[Picture of projector]

Laramie Movie Scope:
Master and Commander:
The Far Side of the World

A rare history-based high sea adventure

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

November 16, 2003 -- “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” is a that rare movie that combines historical accuracy, great acting and realistic battle scenes. Nevertheless, it is a disappointing film because it is so over-hyped and so emotionally flat. Also, the action is concentrated at the beginning and end of the film, with a lot of meandering in the middle.

Based on a series of books by Patrick O'Brian, the film tells the story of a British war ship, the Surprise, engaged in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a much larger French ship, the American-built Acheron. It is the equivalent of the Hood versus the Bismark, but set over a century earlier, in 1805. Napoleon has conquered most of Europe and England could be next, unless the British fleet can control the high seas. Captain Jack 'Lucky Jack' Aubrey's (played by Russell Crowe of “A Beautiful Mind”), orders are clear. He is to destroy the Acheron, or take her as a prize. The Acheron, however, has a clever captain. The Acheron hits Aubrey's smaller ship with a surprise attack. The crippled Surprise is barely able to escape destruction. Aubrey is not used to losing and he isn't about to head for England in defeat for a refit. Aubrey's good friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany of “A Beautiful Mind”), ship's surgeon, accuses Aubrey of making this decision out of pride and hubris rather than common sense. Maturin is the only man on the Surprise who is allowed to question the captain.

After the initial battle, the bulk of the movie is taken up with repairing the ship and chasing the Acheron from the Brazilian coast in the South Atlantic around the deadly seas of Cape Horn to the far ends of the earth, the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific. There is also the refit of the ship and the grizzly business of tending to the wounded with primitive 19th century medicine (an amputation and primitive brain surgery are featured). The film spends a lot of time on depicting the day-to-day life aboard the ship, along with strife among the crew during the long lull between battles. There are also some nice discussions concerning the legendary British naval hero Admiral Nelson. The complex relationship between the captain and the doctor is explored. The captain, a man of some learning, plays classical violin pieces during the less eventful days on the trip, while the doctor accompanies him on the Cello. In one scene, the captain teaches a class in navigation to young officers, even as the Acheron is catching up to The Surprise in a deadly chase. After a long buildup, the final battle is as horrendous as one might expect. Real hand-to-hand combat on decks awash with blood.

The film was disappointing to me because of all the hype surrounding it. I was expecting a great film, not just a good one. The film has been described as the best film of the year, one of the greatest films ever about combat, etc., etc. Nonsense. It is a good film, but it is not as good as “Seabiscuit,” or “Saving Private Ryan,” or “We Were Soldiers” for that matter. I was expecting something of that calibre, and the movie just doesn't deliver. It is good as far as it goes, but it is emotionally aloof. We never really get very close to any of the characters, in the same way that the captain remains reserved and separate from his crew. Even the final battle rings hollow. For me, there was no emotional connection to this crew, and hence, no particular stake in the outcome of the battles. There are no real highs or lows to the story. It is just flat. The film did bring an unintended smile to my face when it reminded me of that old Saturday Night Live skit aboard “The Raging Queen.” It also reminded me of the Village People song, “In the Navy.” All those manly men, out at sea for months at a time. It does get lonely out there.

The strong points of the movie are the acting, the high production values, and the way it depicts a particular time and place with great detail, care and skill. Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany both turn in powerful performances as the captain and ship's doctor, respectively. Nobody plays a hero like Russell Crow (look at his performance in “Gladiator”). Max Pirkis gives a fine performance as Blakeney, a baby-faced Midshipman aboard the Surprise. The way that Blakeney, and other young boys fought and commanded as well as grown men was an eye-opener. Billy Boyd of “Lord of the Rings” is good as Barrett Bonden, Coxswain aboard the Surprise. The Rose, a three-masted wooden frigate, was bought by 20th Century Fox so it could be carefully converted into the HMS Surprise for this movie. The researchers, historians, consultants and the shipwrights did a great job refitting the ship. It really looks authentic. The effects team also did a great job creating some tremendous storm sequences. The battle scenes are equally impressive. The depiction of a historic time and a way of living and fighting at sea is nearly flawless. The production of this film is technically brilliant, richly deserving of multiple awards. The film as a whole, however, is not an A or four-star film. It rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2003 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)