Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

dir: Peter Weir
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It is no wonder that the film hasn't set the box office alight. It's not a conventional film, with a conventional story and a 5 part structure. There's no love interest, revenge motivation, excessive one-liners, hyperkinetic coke binges in the editing sweet and no saccharine Hollywood ending. There is also little for people who are not anal retentive history buffs or at least fans of movies set in the Age of Sail (being the Napoleonic Wars between France and England et al) to be kept entertained by ultimately in this film.

It is satisfying for me, but then I'm one of the few reviewers that has actually read every one of the 20 Aubrey - Maturin novels written by Patrick O' Brian. And even then the film is satisfying more on an intellectual level than on the visceral / emotional level. Which is a damn shame.

Yes, I've read every book in the series by Patrick O'Brian. That has not, amazingly enough, turned me into one of those ubernerds of the same ilk as Tolkien obsessives that say Peter Jackson should be killed painfully for impugning the majesty that is the Lord of the Rings trilogy by presuming to be able to make it into a film that's not a thousand hours long. I very much enjoyed the tales of Lucky Jack Aubrey and naval surgeon and spy on His Majesty's Secret Service Stephen Maturin, in fact I loved reading them.

I don't for a second think that they are superbly written books. To be honest, some of those twenty books were incomprehensibly badly structured and seemed utterly without point. But I still appreciated and read them all, even up until the last book O'Brian wrote before his timely and well-deserved death, Blue at the Mizzen, where Aubrey finally received the rank of Admiral that he so richly deserved. And then everyone is killed by a giant meteorite.

Of course, by writing in such detail, which I'm going to exceed as the review progresses, I have seemingly contradicted myself by pretending I'm not that fixated on the source material. Well, my point is simply that I am quite familiar with it but not psychopathically attached to the written 'canon'. My issues with the story that has ultimately ended up on the screen are not, therefore, anger or disappointment at the manner in which an obsessive manic fanatic would be experiencing. I'm reasonably happy with the film that's ended up on the screen, and I'm amazed at the incredible level of detail pertaining to the era that they included and got 'right'.

What I find confusing is that they bothered to craft, at the cost of $150 million US, one of the least interesting stories out of the hundreds that they could have cobbled together torn living from the pages of O'Brian's books. I'm sure Peter Weir had his reasons, as I'm sure the man he collaborated with on the screenplay, John Collee, did to.

It's the title that jars with me the most. The combination of titles from O'Brian's first Aubrey novel, Master and Commander, where Jack is first promoted to Captain, is given his first command (the Sophie) and first meets with Stephen, and O'Brian's eleventh Aubrey novel, The Far Side of the World just doesn't work. I'm not sure what the deal was with the rights to the novels, but, jeez, had they simply stuck to doing an adaptation of Master and Commander itself and forgotten about the Far Side of the World, this would have been a transcendent film that touched people on a number of levels. As it is this film exists as an extended History Channel episode with really decent acting and 'recreations' for a change coupled with a digression into Discovery Channel Wonders of Nature come to life extravaganza. It's like the Revenge of the Highbrow Cable Channels. How Stimulating!

Master and Commander is probably one of the best of the books in the series. The various conflicts, difficulties and such faced by Aubrey in his first command and his growing friendship with Maturin and the increasing complexity of their characters occurs beautifully in that first book, and is repeated ad nauseam for the next 19.

The great moments, culminating with the attack on the Spanish frigate the Cacofuego, a vastly more powerful ship with double the complement of crew and cannon, are sometimes matched in O'Brian's subsequent books but never exceeded. O'Brian truly excelled at describing ship-to-ship attacks and manoeuvres throughout his rambling, drunken career. Instead, they adapt Far Side of the World. Presumably they did so because it gave them an excuse to go to the Galapagos Islands.

Hoo-fucking-ray. Allow me a moment to compose myself as I think my enthusiasm has caused me to rupture something in my groinal area. Changed from the book, their hunter / quarry is no longer a powerful American frigate called the Acheron, it is reduced to being a French privateer. Quite wisely, one would say. I don't think anyone in the US would have been too keen on a film where the British 'heroes' were fighting against an American aggressor. You could just see those Peter Weir and Russell Crowe effigies being burnt in the street right about now if that had happened, and Crowe could kiss that film career of his goodbye.

That is if his own off-screen antics don't nail that coffin first.

When the enemy is the French, it's far easier to accept, I'm sure everyone will agree. Except for the French, of course. It's truly wonderful to see US productions continuing to trade on the alleged antipathy that Americans have towards the French. So the film ultimately is reduced to this: a powerful French frigate is sent by Napoleon to destroy the British whaling fleet in the Great South Sea and the Pacific, and Captain Jack Aubrey is tasked with the job of preventing this from happening.

