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

I wanted it to be as pure as possible.
— Peter Weir, “The Hundred Days”

Some of the animals have been quite hard to work with. Obviously, they’re animals, so they’re going to try to run away.
— Max Pirkis, “The Hundred Days”

Stylishly pony-tailed Captain Jack “Lucky” Aubrey (Russell Crowe) commands a British vessel during the Napoleonic Wars, more specifically, in 1805. By way of denoting his absolute courage and magnificent enthusiasm, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World opens with inspiring images of the endless ocean and brilliant sky. And then, the captain on deck: Jack is awesome, the ship is glorious. Indeed, as Russell Crowe describes it for the “HBO’s First Look” included on Fox’s extras-packed 2-DVD, the HMS Surprise is “the rocket ship of its time, it’s NASA. It’s the highest level of technology for travel that exists.”

At this point, the film looks like it will be a stunning sea saga, plain and simple. What you don’t know at this early moment in the movie is that the movie tells another sort of story as well, described by costar Paul Bettany for the DVD’s 70-minute epic of a making-of documentary, “The Hundred Days.” Apparently asked how he came to sign on for the film, Bettany, in costume, recalls, “I thought this was an action movie, in which is this really detailed relationship between these two men and the kind of stress that’s put on their relationship.” As he suggests, this makes Master and Commander somewhat more complicated than the average action movie, or even the average buddy action movie. The two men are simultaneously at odds and in utter awe of one another: the captain all dash and cunning, his friend, Dr. Stephan Maturin, somewhat less self-assertive and more contemplative.

Serving occasionally as Jack’s conscience, Maturin has his work cut out for him, as the captain prefers to follow his (admittedly good) instinct, and to put his crew in all kinds of danger as he does so. The friends’ relationship is easily the film’s most complicated and least resolved. At its best, Master and Commander focuses closely on their peculiarly masculine intimacy, based in mutual respect, friendly competition, and appreciation for chamber music (they play violin and cello duets). The friends come into conflict when Jack’s focus on a mysterious and superior French privateer, the Acheron, becomes obsessive, even Ahabian, such that he refuses to fathom the spectacular dangers posed by the elements as well as the rival ship.

Peter Weir’s film, based on two novels from the popular series by the late Patrick O’Brian, is, in its own way, obsessed with its own mythos; as Weir says for “First Look,” “I thought, long voyages really enabled you to feel something of the Age of Exploration, and at the same time to have the excitement of being on a British Man of War and going into action.” This sort of elision — merging adventure and aggression — grants all kinds of self-inflation, whether by the characters or by their narrators. It’s also the way that history works.

As much as Master and Commander is a high seas escapade, the men swash and buckle, hands tend to cannons with names like “Jumping Billy” and “Sudden Death,” and crews huzzah for their commander, who is always right. When the movie allows for deviance from such straight-ahead expectations, when it suggests reveals self-doubts, bad decisions, and distressing reconsiderations, it is more interesting than when it heaves ho for the thrill-kill.

Emotional complications make thematic sense in a huge-ship movie, what with so many men and boys (and they are all men and boys) crammed into such a tight space. (Director of photography Russell Boyd observes the difficulties of shooting for days on end: “We always knew it was going to be claustrophobic, but we still had to stoop on all these sets.”) These characters include the leathery, boozy deckhands as well as inexperienced officers, like 12-year-old Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), who loses an arm (which is digitized away, Lt. Dan-like, during one altercation, such that the blond moppet spends the rest of the film endeavoring to demonstrate his manhood). Jack likes to think of himself as a leader following the example set by that “master tactician and man of singular vision,” Lord Nelson. Moreover, two centuries ago, the likelihood that anyone would return from such a deed was significantly smaller than might be today, with perils arising from all kinds of dark horizons, rough weather, and boisterous waves.

The most immediate threat in Master and Commander comes from the French ship. At movie’s start, the Surprise (introduced as bearing “28 guns, 197 souls” off the Coast of Brazil), is attacked by the Acheron. So bewildering is this ghostish ship that Jack and his lads take to calling it a “devil ship,” thus ramping up the metaphorical stakes if not the actual ones (say, scurvy, drought, starvation, and falling overboard, among other difficulties). Weir describes the process of bringing such dread and anticipation to the screen. “O’Brian’s greatness,” he asserts in “The Hundred Days,” “lies in his prose and in his characters, and in bringing to life a world on board a ship, and an era, really. And the first thing you do when you pick up the book, as a filmmaker, all of the words fall out onto the table, and all you’re left with is the front over and back cover, and the skeleton of the plot and the ghostly shape of the characters. And you have to replace that prose with images.”

The translation is detailed here nearly to the point of excess. Jack’s outrage at the fact that he’s been surprised (on the Surprise) leads him as deeply into himself as out into the ocean, though the film understandably, perhaps, spends more time visualizing the latter. The Acheron is faster, better equipped (“She’s out of our class, a 44-gun ship!”), and sturdier (“Yankee-built, sir, in New York!”), and carries more men. This takes him and his crew on a lengthy pursuit (some 12,000 miles, around the Cape of Good Hope, where the waves are daunting), through a series of encounters and near-encounters, always overmatched and leading to one old-salty observation: “We’re fish in a barrel!” Indeed, the final battle scene results in all kinds of carnage. As, in “The Hundred Days,” you’re watching the men arranged with bottle blood tossed all over their prone forms, makeup artist Edouard Henriques III reveals, “I found kind of new side to Peter on this movie, and we gave him his own blood bottle, just in case he might want to splash some.”

In addition to such good fun, the DVD’s featurettes record other aspects of the film’s production, including “Cinematic Phasmids” (30 minutes on the visual effecting of tall ships, using models, miniature and full-sized, and digital constructions), a documentary on “Sound Design” (which features an “Interactive Cannon Demonstration”), six deleted scenes, stills galleries, and a series of “Multi-Angle Studies,” which offer various shots of the final battle (these are useful for wannabe filmmakers, as they show alternate framings for any given action).

Such multiplicities are the film’s strong point, especially as it shows subtle differences (in addition to the broad strokes) between Jack and Maturin. The doctor, being a scientific sort, with notebooks and records and aspirations toward Darwinian fame (though, of course, the naturalist is only four years old at this moment), wants to swing by the Galápagos Islands to collect choice specimens. This manly melodrama includes the men (as in, rabble) as well as the young child-officers, particularly that cute little Blakeney, who can’t help but fiddle with the little bugs that Stephan has pinned and catalogued, but who is the son of a man to whom Jack owes some honorable debt. They don’t overtly struggle for the boy’s attention, but the film uses him, rather clumsily, as the mediator for their interests — as if they cannot be reconciled, or even managed in one mind at one time.

When their opposition is revealed in its tenderest moments, you recall that Weir’s work can be supple and strange. Jack’s not crazy about Stephan’s inclinations (“We do not have time for damned hobbies, sir!”), but he does value the doctor, as Stephan has worked near miracles keeping some of the men alive. Still, in this film, the derring-do must take precedence. This suits Crowe’s enduring reputation for broadly boyish behaviors, but it’s less well integrated with Weir’s penchant for excavating cultural fears and political conflicts.

The DVD includes another documentary, “In the Wake of O’Brian,” depicting weir’s own passion for his authorial source, including his efforts to find the proper musical pieces by touching actual stuff — telescopes, maps, and swords of the period. “You can know there was a Troy, you can know there was a Roman Empire, but to go there and touch the stones, that’s something.” He says he was looking for a “way of telling the story visually that would equal his prose, or at least do it justice.” Weir’s love of detail might distract from the action, but really, that distraction is the film’s most original aspect.