During the British/French opposition of 1805, Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise, is ordered to patrol the South Atlantic in pursuit of the Acheron, a French warship with the strategic advantage of greater size, speed, and artillery. A "damnable string of bad luck" ensues as the HMS surprise is attacked again and again by the Acheron and suffers assorted unfortunate incidents during her mission. Among many memorable moments, the crew to believe they are cursed by the presence of a "Jonas" on board - someone who is bringing bad luck to the ship - leading to a painful lesson in leadership from Aubrey.
The story is thrilling, mixing action, humour and mood wondrously. As if that was not enough, every technical aspects of the movie, from cinematography, sound and set design, is as close to perfect as modern technology and craftsmanship can achieve. This is in my opinion one of the best movies ever made and a classic that will span the bridge of time.
Of course, this movie may not be everyone’s cup of tea. A literary mindset and a thirst for authenticity is likely to be a prerequisite. Those simply looking for a non-stop, typical action movie or a love story will likely be disappointed.
A personal journey
This year could easily be called my "Master and Commander" year. I have been so impressed by the movie that I decided to give a try to the original novels. There was no turning back: I was hooked! As of this writing, I am halfway through in the process of systematically devouring the 20 novels of the Aubrey-Maturin tales by Patrick O’Brian from which this great movie has been adapted.
These have been my constant companions for past few months. They’ve brought me a considerable amount of joy and food for thought. However, since I plan on reviewing the novels themselves at a later time, I will try to focus here on the movie itself and limit my comments about the novels on how they relate to the movie specifically.
About the Cast
Russell Crowe’s performance as Jack Aubrey, post-captain of the SMS Surprise, is admirable. Although his girth may not be as extensive as his literary counterpart, his dashing authority and appetite for life is quite convincing. I loved him in Gladiator and, in a different register, in A Beautiful Mind as well. Crowe’s powerful, quiet virility suits Jack Aubrey beautifully. Crowe convincingly incarnates Jack as a man accustomed to the rigors of command possessed by relentless drive to achieve his goals while enjoying a brisk scrap or two with a willing enemy.
With his lanky charm, quiet energy and intense blue eyes, Paul Bettany manages adequately - within the constraints of this cinematographic adaptation - to bring to life the unique figure of Stephen Maturin, ship surgeon and long-time friend of Jack Aubrey. Among his many films, he had also previously co-starred with Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind and he has starred in the not-too-shabby romantic comedy Wimbledon. However, I will always hold a special place in my heart for his fabulous and irreverent rendition of the classic author Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale.
Maturin’s acerbic wit, weariness of the abuses of authority and his love of natural science are found intact and delivered with passion by Bettany. Alas, Maturin’s stature in the movie is quite diminished from the books as the focus here rests resolutely with Aubrey. This may be understandable as Maturin’s rich inner life and covert works in British Intelligence may have been hard to expose within the confines of a single action movie. I cannot help but feel that we are dealing here with a diminished, truncated, character and, sadly, this would prevent Bettany’s performance to incarnate Maturin’s personality to the fullest. Nevertheless, Bettany is always a joy to behold and his Maturin is certainly no exception.
A special mention should be made of teenage actor Max Pirkis’ exceptional rendition of young midshipman William Blakeney. His character’s bravery and pragmatism in the face of exceptionally daunting circumstances is truly awe-inspiring. Furthermore, his enthusiasm for battle and natural philosophy is contagious, making him the perfect bridge between Aubrey and Maturin’s own passions. We can only wish the best for this happy, scrappy, "fighting naturalist".
And lets not forget the HMS Surprise, gallantly played by real-life tallship HMS Rose!
A taste of sea biscuit and the smell the gunpowder
What amazed me the most in Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World, and what drew me thereafter to the books it originated from, are the amazing sense of realism, the wonderful, very British, sense of humour and the deep sense of comradeship that permeates the story.
This movie manages to make you feel, to an amazing degree, what it means to be part of the crew of a British man-of-War ship. A great deal of time and details is used to draw you into their joys, fears, superstition, routine and drama. You truly get too witness firsthand the squalor and splendour of a seaman’s most peculiar way of life. This is probably the most accomplished aspect of the movie and what will set it apart for a long tome to come. The presence of children and teenagers as full-fledged crew members - either as seamen or officers - is quite remarkable, even shocking by moment, and certainly drives home how different this period was from ours.
In fact, historians, curators and museum education experts from the Naval Historical Center (NHC) and Naval Historical Foundation (NHF) who reviewed the movie deemed it, in general, very historically accurate. The final NHC consensus was that "Master and Commander" is naval history, with a little "Hollywood" thrown in.
The meat of the movie is evidently the extraordinary naval battles. We get to experience in uncommon detail the thrill and horror of being stuck amidst great floating hulks of wood, rope and canvas fighting it out by blasting tons upon tons of steel upon each others to the din of gunpowder and the wail of men shredded by splinters. The consequences of these actions can also be as unnerving as the fights themselves. This fact becomes particularly evident when Maturin displays his medical skills in a remarkably unsettling amputation, a legendary open-air cranial trepanning and even a gruelling bit of self-surgery.