Aubrey has a loyal crew on a wonderful little ship called the HMS Surprise, his best friend and musical accompanist Stephen Maturin on board, and an entertaining collection of officers, marines, midshipmen and other lubbers. What is represented on board the ship in terms of the daily lives of sailors in the naval service is certainly true to the level of verisimilitude than comes from O'Brian's books. The man was certainly obsessed with getting down the incredibly anal retentive details of what ship-board life was like in that era, as well as the quaint little idiosyncrasies of sailors on His Majesty's ships: their superstitions, idiocies and daily grinds.

The detail in terms of the ship itself, its operation and the costuming was exquisite, down to the Marines on board the Surprise even wearing brass gourgettes at their throats, which I can't remember actually seeing in any film outside of BBC productions. You have to realise that at the time depicted, these ships were probably the most complex 'machines' ever created by humanity, comparatively. They took years and absolute fortunes to build. Constructed from tens of thousands of pieces of wood, they required the operation of thousands of ropes, lines, stays and braces, and the labour of hundreds of men to function. Thankfully the film doesn't go into that much detail, as I think that would have magnified the volume of the snoring that was coming from the audience around me, but I appreciated the scale and consideration given to that side of it all the same. It is an absolute joy for me to behold these ships in operation.

In terms of characters, apart from our two main men, Crowe as Captain Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin, we have a bunch of wonderful portrayals leaping off the page. Fans of the books would be in mastubatory heaven to see such characters as Barret Bonden, Tom Pullings with his trademark cutlass slash scar across his face, Joe Plaice, Awkward Davies, Stephen's helper Padeen, and the hilarious and indomitable Killick as Aubrey's steward. All of them truly inhabit the characters to the film's benefit.

The one character I appreciated the most apart from Killick is one I haven't been able to work out yet, he was the portly officer with the silver curly hair, who was truly excellent and a wonderful devil's advocate for the captain. I still can't work out who the fuck he was, even after scouring IMDB :) Apart from them our two leads make a good fist of their characters, without question. Having worked together previously on Richie Cunningham Howard's A Beautiful Mind, they get across the deep friendship between the two men believably. I doubt they're friends in real life, I'm unsure whether Crowe is capable of maintaining friendships in real life, being so, shall we say, temperamental? Being a violent, drunken buffoon? Um, for making terrible rock albums? Would YOU want to be friends with him? I thought not. But you like watching him play the bad motherfucker don't you. Admit it, you strumpets.

In the books themselves their friendship transcends pretty much every other relationship in their lives, since they spend what seems like forty years together in their various escapades. And their unique positions afford them the opportunity for conflict that could never credibly work had Stephen been a regular member of a ship's crew. Thus they butt heads and fight, sometimes over ideology and sometimes over personal issues, but their friendship is strong enough to weather the difficulties they face, personally and professionally.

The images I have in my mind of Aubrey and Maturin, and, in truth the characters as I see them from the novels are not even remotely similar to what is represented on the screen. But that's not a fatal flaw for me. People who are rabid Tolkeinites and have read the Lord of the Rings a billion times are the most outspoken over how different the characters exist in their minds based on the books as opposed to how Jackson represented them on the screen. I don't see it as a problem. The two characters, which were really O'Brian's two wish-fulfilment projections of his idealised view of himself, are far too complex to ever be translated to the screen in a film less than a 100 hours long. And I accept that.

There is one aspect that angered me, and angered me in a way that only a canon-nerd would be rendered ropable. In the portrayal of our good surgeon Maturin, they have him fighting during the climactic battle. This was wrong on levels of such fundamental wrongness that I can barely express my dislike of it in a rational form. Make no mistake, Maturin (the character in the book) is an expert marksman, a deadly duellist and a cold bastard when it comes to killing in the name of, as the song goes.

But he did not, as a rule, as an essential condition of his position as ship's surgeon, take part in naval actions. Doing so in the film fucked up the veneer of credibility that the film had worked so hard to create. Of course, I'm the only person that's going to care :)

The film starts with a sea battle, and ends with a sea battle. Peter Weir's interest was obviously very far away from the action aspects of the story, and was apparently far more interested in creating a viable, 'true' little universe in a time and place so far away from contemporary life that it's hard to imagine but interesting to contemplate. It's to his credit that he achieved this. Still, for me, the film didn't get me in the guts, so to speak. It's a film I appreciated with my eyes and my mind, and I loved the nautical stuff.

But people looking for a modern day Captain Blood or a total violent thrill ride should wait until Pirates of the Caribbean 2: The War in Captain Jack Sparrow's Underpants. That should be bracing enough.

8 lashes from the cat o'nine tails out of 10, ya lubbers!

Capt. Jack Aubrey: To wives and sweethearts.
Officers: To wives and sweethearts.
Capt. Jack Aubrey: May they never meet. – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World