The Best Movie of the Decade that You Probably Didn’t See by Matt Bailey Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World may be one of the biggest and best films of the last ten years that nobody I know seems to like. It’s not that they dislike it, they mostly just have not seen it, or if they have seen it, they thought it was “fine” or “pretty good.” Or maybe it just got overshadowed for them by another movie with a similarly logorrheic title about guys on ships released earlier the same year: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. My suspicion is that most people think of it – seen or unseen – as “a movie my dad would like,” this archetypal father being the kind of guy who gets David McCullough books for Christmas. After all, it was adapted from a series of scrupulously-researched historical novels, was lauded for its historical accuracy, and prominently features two things only dads seem to get excited about: old wars and sailing.
Yet here is a film that amassed ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, so somebody besides me must like it. It only won two awards, mainly because 2003 was the same year the final installment of some bloated trilogy about wizards and elves was released, and the Academy probably felt they had to acknowledge the 800-pound Orc in the room after ignoring it the two previous years. Of course, for a certain type of cinemagoer, a shipload of Oscar nominations usually signifies “Quality Filmmaking,” which in turn signifies the kind of movie your dad would like (unless the movie has a queen in it or has something to do with Jane Austen, in which case it’s the kind of movie your mom would like). So let me just state for the record, Master and Commander is actually a great movie.
Many critics praised Master and Commander as being in the tradition of the great Hollywood epics of the 1950s and 1960s, and they were right in certain respects. The film is full of rich period detail, was judiciously adapted from a respected literary source, and was made by some of the top craftspeople in the business of filmmaking. It was even produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., the son of a genuine Hollywood mogul. But the qualities that make this film akin to – and actually better than – other seafaring epics of that era such as John Huston’s Moby Dick, Lewis Milestone’s Mutiny on the Bounty, and Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd are its matter-of-fact minimalism, its resolute eschewal of gimmickry and cliché, and the note-perfect portrayal of quiet heroism by its cast.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of this film is that it starts on a ship, ends on a ship, and – with the exception of a brief but extraordinary stop in the Galápagos Islands – stays on a ship for the duration of the film. There are no expository scenes of magisterial admirals plotting strategy on enormous maps, no shots of barrels being rolled up planks in preparation for a voyage, no scenes of naval officers enjoying one last dance with a flirtatious young lady before shipping off. Though they exist in the source novels in plenty, there are no scenes of shore life in the film at all. The film is, in its aim toward historical accuracy and in its self-imposed scope, life on a Royal Navy vessel, circa 1805. When not chasing or being chased by enemy ships, a crew tends sails, repaints trim, sings shanties, and fights amongst themselves, and all of that activity is given equal time in the film.
For a film of its genre and length, the plot, or simply what happens, is surprisingly thin and can be summed up in one sentence: The H.M.S Surprise is attacked by a French ship and pursues it in order to attack it in return. Until the last half-hour or so of the film, the crew of the French ship is only glimpsed as blurred figures through a spyglass. The ship itself is referred to throughout the film as a phantom because it appears suddenly to emerge out of the fog and then just as quickly disappear back into it. The particularities of the Napoleonic Wars are not dwelled upon; it is enough for the plot just to know that England is at war with France. The story of the film, however, or how the events of the plot happen, is rich in detail. In addition to the two main characters of the books and film, Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon (and spy) Stephen Maturin, all of the officers of the ship and a handful of the rest of the crew are given scenes that deepen their characterizations, and the bonds between the men of the ship are explored. In addition to being a war story, the film is also the story of a friendship between two strong personalities with often competing priorities, a story of the young Midshipman coming of age, and the story of the difficulty of sailing a ship around a continent while trying not to get sunk.
