Remembering 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,' the Best Seafaring Movie of All Time

Remembering 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,' the Best Seafaring Movie of All Time

Dec 11, 2015

Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World may be one of the best and biggest movies to every vanish off the face of the earth. With a worldwide haul of only $212 million against a $150 million budget, it didn't exactly light the box office on fire. At the Academy Awards, it was swallowed by the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King behemoth. Critics were kind to the film and it did take home Oscars for its cinematography and sound editing, but it's not a movie that gets brought up very often. It's never put on any lists of the best films of the '00s.

And that's a shame, because Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is one of the very best films of the '00s. In retrospect, it represents a huge cultural dividing line. Here is a movie that has one foot in the golden age of Hollywood and one foot in the digital future. Here is a movie that's as old school as you can get, crafted with the same kind of tech that was also simultaneously bringing the earliest superhero movies to life. If audiences had embraced Master and Commander, if it had been a hit on the same scale as The Lord of the Rings or Spider-Man, cinema could look very different today. Here is a massively expensive blockbuster, headlined by one of the most famous movie stars in the world, that treats its audience with respect. This is a huge epic made for adults during the exact moment when Hollywood was starting to transition to its new role as "caterer to your inner child."

Based on the long running series of novels by Patrick O'Brien, Master and Commander follows the crew of the HMS Surprise, a British ship tasked with hunting down and destroying a rival French vessel off the coast of South America. However, Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) meets his match in the captain of the Acheron and their battle of will and wits and seamanship escalates into one of cinema's longest and greatest games of cat and mouse. This is 1805, which means that every confrontation is dictated by the wind and luck. Over the course of many weeks, we watch this crew work to stay alive and to out-think their enemy, all while battling the elements and each other.

There is very little action in Master and Commander, but there is more than enough incident and enough detail to fill a dozen other films. Weir never pauses to explain how a 19th century warship works and he never breaks down the social hierarchy of the Surprise. Instead, he trusts us to follow visual action. When Captain Aubrey gives orders using terms that simply don't exist outside of Navy textbooks, we can follow the action because Weir places it in context. When we watch some men eat well in a nice dining room while others crowd one another on deck, we understand the lingering resentment between the officers and the regular crew that simmers underneath so many scenes. 

In Aubrey, Crowe found a character that plays to all of his strengths as an actor. Although he's an obsessive military commander and a strict leader, Aubrey is not without humor. He's the kind of guy who delights in a bad pun, but isn't afraid to make tough calls. Crowe's unique combination of wily charm and intensity is beautifully served in Master and Commander. If this film had spawned a franchise (and there are 20 other novels in O'Brien's series), Crowe would have aged gracefully into the role. The modern Crowe, a bit thicker, a bit wearier, would be as effective as his younger, strapping self seen here.

And while Master and Commander makes it easy to get lost in the detail of its world and in its enormous cast of characters, the real draw at the heart of the movie is the relationship between Aubrey and the ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Weir is interested in how Aubrey conducts war, but he's equally interested in how Maturin saves lives. Weir's action sequences are intense, but scenes of amputations and rudimentary brain surgery also get the heart pumping. This world is hard. The lives of these characters are hard. Everyone must take solace in something. For much of the crew, that's the grog supply. For Aubrey and Maturin, it's their friendship. When they disagree, and they disagree often, you can still feel the affection and respect they have for one another bubbling underneath every argument. That we didn't get to see their relationship evolve over several films is a shame.

All of this historical detail and all of these character nuances and wrapped in a package that's as impressive as any historical drama ever made. 12 years after its release, I feel comfortable putting Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in the same camp as Lawrence of Arabia. Stunningly photographed and assembled, this is the kind of immersive epic that that allows you to get lost in every frame. The big picture is impressive. The technology (a combination of practical sets and CGI that has aged better than any other film from 2003) is astonishing. But put a magnifying glass to any square inch of this canvass and you'll find a tender character moment or a great joke or a tough, moral dilemma. This movie is the complete package.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is readily available on Blu-ray, albeit in a bare bones release that reflects just how much the public has forgotten about it. But the transfer is beautiful. The sound mix is great. The performances still ring true. In the Heart of the Sea may be opening this weekend, but all I want to do is watch Peter Weir's masterpiece again.

Categories: Features, Movie Nostalgia
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