Another gem brought to my attention by the History Buffs YouTube channel. Directed by Peter Weir and adapted from nautical historical novels by Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander unfortunately didn’t make enough money to become a series, which is a shame. Maybe the long unwieldy name put people off; as far as terrible film titles go it’s no Mrs Caldicot’s Cabbage War, but unless you’re a fan of the books it doesn’t really sound like an exciting proposition, which is probably why I skipped the theatrical release myself.
The year is 1805 and England is at war with Napoleon. The film is set almost entirely onboard the HMS Surprise, whose captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is charged with hunting down the French warship Acheron. In ancient Greek myths Acheron was an underworld “river of woe”, and in the movie the sinister name justifies itself as Surprise gets thrashed in a sea battle off the coast of Brazil. Fun fact highlighted by History Buffs: in the original novel Aubrey chases an American frigate, but the movie changed the enemy to those damn Frenchies instead, for obvious commercial reasons. Undeterred by the clear superiority of the enemy ship, Aubrey is determined to chase Acheron even as it takes him all the way to the Galapagos Islands.
The film is a stirring seafaring adventure with intense and realistic sea battles, but what truly elevates it is the way it immerses you in the world of the British Navy in the early 19th century, recreated here with a meticulous attention to detail down to the individual names given to the ship cannons. In fact, while the movie’s devotion to authenticity is admirable, I was glad to have watched it with subtitles, because holy naval terminology Batman, a hopeless landlubber with English as a second language like me would be left mighty confused without them. For the crew of Surprise, their small cramped ship is their world, and the film brilliantly conveys the sense of long months spent onboard, the dependency on the whims of nature, the superstitious bent of the seafarers which comes to a tragic conclusion in one of the subplots. There’s time to get to know some of the crew, in particular young Lord Blakeney, played by 13-year-old Max Pirkis who was so memorable as Octavian in Rome TV series. For The Lord of the Rings nerds (of which I’m one), Billy Boyd a.k.a. Pippin also pops up in a small role.
The heart of Master and Commander however lies with Jack Aubrey and his compelling friendship with the ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who is also a passionate naturalist and travels with Surprise in hope of reaching far-off places with their exotic fauna. The differences between the two – one a man of action with an understandably authoritarian view of the society, one an intellectual with a more liberal perspective – cause friction along the way, however you also get a sense that their conflicts are simply a natural part of their enduring friendship. Russell Crowe’s intensity as an actor sadly dimmed with years, but here his presence and authority radiate from the screen, and he’s perfectly cast as a larger-than-life character who is immensely appealing despite his faults. Aubrey is a hard but fair master who inspires loyalty among the crew, and has a disarming fun-loving, mischievous side, especially when he’s had too much grog at dinner.
After the movie finished, I felt like I’ve just watched a fantastic TV mini-series, which is not a back-handed compliment in the least – it’s simply that this kind of intelligent, thoughtful adventure is very rarely seen in big budget movies these days. I was also pretty stoked to see the Galapagos Islands (one of my bucket list destinations) and its weird and wonderful fauna make an appearance. One day I’ll see those critters in the real life.