Ships and Friendship
The wonderful friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon is a major part of the movie’s charm. Maturin is no sidekick but a "particular friend" of Jack Aubrey, meaning his best friend and confidant. This is particularly important as a captain usually lives in a deep social isolation within a close-quartered world. This privileged position enables Maturin to discuss, criticize and even openly contest Aubrey’s decision - to a point. Also, although this is not as evident in the movie as in the novels, each character’s strengths and weaknesses complement each other’s almost geometrically. To Jack’s sanguine lust for life’s physical pleasures, love of Naval tradition and eagerness in battle we have Stephen’s intellectual introspection and philosophical aversion to war and authority. As different these two men may seem, they find common ground in music and an unbreakable respect and trust in the other’s skills in seamanship or surgery - all of them practiced in spectacular fashion in the movie.
The lesser of two weevils
Some kind of humour has always been part of the Hollywood action movie formula. Master and Commander is no exception. But, whereas macho one-liners are usually the norm, Master and Commander has the great wealth of subtle, delicious wit from the O’Brian novels to plunder.
On top of all the more overt humour, such as the notorious "lesser of two weevils" joke and the "To wives and sweethearts... may they never meet!" toast, we get to see many great characters from the colourful cast of the novels. Stephen Maturin’s almost monomaniacal obsession with natural philosophy (observation of the fauna and flora of the world, the gathering of specimens for observation and description, etc.) is properly exemplified in the movie and used to great comic and dramatic effect. Jack Aubrey’s delight in his own, simple wit is another example. The surly and impudent Preserved Killick, long-time steward Jack Aubrey, is present to our delight and ready to serve his triple-strength coffee and the evening’s toasted cheese with a half-muttered complains. I must also say that the movie’s surprise twist and closing lines is likely to become one of my all-time favourite endings.
Amazing Oscar Losses Lead to Fateful Discovery
Too bad Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World had to come out the same year of The return of the King, The Lord of the Ring’s final instalment. Watching the 2003 Academy Awards ceremony, I couldn’t help being curious about this strange historical movie about people in boats that seemed to be nominated in all the categories - and that kept losing to the Hobbits.
When Master and Commander first came out, I thought this was just another gung-ho high-budget war movie glorifying the kind of empire-building the US seems to be engaged and I did not have the stomach to watch it. Watching the Academy Awards ceremony, I decided to push aside my prejudices and give Master and Commander a chance as soon as it came out on DVD. Boy was I ever wrong wrong wrong not to have grasped the chance to see this wonderful movie on the big screen while I had the chance! (Picture of me thumping myself on the head with a DVD case.)
As I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but think that had the competition been any of the first two Lord of the Ring movies, Master and Commander would surely have swept most (if not all) of the awards. It was plain that the Academy was waiting for the third LOTR movie to - rightfully - decorate this outstanding trilogy as a whole and there was no other way about it. It was the unfortunate case of one masterpiece against three. These were odds that even "Lucky" Jack Aubrey couldn’t trump.
So this was how I came to discover the remarkable adventures of Jack Aubrey and his friend, Stephen Maturin, and began spending a large part of my inner life in the 18th century...
From the books came forth a movie
The title seems to indicate that the movie was adapted from two of the Aubrey/Maturin novels: Master and Commander, the first of the series, and The Far Side of the World, the tenth. Now, I have read both novels - and several in-between - and I can safely say that it is not as simple as that.
Firstly, there is very little in the movie that relates to the first novel, "Master and Commander". Whatever was used from "The Far Side of the World", tenth novel of the series, has been adapted to such an extent as to be almost a different story altogether. The movie is also a hodgepodge of scenes, quotes and extrapolations taken from many, if not all, of the other novels. Certainly, in all the novels I have read so far, I have found material that the movie has used one way in another. To top it off, there are several major scenes in the movie that are complete inventions of the director and screenwriter.
Now, the way one would feel about such use/departure of the source material may depend on what you look for in a movie adaptation of literary works. Should it be totally faithful to the book(s), or is there leeway in adapting the material for the screen? Is the movie’s director an author in his own right and free to do as he please, regardless of the source material? How far from the books can we stray and still stay true to their spirit? These are all important questions and there are no easy answers.
I can easily believe that some long-time readers of Patrick O’Brian’s works may be offended by the liberties taken in the making of the movie. However, apart from some minor quibbles, I think that the movie managed to stay true to of the spirit of the books. Indeed, with all the new material added, we practically get a brand new Aubrey-Maturin story - a precious thing since O’Brian passed away in 2000. Again, some may cry "Heresy!" at such a thought, but as I go through the books and ponder on the movie I cannot help but appreciate the tremendous amount of work, respect and thought that was put in this adaptation. The fact that sometimes only one line had been used from a particular book is telling of how deep into the material the authors of the movie must have gone through. In most cases, whenever some departure from the book is committed, I feel the spirit of the characters and of their universe shine through (most of the time).
That is not to say everything is perfect, but to expect perfection from a Hollywood movie is to be doomed to perpetual disappointment. In this case, I particularly cringe at the thought of Jack Aubrey (master trickster in the novels) having to be taught the basics of deception by his friend Stephen Maturin. This gross faux pas could be excused in the sense that it does exemplify a typical moment of "Maturin tips the scales by an astute remark or subtle act". I also find unlikely for Maturin would leave his ship surgeon’s post below deck to join the boarding of the enemy ship, guns blazing. But here again, this could be forgiven as this is an action movie and Maturin’s shooting skills really are quite legendary (as a secret agent and survivor of several duels).
So, in this sense, even the blunders are made within the spirit of the book, which is still pretty noble for a Hollywood movie where source material is usually mangled beyond recognition or ignored altogether. What we get in the end is a superb movie crafted with painstaking love and respect for the era and the literary giant that preceded it. I can’t wait for the sequel!