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

June 8th, 2008 · 12 Comments

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Synopsis
In April 1805 off the coast of Brazil, the HMS Surprise – 28 guns and 97 souls – has been ordered by the British Royal Navy to intercept the Acheron, a French vessel intent on carrying Napoleon’s war to the Pacific. As the Surprise cruises into a fog bank, officer of the watch Hollom (Lee Ingleby) glimpses something. Too indecisive to take action, young midshipman Callamy (Max Benitz) is the one who issues a beat to quarters. Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) spots the enemy moments before it fires on them. The Surprise escapes into the fog, but Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) reports nine lives lost in the attack.

The first lieutenant (James D’Arcy) states that with repairs they can make it home, but Aubrey notifies his officers they’re not going home. Though outclassed, the captain intends to stop the Acheron before it reaches the South Seas. In a typhoon, the Surprise is ambushed again, forcing Aubrey to choose the life of one of his men for the survival of the ship. Dr. Maturin – also the captain’s friend – confides that perhaps they should have turned back weeks ago. “You’re not accustomed to defeat. When chasing this larger, faster ship with its long guns, it’s beginning to smack of pride.”

Aubrey concludes that the Acheron will head for the British whaling fleet at the Galapagos Islands and charts a course there, promising Maturin, “You can wander at will, collecting bugs and beetles to your heart’s content.” But when survivors of a sunken whaler alert Aubrey to the position of the Acheron, those plans change, “Subject to the requirements of the service.” The doctor considers it another sign of Aubrey’s abuse of power and questions how they can best serve their country, as a ship of war, or a ship of discovery.

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Production history
In 1995, production executive Tom Rothman was on vacation in rural Connecticut and was stuck indoors due to weather. His father-in-law gave him a copy of Master and Commander, the first in what became twenty-one novels by Patrick O’Brian chronicling the friendship between English naval captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s physician, Stephen Maturin, during the Napoleonic Wars. The New York Times Book Review raved in 1991 that the books were “the best historical novels ever written.” Rothman was told if he could make it through the first hundred pages, he’d probably like it.

Rothman not only made it through the first hundred pages, he was hooked. “I thought if it could be done right it would be wonderful for as many reasons. It could be one of the great buddy films of all time on a vastly romantic, thrilling canvas, a return to what great studio filmmaking used to be.” Rothman suggested this to his boss, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., who flew O’Brian to Los Angeles to talk. The author stated that the appeal of the Hornblower period of English history was in its high adventure, but what was typically lacking – and what he invested his books with – was “lifestyle.”

Goldwyn set the project up at Touchstone Pictures. A fan of Picnic At Hanging Rock, Gallipoli and Witness, he approached Peter Weir to direct. Weir turned the offer down. John McTiernan was considered, but the scripts that came out of the studio emphasized action at the expense of O’Brian’s “lifestyle.” Touchstone put the project into turnaround, where Fox ultimately picked it up after Rothman ascended to co-chairman of the studio. By this time, Weir had completed The Truman Show and was in L.A. bidding his services for his next film.

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Instead of giving the director a pitch, Rothman presented Weir with a sword and asked him to take command of the adaptation of O’Brian’s naval adventures. Weir recalled, “I read all the books. I loved the series, but I really didn’t think Master and Commander would make a good movie. I said if I were going to do O’Brian, I’d start somewhere in the middle with one of the long voyages and get to know these men when they were already friends. Tom told me to go away and do just that.”

Working with John Collee, Weir adapted the tenth book – The Far Side of the World – trimming most of the scenes that took place ashore. According to Weir, “I didn’t want any architecture. I didn’t want crinolines, or carriages rolling down the streets. I wanted to be at sea, to open the picture at sea and to hardly touch land.” Before the project was even greenlit, Weir implored Fox to purchase a vessel he found suitable to stand in for the HMS Surprise at sea; the Rose, a tall ship whose namesake served as a sail-trainer for the British in the 1750s. The cost: $1.5 million.

The filmmakers wooed Russell Crowe to play Captain Jack Aubrey. Crowe had dreamed of working with Peter Weir, but not only voiced reservations about the script – which Akiva Goldsman was brought in to polish, emphasizing “Jack’s confusions, metaphors and aphorisms” – but was committed to star in Cinderella Man, at that time for director Lasse Hallström and Miramax. When Weir refused to wait a year for Crowe, the star agreed to go to sea first. Partnering with Miramax and Universal, the film was greenlit at $135 million. Shooting commenced in June 2002 in a 6.5-acre tank at Fox Studios in Baja, Mexico.

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Eighteen weeks of filming in the tank and a week in the Galapagos, the film’s budget climbed to $150 million. Once Weir and Industrial Light & Magic realized how long the 730 effects shots were going to take to render believably, their release date was delayed from June to November 2003. A lukewarm test screening in Aurora, Colorado complicated matters even further. To help the film appeal to women, the studios suggested inserting scenes on land between Aubrey and a wife. Weir refused. The expensive film played to nearly universal acclaim by critics, but fell short of expectations for a franchise, grossing $210 million worldwide.

Opinion
The advent of digital effects and the box office take of Titanic paved the way for a new slate of historical epics at the turn of the century, but the only one to reach the bar set by genre master David Lean was Peter Weir and Master and Commander. Gladiator, Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai and Troy have their moments, but this is an epic that succeeds from beginning to end. It does so because the film devotes just as much detail to the nuances of character, friendship and morality as its does to action, without giving the short end of the stick to either one.

While the lack of a love story or a nasty villain may have dimmed the commercial appeal of Master and Commander, the film doesn’t heap dopey plot developments on the audience. Its richness lies in the devotion of the filmmakers to recreating a bygone world, stitch by stitch, word by word, aboard a British naval vessel in the early 19th century. This is a marvel on every conceivable technical level, particularly the miniature model work by Weta Workshop and the visual effects by ILM, which are seamless. Intelligent and captivating, the film stands out as the best “guys movie” in recent memory.

