A review/case for the movie Master And Commander: Far Side of the World

The last time I defended/reviewed something was when I wrote about one of my favorite novels, Gary Anderson’s Animal Magnet (http://thelitpub.com/human-animal-nature-through-a-generational-family-saga/). I did it, not because I’m a book reviewer, but mostly because I really wanted to have conversations about it with other readers. The same goes here with Master and Commander. I’m not a movie reviewer. I’m a film nerd and one thing I love more than watching movies in a theatre is talking about the movies that have made an impression on me.

Like Conan the Barbarian (and not to be compared movie-wise though! Totally different genres and reasons!), Master and Commander is on my top list.


“We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.” – Arthur C. Clarke (from the essay Space and the Spirit of Man, 1965, verified in Greetings , Carbon Based Bipeds! Collected Essays, St. Martin’s Press)

I’m not much of a sea person. I’m a landlubber. I get seasick easily. My fondest memories of the sea though, are of swimming in the Carribean sea in Cancun, Mexico and dipping my toes in the Atlantic Ocean when my family roadtripped out to Daytona Beach one summer. The buoyancy and warmth of sea water gliding and surrounding my skin as I swam felt comfortably queer; ie, much like experiencing anything that is supposed to be pleasurable naturally for the first time.

It’s a romantic and a much more doable reality to voyage the sea than exploring space for any layperson, but for me it’s a quaint idea. Like I said, I get seasick and I am not an experienced sailor. Ok so my latest poetry book is about octopi and sea life, but it reflects a world I explored through Jacques Costeau documentaries and National Geographic specials. The realm of the unknown is fascinating and  full of possibilities, but it is also fraught with danger, especially knowing it as a stage for great historical battle and conquest.

At the top of my head, I have three sea films that made a huge impression on me as a movie goer: Fellini’s E La Nave Va (The Ship Sails On), Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (I would put The Bounty in there, but I’d have a hard time choosing which version I liked the best since I haven’t seen any of them in forever). This post is about the latter which is a historical sea period piece.

Ultimately I have a few things I require in a historical sea drama to even consider watching it: (besides a great cast/director or crew that I have admired in the past): 1) The no-brainer: it needs to be available to me. 2) It has to be either cerebral or a tad cerebral. 3) Interesting film techniques (ie experimental or daring). 4)It has to have a different take on a familiar plot or story. 5) It has to have a great attention to detail.

It was available to me: I don’t remember exactly why I bought the dvd. The sight of old sailboats and a giant Russel Crowe on the cover didn’t appeal to me. I do remember the movie getting a lot of praise though. It might have been on sale because it was a few years after its release that I actually saw it. Weir’s “Dead Poet’s Society” is a film I loved, but vowed never to see again purely because I related too much, coming from all girl’s school, (oh the tears the tears) to some of its subject.

It has to be cerebral: The movie is based on the twenty novel series novels by Patrick O’Brian. Most of the Master and Commander movie is comprised of the relationship of the crew of the HMS Surprise and its Captain, most particularly the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey (played by Crowe) and the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin (played by Paul Bettany). The two converse and feud like friends do; their arguments are provocative and their genial moments touchingly relatable.  All in all, however, the HMS Surprise and its crew become the centre of the film. Struggling through storms and trying to outrun and outgun a respectable enemy in the French warship Acheron.

A ship makes for a most natural vessel  (besides the human body – swimming) as a means to satisfy the very human curiosity to explore the unknown, but it  makes for an almost supernatural monster of war. Canon firepower, blood shed for blood’s sake, and defending human-made borders is not indigenous and it is a pollutant to the world of the sea. You don’t see sharks defending their territory with gun powder or octopi in swashbuckling fist fights (although I would pay to see all of that. MAKE IT HAPPEN. Preferable with monocles and top hats, please.).

Thus wars at sea are inherently cerebral because it is a battle taking place in a world that is meant for exploration. It’s a challenging setting. Evolution says we came from the ocean, yet we know very little of it. We may have mapped it out as much as we can, but our bodies can not withstand the pressures of its depths. The doctor, Stephen Marutin, becomes an unwitting precursor to Darwin here. The crew’s lives depend on their doctor, but at heart, the doctor is the explorer on the ship. And as is the case in history, war takes precedence over discovery and thus the explorer is suppressed in the time of battle.

It’s an interesting conflict between the stubborn Aubrey and the gentle Marutin, but one that is necessary for the stability of the ship. You can’t be a battleship without a great captain and you can’t be an innovative crew without a scientist.

Interesting film techniques: I spent most of my time watching Das Boot marvelling at how Petersen used the camera in such a small environment.

