RogerBW's Blog

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) 07 September 2022

2003 historical war, dir. Peter Weir, Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany; IMDb / AllMovie. In 1805, HMS Surprise goes out hunting a French frigate…

Yes, I've given this the same introduction as my review of Das Boot, because I feel it's trying to be very much the same sort of film: it's not asking whether a particular war is right or wrong, it's just about depicting what it's like to be fighting in that war. (In this case of course it's on the side that we know, historically, is going to win.)

As a depiction, it's pretty good. Even when Peter Weir gets put to making a generic film, he does his best to pep it up a bit (see Green Card, which in the hands of another director would have been a standard rom-com, but manages to rise just a little above that). With some decent source material to work with…

Well, I have to pause there. Several people whose judgement I very much respect laud the Aubrey-Maturin stories; I've read Master and Commander, and thought it all right, but not good enough to tempt me to read another. Since then I've started reading the Hornblower books, and perhaps when I've finished those I should try returning to O'Brian, since he's clearly one of the authors who's trying to provide more of the same. (The first of O'Brian's books came out three years after Forester died, which makes the inspiration very clear.)

So it's not fair of me to dislike the film because it's not the book, both because I didn't much rate the book and because they're different media anyway. But I do think that Maturin in particular is very much short-changed by the script's treatment: all his spying is forgotten, and he's just a doctor and naturalist who for some reason has got aboard this warship as the surgeon without being a naval officer. Yes, all right, one of his jobs in the book is to be the bloke on the ship who doesn't understand ships, so that things can be explained to him (and to the reader), but that seems to be his main job here; some impressive instances of surgery don't really make up for that.

Also the film is Frankensteined from at least four different books in the series (opinions differ), which means that the through-line plot (this enemy frigate is too tough for us to fight, but our job is to fight her), which doesn't really have much momentum to start with, is broken up by incidents and fragments of other stories which progress at their own pace. The bookending of the film by the two major fights feels as though the budget for action was stretched, and while it doesn't entirely sag in the middle (a storm sequence is particularly effective) the changes in mood and speed are very apparent.

It doesn't help that, true to the book, Aubrey and Maturin between them have all the qualities of the ideal man, and they only differ so that they can argue. Like Hornblower, Aubrey's job is to be Right About Ships; unlike Hornblower, who's at least mildly humanised by his self-loathing, his non-naval activities as shown here are restricted to playing the violin with Maturin. (The decision to remove all port scenes also means that the only women on screen are a few non-speaking natives in canoes.) There's some effort to show the burden of command, but a medium-good episode of Star Trek can do that better.

This was a pet project of Tom Rothman, who'd become chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment in 2000, and immediately authorised production of the film. Unfortunately, by the time it came out in 2003, the filmgoing public's mood had shifted much more towards escapist spectacle than grim realism, and while this wasn't a complete failure its returns didn't justify any further films (though I gather something is now theoretically in the works, of course with a different cast and crew).

But, but. As an audiovisual spectacle it's excellent (and that's where it won its Oscars, for cinematography and sound editing). The tiny island of human life in a great big hostile environment reminded me both of Das Boot and of the snowy landscapes in Fargo; the great clouds of gunsmoke hide what's going on, as historically they would have; and if some of the chaos of storms and boarding actions never quite resolves into working out just what's going on, well, I find that I I forgive it. Richard King the sound designer did a lot of work with reenactors to get not only the sound of the right sort of gun but the other sounds made when projectiles hit targets, and the visceral impact largely does its job of causing me not to think about the weakness of plot and characterisation. At least at the time.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

See also:
Das Boot

  1. Posted by John Dallman at 12:04pm on 10 September 2022

    Master and Commander is one of the weakest books in the series. O'Brien does not seem to have had an overall plan, and may well have been writing a one-off novel.

    I think the first I read was HMS Surprise, where it was visible that O'Brien was trying to write something that looked at more of the world than Forrester did, and was starting to succeed.

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