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Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films, etc. writes, “Master and Commander is a film that goes from strength to strength. Following the blueprint of authenticity that made the O’Brian books so popular, this film is a time machine … The customs of the British Navy at this time are well observed, from the manner of salutes given to the officers, to the details of a flogging, to the medical practices of the time, and the fine craftsmanship of the carpenters who were always aboard to build spare parts, make repairs, and fashion objects in their idle time that collectors can’t get enough of these days.”

“It’s a The Perfect Storm with a far more rousing story, or a U-571 with hugely better dialogue. And since I liked both of those critically-panned ocean-going films, I can’t help but love this one. It won’t teach you much of anything about the Napoleonic Wars, but if you’re interested in old-time military conflict from one ship’s perspective, you’re not going to do much better than Master and Commander,” writes Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide.

David Levine at Filmcritic.com writes, “Master and Commander could have easily become a stereotypical action picture where every scene is punctuated with explosions and other big budget special effects. While the film’s budget does exceed $100 million, Weir refreshingly concerns himself most with the relationships between all classes of seamen, from cook and carpenter to midshipman and lieutenant … But the real credit here should go to Weir, whose transformation of O’Brian’s novels into a completely literate and engrossing on-screen drama deserves nothing short of the highest honor. Master and Commander is a masterpiece.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Master and pupil · Military · No opening credits · Sword fight

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 andrea // Jun 8, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    God DAMN…I wholeheartedly, obsessively, compulsively, giddily, deliriously LOVE this movie.

  • 2 Marilyn // Jun 9, 2008 at 8:43 am

    Thanks for quoting me yet again, Joe. I love, love, love this movie. I wish it had made a lot of money so we could have another one!

  • 3 sir jorge // Jun 9, 2008 at 9:34 am

    i took my mom to see this one in at the cineplex, and she fell asleep. The one thing about this film is the length, it’s really lengthy, and at some points I felt sea sick…weird.

  • 4 Jeremy // Jun 9, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Totally agree…this is a fantastic film. As great as Crowe is, I think Paul Bettany nearly steals the show here and I am still shocked he was ignored at Oscar time.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Jun 9, 2008 at 11:43 am

    Andrea: I think you need your own website. You could write about coffee for all I care. Your enthusiasm is infectious.

    Marilyn: Keep writing top quality reviews like that, I’ll keep quoting you. Master and Commander is one of the best movies about work ever made. Those pithy corporate slogans that are thrown around an office – leadership, commitment, motivation, initiative, pride – are actually put into context here, like the carpenters who build the model of the Acheron and get an extra ration of rum. Only here, if you didn’t know your job, you got everyone killed! Great, great movie.

    Jorge: I hear you. Like I mentioned, the studios did pressure Peter Weir to make this more palatable to mass audiences. Obviously, he knew what type of film he wanted to make and didn’t let this devolve into Pirates of the Caribbean. I think we’re all much better off because of it.

    Jeremy: Dr. Marutin is the heart of the film. I’ve got to credit Patrick O’Brian for creating that character as much as I’ve got to give props to Paul Bettany. I thought he totally stole the show in A Knight’s Tale as well. Life must be good when you can steal movies like Steve McQueen and you’re married to Jennifer Connelly on top of it all. Thanks for commenting!

  • 6 Jeremy // Jun 9, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks Joe…I love Bettany and I must admit that he is certainly living the dream in his personal life.

  • 7 Daniel // Jun 10, 2008 at 11:27 am

    You know this one faded in my memory a bit after I left the theater. I know it got a whole bunch of Oscar nods but I never thought of checking it out again until now. Everything was overshadowed that year by The Return of the King.

  • 8 AR // Jun 10, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    I liked reading that they were trying to make more of a classic adventure movie, since that’s exactly what this is. The characters are engaging and allowed to develop, but there are also plenty of thrills and some beautiful cinematography. The production design, too, is excellent.

  • 9 Patrick // Jun 10, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    The Horatio Hornblower series was playing on A&E at about the same time as M&C was released. I think having a theatrical release so similar to that series may have hurt the box office for M&C.

    My first time through Master and Commander I was sort of ho hum on it, have gotten to like it much more after a second viewing.

  • 10 Jeff // Jun 11, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Joe – Excellent review. I did not see the film until it was released on DVD, but it has become one of my all-time favorites. It is an epic, but one on a human scale. As good as the action scenes are, the heart of the film is the Aubrey/Maturin relationship, and both Crowe and Bettany instill in that a depth that you don’t see in many movies. The final scene is on my short list of great ones.

  • 11 Joe Valdez // Jun 11, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    Daniel: I had completely forgotten that this was nominated for ten Academy Awards (it won Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing.) I won’t get into how it’s better than Return of the King and why – because it’s a completely different film – but let me just say that what Peter Weir made will hold up for years to come. Thanks for commenting!

    AR: William Sandell was the art director. Other than working with Wolfgang Petersen designing the sets for most of his movies including The Perfect Storm, there was nothing on his resume that required the creation of an entire world the way he was pressed to do on this picture.

    Patrick: You’re not the first to echo that sentiment. Even Gladiator was such a Happy Meal kind of movie in comparison that I think it takes an additional viewing to appreciate the fine cuisine being offered up in this film. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Jeff: I’ve gotten more response on Master and Commander than any other movie I’ve written about yet. Either my traffic is improving or my taste in movies is. Thanks for visiting and for sharing your enthusiasm for this new classic.

  • 12 MIKE // Sep 22, 2008 at 8:45 am

    GREAT MOVIE!

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