Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Written by Peter Weir and John Collee
Directed by Peter Weir
It had been five years since Peter Weir directed a movie. The Truman Show was a culmination of all his major themes across his work that it seemed like an ending in many ways. Of course, there was always more that could be said about human existence and the power we have over our own lives, but it was addressed so beautifully in that picture. Master and Commander would be Weir’s only film released in the 2000s. The film would be very well received by critics, but at the time, audiences were so focused on more escapist fare, in particular the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. That film would sweep the Oscars, and Master and Commander would be pretty much forgotten by most people.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815), the British engaged with the French on the water. Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) of HMS Surprise is sent to intercept the frigate Archeron as it attempts to navigate Cape Horn to join the fray in the Pacific. Their first encounter with the privateer leaves the crew of the Surprise recovering, both physically and from damage to the ship. Aubrey is not swayed, despite the protestations of the ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). The crew embarks on a series of episodes, humorous and tragic, as they live life on the sea. All the while, the threat of the Archeron looms in the distance. Maturin watches as the biological diversity of the Galapagos goes drifting by them; he yearns to bask in the glory of nature & evolution, which stands in stark contrast to the death & destruction of naval warfare.
I am by no means a military buff. When I read literature related to the expansion of Western powers across the world, it’s often in a nonfiction context and always highly critical of the damage this movement did to humanity. There is undoubtedly a powerful romantic element to stories like Master and Commander. They appeal to a very key piece of cultural conditioning Westerners experience about the divine glory of battle. Unfortunately, the film, much like most films and books of this era, fails to discuss the stakes for this conflict. What were England and France after? What exactly did they want to wrest control of?
The overarching conflict was about French domination of Europe and their colonies. This is why these ships are battling off the coast of Brazil rather than keeping the war “at home.” At one point, indigenous people row out to meet the Surprise and barter their fruits and crafts in exchange for English clothing and novelties. The world feels devoid of life for most of the time, and that tracks with the ocean’s vastness. When you lived and worked on ships like these, you would see simply water & sky anytime you looked out. The encounter with the Galapagos feels like discovering an alien planet in a void. Maturin gets the chance to observe and collect specimens, marveling at the diversity of structures and behaviors. There are flightless cormorants, ancient tortoises, and iguanas that swim and dive for food.
Master and Commander is much more a character drama than a high seas action-adventure. There are certainly moments of intense peril, and the film’s grand finale is a brutal battle between the crews of both ships. But most of the picture is centered on developing relationships and the balance of socio-economic class onboard the vessel. Aubrey and Maturin have an almost Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic. They practice their violin and cello in Aubrey’s quarters, where Maturin is very open about his opinion on the captain’s decisions. That aspect made me think about how these books could easily be adapted into a television series. Events unfold as minor episodes against the grander narrative.
We spend a lot of time seeing how these men, and in many instances boys, live. Their food is poor quality, freshwater is rationed with care, and the ocean is an extremely harsh element in the story. Some of the crew are sacrificed for the greater good, and the tension between the sailors and the officers grows by the day. One officer resorts to suicide when he realizes he’s transgressed against the sailors so badly he’ll be living in paranoia of them slitting his throat every night. We watch as a boy around 12 has his wounded & infected arm amputated at a time when there was no anesthesia. The children are never treated as lower than the adult men. If a boy is promoted to officer, he’s listened to just as a man would be. However, this means the boys will also face the same brutality and harsh conditions as anyone else without any coddling. Some might see this as an age when “men were men” blah blah blah, but for me, it speaks to what abject hell living in such a period must have been. These men endured mental trauma without any quality support besides drinking, and suppressing their emotions is just awful.
This leads to the ongoing debate between Aubrey and Maturin. The latter rules with an iron fist, showing brief moments of warmth to his crew but never letting a single perceived slight pass by. Maturin feels differently and represents his more open viewpoint expressed by the natural world. He comments on how unnatural these human hierarchies are and cites even the hated Napoleon as an example of these oppressive systems taken to the extreme. Aubrey dismisses this as talk of anarchy but knows Maturin won’t lead a rebellion against him. The two men exist in the same class level of the military, so they have solidarity; therefore, they aren’t a threat to each other.
Weir manages to bring in those themes of free will vs. tyranny again. Do people need a person in a position of authority (God, president, captain) to guide them? Or should people have a choice in what becomes of their lives? At one point, Aubrey has to cut the lines of a fallen sail to keep the boat from turning over and sinking everyone. A sailor held onto that sail and was cast out to drown at sea. Aubrey tries to assuage the guilt of a younger officer by telling him you cannot think of yourself as having taken those actions but mentally blame your enemy for that death. There’s much talk of God and Queen but little thought about what that means. I was thankful for the character of Maturin as he pulls the story into a direction that attempts to acknowledge the natural world, which doesn’t live by these structures.
Master and Commander doesn’t feel like a Weir film on the surface. It takes some close examination to see how it connects to the director’s greater body of work, but it certainly does. It’s a shame that this film was so overlooked at the time of its release, but an announcement was made that a sequel is in development, likely with a new cast due to the passage of time. I don’t believe Weir’s name has been attached to it, so it’s expected to be a very different film, probably more in tune with the current conventions of cinema (big special effects, quippy dialogue, etc.). If you haven’t watched this film because you felt like it would be focused more on war than characters, I would recommend you check it out.