New Classic

Posted By on July 14, 2005 at 2:08 pm

It seems like it’s not often, these days, that a “war movie” can be made without its characters devolving into introspective weepiness, riddled with self-doubt and prone to questioning the point of the conflict. Either that, or the protagonist is an abominable sort of character.

Master And Commander – The Far Side Of The World has no such problems.

Being something of an enthusiast for the whole “Age of Sail” genre — I grew up reading my Dad’s Hornblower books — I made a point of seeing M&C in the theaters when it came out in late 2003. I was prepared to be disappointed, but I need not have worried. I was hugely impressed, and as soon as the DVD was available, I snapped up a copy. It may be that a better film about war at sea has been made, but if so, I’ve not seen it – and I’ve seen most of them.

Based on the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, and taking its name from the first and tenth books in the series, the movie is a blend of elements of the entire series, rather than just one of the novels put to film. Those familiar with the novels will recognize the general plot outline as being from “The Far Side of the World,” with incidents and dialogue (including a fair amount of humor) taken in pieces from the full range of books and blended into a seamless whole.

Over at Llama Butchers yesterday, Robert had the temerity to criticize the casting of Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, calling him “broody and moody.” I beg to differ. By curious coincidence, I had watched the DVD the night before, and suggested in the comments that

Crowe didn’t play Aubrey as originally written (for starters, Aubrey was severely obese….) But more to the point, I can watch the movie over and over, and I never think “that’s Russell Crowe” – he completely subordinates himself to the role.

Having watched it again last night, I’ll stand by that.

Some further observations:

• The movie is rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language. The language is in fact very brief. There are plenty of “damns” to go around, but only one very quick interjection of anything harsher; the use is apt, given the context. If someone had stolen two years of my work and burnt my ship, I’d swear, too.

Master and Commander won two Oscars and was nominated for eight others. [Every one of those eight was won by Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.] The award for cinematography was well-deserved – this film is simply beautiful.

• This is a man’s film, about manliness and duty among men at war. There are no women in the featured cast. A few women appear on screen for a few seconds early on, but they are quickly passed and the film continues.

• The role of Dr. Maturin in the film is primarily that of Aubrey’s conscience; unexplained in the film is that Maturin is more than Aubrey’s best friend, a physician, and a naturalist – he is also an intelligence agent. The character, being a naval neophyte, also occasionally serves a useful purpose when nautical matters need to be explained for the benefit of the viewer, who might not be likely to know what the “weather gage” (for example) might be.

• There is a lot of violence, of course – it’s war on the high seas. Blood, a bit. Lots more gritting-of-teeth than actual gore. Mostly, it’s violent action without a lot of organs and limbs flying about.

• There is some death, of course; this is a war movie. It’s handled very poignantly, however, without the characters getting overly maudlin. Sometimes death cannot be avoided, and may be necessary. After the death of a sailor in an accident that could have been avoided if Aubrey had not been doing his duty as he saw fit, the following exchange takes place:

Aubrey: This is a ship of war, and I will grind whatever grist the mill requires in order to fulfill my duty.
Maturin: Whatever the cost?
Aubrey: Whatever the cost.

• One thing I found particularly impressive was the portrayal of the midshipmen. The film does a astoundingly good job of presenting teenage boys as something other than trash-mouth self-centered whining snivelling little turds. This film should be mandatory viewing for all teenage boys.

• Max Pirkis, as the 12 or 13 year old Midshipman Lord Blakeney, is especially noteworthy. Despite suffering a grievous injury early in the film, his character soldiers on, and in the climactic battle is simply remarkable, demonstrating leadership, initiative and resolve far above the capacity of most people many years older. That Pirkis won two acting awards for his performance is entirely appropriate. That neither of those awards was an Oscar is a shame.

• The musical score is perfect. ‘Nuff said.

Master and Commander is destined in years to come to be looked back at as a classic. If you haven’t seen it, rent it. If you have seen it and don’t own it, buy it.


14 Responses to “New Classic”

  1. You wrong me! I don’t object to M&C as a movie, but rather as an adaptation of the novels. I’m simply a very, perhaps overly-harsh critic when it comes to screenplay faithfulness to source materials that I happen to love.

  2. Russ says:

    I, too, can be harsh about such things. The movie that is even slightly faithful to the book on which it is based is a rare creature, indeed.
    I just don’t think M&C warrants the criticism quite so much. With a cast of virtual unknowns (I recognized only Crowe and Billy Boyd), it needed a “star” to get most people in through the door, and Crowe, despite his widely-reported deficient character (mainly a very short fuze, as far as I know) is undeniably a very very good actor.
    IMHO, Aubrey, as originally written, isn’t exactly leading-man material for a one-off film such as this.

  3. Stephen says:

    Superb review Russ. You’ve captured the exact sense of the film.
    Rather than “faithful to the book(s)” can we say faithful to the project? – which it certainly is. It’s not just a war movie either. I would call it a faithful communication of the necessities of 1805, on all levels.
    Two of its humorous moments compete in my mind. The “lesser of two weevils” scene, and the exchange between 2 members of a lower deck group discussing the coming battle:
    “…I’ve never met a dead man bought me a drink!”
    “’ I’ve never met a live one you’ve bought one for

  4. Nehring says:

    I second Stephen’s compliment. Outstanding review Russ. You’ve nailed it.
    Being overly critical of adaptations is the short road to a ulcer. Screenplays are screenplays and books are books. The two forms are similar, but usually they are not compatable. When you toss Hollywood and marketing on top of that…
    This is a very good film. I think Crowe is stellar in the lead. Russ you are absolutely right to bring attention to Max Prikis, the kid. His performance, and the character himself, does stand out.
    Good review!

