Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

masterandcommander_2003_poster
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
  • Time: 138 min
  • Genre: Action | Adventure | Drama
  • Director: Peter Weir
  • Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy

Storyline:

The year is 1805. Europe has fallen to Napoleon, and only the Royal Navy stands in his way to total victory. Off the cost of South America, a new conflict is brewing. Captain Jack “Lucky Jack” Aubrey of the Man-of-War HMS Surprise is under orders to sink or capture the French privateer Acheron, which has been deployed to the region. After seven weeks of uneventful sailing, the Acheron strikes first, all but crippling the Surprise in an engagement in which Aubrey realizes his enemy’s ship is nautically superior to his own. Along with his close friend and confidant Stephan Maturin who also happens to be the ship’s surgeon, Aubrey is now faced with the choice of retreating to England and admitting defeat or remaining at the Acheron’s mercy. Aubrey must now do the impossible if he is to survive, repair his ship, catch up to his enemy and defeat the Acheron–somehow.

One comment

  • Russell Crowe is a very convincing Jack Aubrey. He projects Aubrey’s energy, competence, pugnacity and confidence bordering on self-satisfaction (unlike Hornblower, Aubrey always knew he was good). He also credibly projects Aubrey’s belief in the need for custom, tradition and authority, his acceptance of the irrational culture of the lower deck as a fact of life that must be dealt with, and his own irrational streak. Crowe’s Aubrey is true to O’Brian’s instinctive Tory. He is intelligent but not an intellectual, and he knows that the ignorant, superstitious masses have to be dominated from above rather than uplifted. A.O. Scott of the NY Times got it right when he wrote that this “one of the most thoroughly and proudly conservative movies ever made,” for which he expected to see Edmund Burke get screen credit. Scott also got it right when he described Aubrey as “an ideal personification of modern executive authority” and wrote “‘Master and Commander,’ were it not a movie, could be a Powerpoint seminar advertised in an airline magazine: Leadership Secrets of the Royal Navy.”

    Maturin will be the biggest disappointment to serious O’Brianists. Bettany gives a good performance, but the part is badly written. The Maturin of the books is a scientific rationalist, but of his time and place. Much of the pleasure of the character is to see what he knows, what he doesn’t know, and what he thinks he knows that we know isn’t so. The Maturin of the books is also, in his peculiar way, devoted to the defeat of Napoleon and the overthrow of all the French Revolution stands for. One might think of this Irish-Catalan outsider as a neo-conservative of his day. A former Irish revolutionary, he has become a devoted supporter of the existing order out of revulsion with his personal experience of radicalism and its consequences, and he puts his considerable intellect at the service of victory.

    The Maturin of the movie is an anachronism, not merely outside the culture of the Navy but unsympathetic to it. He isn’t merely upset that the ship’s mission interferes with his naturalizing, as the Maturin of the books often is. He disputes with Aubrey the need for the mission itself and the intensity with which Aubrey pursues it. O’Brian’s Maturin is a dedicated, competent and merciless secret agent for the Admiralty. Weir’s Maturin isn’t an intelligence agent, and I can’t see how he could be or would want to be.

    Weir also wastes Maturin’s great narrative potential as an explainee. In his 15th century text on painting, Alberti wrote that a religious or historical scene should always include an “interlocutor” in the foreground; a figure who draws the viewer into the picture. Since few people in Western societies have military experience any more, a good modern war movie needs an interlocutor, both to inform the audience what is going on and to be an emotional intermediary, reacting as one not hardened to war. Leutnant Werner does this job in Das Boot, Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan.

    Maturin was O’Brian’s interlocutor. His peculiar inability to learn anything about seamanship gave O’Brian the chance to have members of the gunroom explain things to him repeatedly, as well as some low comedy when Maturin tried passing this knowledge on to those even more ignorant than he. With very minor exceptions, Weir doesn’t use Maturin this way. He limits Maturin’s interactions pretty much to Aubrey and Blakeny, leaving out the kind of easy social intercourse with the other officers through which O’Brian fed the reader technical information. His Maturin is also too emotionally distant from the struggle in which he is involved; he sulks and almost sneers, but he does not seem moved.

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