BY C.W. ROSS
It is difficult to tell whether Peter Weir’s new film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” is meant to be an action blockbuster laced with thematic richness or a thoughtful drama spiked with the finest action. Either way, Weir does a masterful job of satisfying both a taste for action and a desire to be nudged and prodded – sometimes forcefully – into thinking about themes that extend beyond explosions of cannon fire.
“Master and Commander” traces the adventures of the aptly named HMS Surprise, a somewhat outdated English frigate whose mission is to intercept and engage the eerily subversive Acheron, a faster and better-equipped French vessel. The two ships pursue each other from the eastern coast of South America, around Cape Horn, and finally to the Galapagos Islands, where they meet in a final showdown of wit and courage.
At the helm of the Surprise, is Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), a violin-playing, metaphor-mixing naval tactician, who commands his ship as William Wallace did the Scottish resistance in “Braveheart” – with heaps of bravery and enough heart to win the staunch devotion and respect of his rough yet lovable band. However, unlike Wallace, who was betrayed by his confidants, Aubrey finds support to the last, though not without tension from his closest friend and comrade, Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship’s surgeon.
The film uses Aubrey and Maturin to explore the complex relationship between naval politics and personal loyalties. When the Acheron eludes the Surprise as they round Cape Horn, Aubrey decides to sail for the Galapagos Islands – the heretofore unexplored natural wonder of the Pacific Ocean. He promises Maturin, an enthusiastic naturalist, several days there to explore, study and collect natural specimens. But when they arrive, Aubrey gets word that the Acheron is within reach and immediately begins pursuit. Maturin protests Aubrey’s decision, arguing that a promise is a promise. Aubrey responds by claiming that such promises are contingent on the ultimate mission of the Surprise. Duty to King and Country is the ultimate good, and the Galapagos will have to await the arrival of Darwin and the HMS Beagle. However, at a crucial moment later in the movie, duty to King and Country is subordinated to a poignant gesture of Aubrey’s loyalty to Maturin.
While I found the film’s foray into such thematic material intensely enjoyable, ultimately the fantastic action sequences left me the most satisfied. Weir does a spectacular job of adding enough realism and confusion to the battle scenes to give them the feel of legitimacy, while maintaining enough predictable choreography to allow the audience to follow the action. Granted, in the movies all battles are choreographed, but there is a difference between battle scenes such as those in “Saving Private Ryan” and those in “Pearl Harbor,” in that the former give the audience a stronger sense of confusion and fear by using the soldiers’ perspective instead of the explosions of the latter. In “Master and Commander,” when a cannon ball strikes the Surprise it sends thousands of wood splitters flying into the terrified sailors instead of exploding on impact and sending the sailors flying into the ocean. The sailors are the focus, not the explosion.
In the end, “Master and Commander” is a great but risky film because it pushes the action blockbuster into the esoteric and thematic. For most action films, the action is the drama, and that gives the film movement and excitement. “Master and Commander” is different in that it does not exclusively rely on action, but uses thematic development to provide drama – a result that Weir reportedly demanded throughout the making of the film. This makes the movie slow at times, but not boring, unless of course you are expecting “Gladiator” on the open seas. Fortunately, the film achieves its own, far superior identity: it is, after all, Master and Commander.