Lost in the Fog: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

In 2003 a swords and cannon, swash-buckling epic was released into the cinema. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl made the pirate movie popular again in a way that it hadn’t been since Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Pirates of the Caribbean owed at least as much to Flynn’s pirate movies as it did to the theme park ride upon which it was based. Johnny Depp briefly managed to make alcoholism, nervous twitching and staring off into the distance look cool. Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom where also part of the cast. Now, in 2017, we are up to the fifth movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. A franchise which has declined in quality with each installment. Depp’s Jack Sparrow seems less innovative and more like a parody of a parody of a parody.

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In that same year another movie sailed quietly past – Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, it was critically acclaimed. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. It won two, best cinematography and best sound design. The other eight went to Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, or from here on just Master and Commander, is the story of a small frigate, HMS Surprise and her journey around the Horn into the Pacific in pursuit of a French privateer. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars and based on the series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. The movie stars Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Dr Stephen Maturin. The rest of the cast (or ship’s crew if you like) slip so easily into their roles that it is difficult to imagine them as actors rather than sailors.

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A common misapprehension about Master and Commander is that it is nothing more than vehicle for Russell Crowe. Just another historical action movie to follow on after, and cash in on, the success of Gladiator (2000). This is simply not true. It is true that Crowe’s star power was central to the marketing of the movie and this is perhaps unfortunate because Master and Commander has much more to offer. Gladiator, although an action packed and entertaining movie makes no real pretence of historical accuracy or authenticity. Let us not do Gladiator an injustice – 5 Academy Awards, 4 BAFTAs and 2 Golden Globes, Gladiator’s success and quality speaks for itself. However, it is at its heart an action film cast in the mould of a historical epic and lifting its plot almost scene for scene from The Fall of the Roman Empire (1968) directed by Anthony Mann. Master and Commander is a more complex story, told with greater depth and with a more dedicated eye to the setting and source material.

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There is an obvious comparison to be made between Master and Commander and Captain Horatio Hornblower RN (1951). Hornblower is another seafaring movie set during the Napoleonic Wars and adapted from a series of famous novels. Adapted in fact by the author of the original novels, C.S. Forester. The movie stars Gregory Peck, Virginia Mayo, Robert Beatty and Terence Morgan. Hornblower is a beautifully made film and well worth exploring in its own right. But what Master and Commander takes an entire movie to explore in detail Hornblower covers in the first half hour along with a map assisted prologue. Hornblower is a story about the career progression of a single officer from adventuring frigate captain to national hero and knight of the realm. Master and Commander is the more complex story of an entire ship’s company, facing dangers together and centred around the relationship between two friends. In that way Master and Commander is more like Das Boot (1981) with its focus on the overall mission and its feeling of authenticity.

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The story structure of Master and Commander is harder to pin down. As well as the relationships among the crew there is the cat-and-mouse game between the crew of the Surprise and a more powerful French privateer, the Acheron. However, unlike The Enemy Below (1957) where the contest between the two ships is immediate, constant and for the entire movie the presence of the Acheron is most often a distant threat, less immediate than the threat from the environment. Master and Commander’s story is a journey into a harsh environment which is bookended by two incredibly violent battles. Something like the story structure of The Wild Bunch (1969). There are also story similarities to that other great seafaring movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Aubrey and Maturin could be Kirk and Spock/McCoy better acted and in another time and place. Both films include two battles, the first an ambush and the second won by trickery. In both a ship escapes a more powerful adversary in fog. Clearly Master and Commander uses themes which are common to many seafaring stories.

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The Making of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World by Tom McGregor is an informative and well produced book for fans looking for more detail about the production. As might be expected from a film which won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Design, Master and Commander looks and feels about as close to real as a movie can. You can feel the spray, smell the salt water and feel the heave of the deck. Peter Weir as director and Russell Boyd as cinematographer create a wholly immersive experience. These are seasoned artists working at the top of their game. Weir’s back catalogue is impressive, including Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Gallipoli (1981), Witness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986). He and Boyd had previously collaborated on Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli. Weir puts the camera right in the midst of the action. The camera is steady and focused using none of the shaky-cam or fast editing tricks which threaten to ruin many recent movies. You can feel the influence of Braveheart (1995) or Saving Private Ryan (1998) when cannon shot rips through the scenery or when sailors are pressed in brutal hand to hand fighting.

