November 20, 2003

Master and Commander

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I have never seen a film more vividly authentic than Peter Weir’s 19th century naval warfare epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Not since watching Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans has a film convinced me of its adherence to history.

Like Mann’s film, Master and Commander is a wildly picaresque experiment in romanticism, taking us on an adventure of bravery and ambition. The cannons roar, the saline spray of sea air splashes the screen, and the hull splinters into shards as cannon fire rips through it.

Based upon two books in the immense series by Patrick O’Brian, the film enters aboard the H.M.S. Surprise, a British vessel afloat in the midst of a heavy fog. It is a strikingly ominous scene, as the swirling mist makes it impossible to differentiate water vapor from the sail of an enemy ship. As Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) peers through the lens of a telescope, cannon fire knifes through the air, and the Surprise narrowly escapes in a fight for its life against a larger, faster French galleon.

The mystery and shock of this encounter echoes throughout the entire film, as Aubrey and the crew recover and resolve to hunt for the mysterious ship. It becomes a game of wills, not only between Aubrey and the captain of the French ship, but also between the members of the crew, and Aubrey and his best friend (and voice of reason): ship’s physician Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).

This is a role that the vitriolic Aussie was born to play. Aubrey is a character who could have easily fallen victim to clich