“Most of the shots were filmed using a hand-held Arriflex, with a gyroscope to provide stability. This was cinematographer Jost Vacano’s design, a reinvention of the Steadicam on a smaller scale, to enable the camera to be carried throughout the interior of the mock-up. Vacano outfitted himself with full-body padding, to minimize injury as he ran the length of the boat and as the mock-up was rocked and shaken” – uboat.net

In Master and Commander, although not set in a submarine, Weir had to create the illusion of cramped quarters for the HMS Surprise. Despite it’s use of CGI, I wasn’t keenly aware of the special effects used. To me it just looked like brilliant camera work. However, as per Weir’s need for realism, he accomplished this with both hi and lo tech effects:

Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, has a total of more than 750 visual effects shots, comprising an incredible combination of CG, miniatures and live-action, full-scale vfx. The effects work by Asylum, Industrial Light & Magic and Weta, is seamless, makingMaster and Commander the most visually authentic seafaring epic ever produced. Completely unlike last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander eschews theme park fantasy for dead-on accuracy. As visual effects supervisor Nathan McGuinness states, “It was important to Peter that this film never look like there’s digital work done to it. It had to look organic.” – awn.com

I’m a sucker for long tracking shots, especially when it mimics a bird flying overhead. This movie has a few of those that I enjoy. It also has a touch of experimental/avant garde feel to it at the beginning: showing us the sea as the void of space. There’s more, but I’ll have you explore that yourselves.

Oh, and the soundtrack is used sparingly if at all, which in itself is the sign of a good film (Hello Country for Old Men). When it is, you forget it’s there. It does its job to bring out suspense and sense of adventure, but it’s part of the character of the life of the ship.

It has to have a different take on a familiar plot or story: Man fights other man. INSERT EPIC BATTLE HERE. Man wins or is defeated. It has all of that, but what comes with war at sea, or any battle set in that era, is that there were rules that aren’t entirely so black and white today. In Das Boot there’s a pivotal scene where the crew, especially its Captain must face a moral/ethical challenge. No one is to be left to drown at sea if there is a chance to save them. We face something like that here. There are some moral and ethical challenges because of those rules, but the trick in this story is for the times they were framed in. The enemy is treated with a respect and awe for his cleverness and ingenuity and that respect is also paid back. We don’t tend see much of that in plots set in today’s world and maybe it’s the lack of simple courtesy that we forget to detail in film.: Holding doors, saying hello, or letting someone pass in traffic. Do we put these things in war films now? Good battle films don’t just show the heart and drama, they show the details in character for its subjects and plot.

What I see in war in history pieces is that they were set in war times. There are no clear war times in modern day society. Today we have acts of aggression masked as war, but because there is no formal declaration of war we see “grey areas” such as Guantanamo Bay.

(Also, my heart went out to the Jonah of the ship. But that’s all I’m saying here.)

It has to have a great attention to detail.: I get so caught up in this movie that I forget a crucial thing to tell people about Master and Commander and it’s all summed up thusly: There’s a long tracking shot that shows the crew going about its duties on the ship which has just passed through a snowstorm. Some of the crew are constantly painting and repairing the ship, others are attending to stations and on lookouts. Among all that chaos, in this one sweeping shot, there’s a full out snowball fight going on deck. It’s a delight to see.

Do I really need to tell you about the awesome costumes and hats that denoted proper rank or the fine detail in the rope of the ship?:

“About 27 miles of rope was used on the rigging of the replica Rose. Most of the rope had to be made especially, as modern day rope has a right hand lay (the direction the strands run in) whereas it would have had a left hand lay in Napoleonic times.” – imdb.com

Master and Commander fulfils my criteria for a period sea piece and it’s such an entertaining film at that. I have only been able to illustrate in minor fragments its greatness here because I didn’t want to give away too much. I wrote this post mostly as a response to some of my film buddies hesitation when I suggested it as a film they’d enjoy. I think it may be the fear of swashbuckling adventures? I give them that there is a bit of swashbuckling in this, but it’s not The Pirates of the Carribean type. It’s more of the Die Hard type and speaking of Die Hard, Master and Commander does have a bit of the iconic moments that compel you to quote it.

“No, that’s just dried blood. THOSE are his brains.

I laugh every time that scene comes up.

(WAIT A SECOND. If I google for Die Hard to add a link, why the hell are Die Hard’s sequels showing up and NOT the original Die Hard? I am sorely disappointed.  – Edit: I see it now as the second hit and in my blind rage failed to see it. I get a tiny bit defensive over Die Hard.)

Master and Commander isn’t a perfect film, but it is a great film. When I first watched it, I had found that I had buried myself so deeply into its story that I dreaded it finishing. When it did it didn’t leave me wanting more, rather I wanted to be back there with the crew. It’s like they sucked me in and spat me back out into reality. Nooooo! No more exploring, no more battles, no more stories of true heroism and cowardice. I enjoy movies, books, or shows that paint a picture of humanity in the times of adversity: it’s where we can witness the best and worst in ourselves. It’s also where we are thrown together and become equals for a common purpose. I find it unfortunate that we find little bouts of peace with each other in times of war. The fact is we should be banding together for a greater common purpose: peace. However, as Arthur C. Clarke put it in 2001:

“Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials – these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.”

When I read that quote to my son, he responded with:

“I think the world would find space to be very exciting. If we did more space exploring, we’ll forget about war, and maybe war will stop.”

Ah, I remember believing that once too. I still do, but it’s hard these days not to be cynical about it.

P.S. I might have to write a Conan the Barbarian review. Might.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s