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Master and Commander is shot to emphasise the quality and detail of the production design. This is a movie upon which four major studios collaborated, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Miramax Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films. It had a budget of around $150 million. Compare this to Curse of the Black Pearl at about $140 million and Return of the King at about $95 million, and then remember that Master and Commander is a period-set war movie which is not designed to appeal to teenagers or children. In a world where people complain that Hollywood spends huge budgets on endless superhero films, Master and Commander was an attempt to start a big budget franchise aimed at thinking adult audiences. Every shot in the movie uses layers of depth and scenery to create a sense of scale, a sense of the environment and a sense of the claustrophobic confines of the ship. Also, the angle and direction of shots are used to emphasis both the movement of the ship and the moods of characters. This keeps the dialogue both taught and subtle. The whole production from the costumes to captain’s silverware reeks of authenticity (nominated for Academy Awards in Costume Design, Art Direction and Visual Effects) and digital effects are used in subtle ways which a viewer might never consider. Try spotting the sword-fighting stuntwomen dressed as male sailors.

A discussion of Master and Commander requires some consideration of the music. The film uses a mixture of original score, classical music contemporary to the setting and folk music to develop mood, character and emphasis relationships. Recognisable folk tunes are played to emphasise class distinctions on board the ship, something we’ve seen before in Titanic (1997), as well as tensions between officers and crew. Aubrey and Maturin play cello and violin together to transition the audience between chapters of the story. Bach’s Suite No.1 in G major – prelude leads the audience into beautiful landscape shots of the Galapagos Islands. An exploration scene worthy of any science fiction film. Boccherini’s Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid leads the audience out of the film on a buoyant and playful note. The original score is most notable during moments of tension or as a prelude to the thunder of battle but it never intrudes and the characters are allowed to speak for themselves.

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There are weaknesses in the movie to be sure. At times the story structure seems quite episodic and some of the episodes are more interesting than others. A fan could look to the DVD extras or on YouTube for the deleted scenes. Watched end to end, the deleted scenes amount to something like or just longer then the movie itself, an indication of the wealth of material contained in Patrick O’Brian’s novels. Patrick O’Brian wrote twenty and a half novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin (the half because he sadly died in January 2000 leaving book 21 incomplete). The story in the film does not appear in any of the books but uses a huge collection of scenes and details from almost all. The most obvious omission being that at least half of the plots of the books takes place on shore involving either the domestic relationships of Aubrey and Maturin or Maturin’s career as an intelligence agent. The film, in that sense, is more focused on the experience of a ship at sea. This method of adapting literature will always split fans. Should the books be reproduced faithfully? Should the books be used as source material and adapted to the medium of film? Only the quality of the final product can decide, just ask Peter Jackson.

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Will there be or could there ever be a sequel? This question has been the subject of speculation on the internet since the film was released. The ending, while not exactly a cliff-hanger, certainly leaves the door open for more. However, this was a feature of the books and the conclusion is certainly satisfying enough not to disappoint. According to Wikipedia Russell Crowe has encouraged fans to campaign on Twitter for a sequel. There is certainly enough material. Of the combined plots of twenty books the film barely scratched the surface. Several movies could be made about Maturin’s intelligence activities without ever setting foot on a boat again. However, the chances are slim. For four studios to cooperate in that way again, in this time of uncertainty when Hollywood is desperately throwing money at superhero franchises and movies about car racing, to assemble that budget and talent for a film with no appeal to children, it seems unlikely. The legacy of the success stories of 2003 have been a series of Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the Hobbit films. Is there a place for a sequel to Master and Commander? In the words of Dr Stephen Maturin, “I would like that of all things.”

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