  5. Great review!

    Hey, take a stroll over to TacJammer. Russ has posted…

  6. cyberhobo says:

    I agree with your review too, but I had one criticism of the film that I couldn’t ignore. It succumbed to a “faceless minions” portrayal of the enemy. I thought the movie would have been even more engaging if we knew a little more about what the French sailors had in common with Aubrey’s crew and also how they were different.

  7. Ith says:

    Excellent review! Yes, it is a ‘man’s movie’ which was part of what I liked so much about it. I hate token female casting. I was an early protester to the “we have to have more female face time in the LOTR” decision by New Line. Women will watch movies that don’t have women in them. Okay, I’ll watch them at least :)
    I thought Russell was a good casting choice amongst the leading men that are currently out there. I mean, Tom Hanks? Brad Pitt? Heh.
    Now I want to get my M&C DVD out again, and go buy the fourth book.

  8. Blowing It Out Of The Water

    Russ hasn’t posted in a few days, but he made the wait worth it. He’s written up a superb review…

  9. YES! Wonderful review! I am just sorry it didnt get as much attention when it came out. I started reading the Aubrey/Maturin series before the movie, so I had some idea of the actual body of work, and developed a different visual in my mind for what Jack and Stephen would look and sound like, but I can’t say that I was disappointed with what Crowe and Bettany delivered!
    Don’t know if you have read the A/M series, Russ, but I could thoroughly understand why Weir et al decided not to put women into this movie : having women aboard completely changes the dynamic of relations, something that is well explained and ‘documented’ in the 20 series as to why women on board were considered “unlucky:, and something that Aubrey himself curses outwardly, but occaisionally wishes for in his more private moments. (“He loved a battle; he loved a wench.”) There was enough to try and bring forth about the Age of Sail WITHOUT having to explain the presence of women (or lack thereof).
    I had some reservations before the movie came out about Crowe playing, not because I didnt think him a good actor, but because he always seemed a bit too serious for the part, and Jack was more ‘jolly’ and bright in spirit. But I daresay, Crowe’s severity served him well in a movie that mostly showed him being the Captain on a ship, and it is remarked several times through the novels that Jack’s outer mein on board was severe and ‘non-jocular.’
    There has been a rumor spread that sequels are being considered, by way of the coxswain (LOTR’s Billy Boyd). It is my hope they do show Jack and Stephen more in the Land of civilization, and among women. There you will see some ‘role reversals’ as Jack on land is not the same as Jack at sea, and Maturin will be the one who has to call the shots.
    Not sure what you mean that the accident that occurs could have been avoided if JACK had been doing his duty…it was Hollum that was woefully inept as a sailor and had been the one to climb the mast after Warley.
    And Max Pirkis damn near stole the show – he was marvelous!
    I love the theme music that was used for the death of Warley – “A Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”. I could listen to the soundtrack all day!

  10. Russ says:

    I thought the movie would have been even more engaging if we knew a little more about what the French sailors had in common with Aubrey’s crew and also how they were different.

    I think the way it was handled – an almost mysterious element, an unknown opponent, sort of like in Spielberg’s “Duel” – was very effective.
    Jack wonders “What is it with this man? Did I kill a relative of his in battle, perhaps? His boy, God forbid?”
    Everything we need to know about the French could be summed up by Maturin’s reply, “He fights like you, Jack.”

  11. Russ says:

    Not sure what you mean that the accident that occurs could have been avoided if JACK had been doing his duty…it was Hollum that was woefully inept as a sailor and had been the one to climb the mast after Warley.

    My meaning was that Aubrey was pushing the entire ship & crew, and as Captain bore the responsibility. As he says in the film, he’s exceeded his orders, but still pushes to get the Acheron, because that’s what he sees as his duty, and he’ll pay any price to get it done. It was Aubrey who made the hard choice to sacrifice Warley to save the ship.
    Hollum is an interesting study, and a sad one, but the main thing that struck me was that, inept as he was, nothing was actually his fault. Warley would have gone overboard regardless of what Hollum did or did not do.

  12. Russ – touche and true enough :D !
    that line “what is it abou this man…?” is an actual quote from the books…not exactly the same circumstances, but I do believe Weir tried to glean as much from the novels as he could.

  13. margaret says:

    As a longtime M and C reader, I thought Crowe handled it perfectly. We see his playfulness in the officer’s mess but also the huge masculinity throughout. He was masterly and commanding start to finish.
    By the way, Aubrey gains and loses weight through the series, and I wonder if “obese” is really harsher than ordinary people would consider fair–isn’t it really Maturin who’s always calling him that, with his unblinkingly severe medical classifications? We never exactly picture Aubrey as just a huge tub of lard who can’t move about the ship, much less get into a dinghy.

  14. Billy Budd says:

    Aubrey’s Character was based on the real life exploits of Thomas Cochrane. An interesting read is Cochrane by Robert Harvey. A great book that offers insight and authenticity to M&C and Forrester’s Hornblower series.