
The film’s title makes it sound like an action movie, but it’s much more than that. There are many examples of humanism throughout the film and that’s just as integral a part of the story as the action. The screenplay is episodic, and several critics were unable to find the coherence that would hold those episodes together, but this is indeed a minor quibble. Firstly, the hunt for the Acheron is the driving ingredient of the story; secondly, the episodes are well varied, each one giving something of value to the film. There’s the beautiful visit to the Galapagos Islands, the tragic fate of unfortunate midshipman Mr. Hollom, two thrilling battles at sea, the accidental shooting of Maturin… These are sequences that disappoint in no way.
A sense of life on board
The attention to detail is flawless. The special effects serve the story expertly and the filmmakers certainly make you believe that the Surprise crew is far away on the ocean, which they usually weren’t during the shoot. You get a sense of what life was like on board and the carefully selected contemporary music adds to the atmosphere; the freshly written score is a perfect accompaniment.
Crowe and Bettany are back together again after sharing a room in A Beautiful Mind (2001); they’re still friends, albeit the kind that challenges each other. Crowe is one of those few stars in Hollywood who can play strong heroes one is prepared to die for, and Bettany embodies his intellectual side. Without it, Captain Jack Aubrey would be a machine with no depth. Both are surrounded by a fine cast of British actors who are a lot more than mere supporting players.
I haven’t read the O’Brian novels, but Weir’s adaptation seems to honor them and satisfy fans. One of the crucial things about the novels is the author’s description of life at sea at this time and the director knows how to think beyond the battles. As the brilliant filmmaker he is, Weir has given the film a sense of realism.
There are times when Master and Commander reminds me of the kind of movies they used to make in the 1970s – and that’s a true compliment.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World 2003-U.S. 139 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Peter Weir, Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., Duncan Henderson. Directed by Peter Weir. Screenplay: Peter Weir, John Collee. Novels: Patrick O’Brian. Cinematography: Russell Boyd. Music: Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon, Richard Tognetti. Cast: Russell Crowe (Jack Aubrey), Paul Bettany (Stephen Maturin), Billy Boyd (Barrett Bonden), James D’Arcy, Lee Ingleby, George Innes.
Trivia: Heath Ledger and Ralph Fiennes were allegedly considered for the part of Maturin.
Oscars: Best Cinematography, Sound Editing.
Last word: “I thought it was an interesting idea, but then I re-read the book and I said no. I thought with the first book that O’Brian had crammed everything into it; there were pirates and spying, a lot of swash and buckle, but [what] held you, I think, were the characters, they made you want to read the next one. I thought it couldn’t help but come out slightly comedic and tongue-in-cheek. It’s like trying to do a serious vampire film; very difficult. … I was worried that it could come across as some sort of parody.” (Weir on why he didn’t want to make the movie at first, IGN)