With a simple plot, a detailed story can become episodic. This is not untrue of Master and Commander, but the film never seems to drag among its details nor to feel cobbled together. Instead, the film has a novelistic feel, and chapter headings at the beginning of certain scenes would not feel out of place. The section of the film in which the crew convince themselves that one of the officers is a “Jonah,” a source of bad luck for the ship, could be neatly excised from the film without affecting the plot in the least. Yet it is exactly this kind of scene, this detail of character and of the realities of life on board a frigate during the Napoleonic wars, that makes this film such a pleasure to watch. Likewise the excursion to the Galápagos; though it does figure in the plot in a small way, the scenes of Maturin observing heretofore unknown species of organisms and collecting samples would stop any other film cold. But because Weir allows the film time to develop its characters and their lives together, it makes the thrilling sea battle that follows these scenes all the more climactic.
Peter Weir’s storytelling decision to strip away the narrative excesses of the usual period epic in order to lavish attention on the details that matter extends to his filmmaking technique as well. There are no 360-degree pans of the ship or long tracking shots taking the viewer from the deck down into the hold or up onto a mast, no shots from the point-of-view of a recently-fired cannonball. The computer-generated special effects are unobtrusive and serve mainly to enhance practical effects or the natural setting (it can get tedious waiting for nature to whip up large banks of fog). Excepting the swelling strings of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on the Theme by Thomas Tallis, the music is a modest mix of late-eighteenth-century pieces and restrained, period-appropriate new composition. The two Oscars the film did win, for cinematography and sound editing, are testaments to the care given to the realism and believability of the details of the film. Even when you know that certain scenes were shot in on a partial ship in the same giant water tank in Mexico built for Titanic, you cannot differentiate them from the scenes shot aboard a replica frigate at sea. As much care is given to capturing the visual beauty of the Galápagos as to the threatening dark and dankness of the berth deck where the crew sleep. In this already exceptional film, the sound design is exceptionally good. I remember seeing this film in the theater and feeling I was actually on a ship as I heard the masts creaking, the sails flapping, the wind whistling. And when my ribcage reverberated at the firing of the first cannon, it may not have mattered at that moment that the sound effect was recorded using a vintage cannon, but it obviously mattered to the filmmakers.
When this war movie does indulge its necessary war scenes, it does so in service to historical accuracy and realism and with a minimum of swashbuckling. Though “Lucky Jack” is a capable and daring seaman, he does not indulge in swinging from the halyard, sword clenched in his teeth (c.f. for contrast, the intentionally campy Pirates of the Caribbean). There is very little of Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks in Russell Crowe’s portrayal, and Peter Weir seems to prefer to show battles as what they are: swarming, chaotic, noisy, bloody, full of instantaneous decisions, and often fatal. And though boys as young as twelve did serve on naval vessels, Weir does not treat the young characters in the film as anything but the able seamen and officers-in-training that they were. They were considered men in 1805 and are considered men in this film, and so it may be a little shocking to see what we today consider a boy leading men into battle and suffering its consequences, but there is no room for sentimentality on the H.M.S. Surprise nor in Master and Commander.
This lack of sentimentality makes the portrayal of heroism in the film feel true and in keeping with its characters, as in the films of those poets of male camaraderie Howard Hawks, John Ford, William Wellman, and to some extent, Samuel Fuller. Risking one’s life in order to save those of one’s comrades, stoicism in the face of death (particularly one’s own), and gentlemanly respect for the intelligence of one’s enemy: none of these are done for glory or out of arrogance, they are simply what is done in wartime. And when this is shown in a film with the sensitivity of a Hawks, a Ford, or a Weir, there is no jingoistic pride taken in heroism and no implicit argument made for the rightness of war (as some conservative newspaper columnists mistakenly and inexplicably perceived in this film upon its release). Without this sensitivity you get, well, a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich film.
Though our short collective memory has already forgotten, the late 1990s and early 2000s constituted a golden era for extravagant, tumescent historical epics: Braveheart, Titanic, Ridley Scott’s double-barrel blast of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, Pearl Harbor, Alexander, King Arthur, The Last Samurai, The Patriot, Gangs of New York—the list could go on and on. At the time it felt like this genre would go on and on, and most of the films did go on and on, clocking in at well over two hours. While Master and Commander could be considered part of this trend (and its running time is no exception to the trend), the restraint and simple good taste of this film, from script through to execution, set it apart from the also-rans. Sure, your dad probably loves it, but you might too.