Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) Director: Peter Weir
“Do you not know that in the service … one must always choose the lesser of two weevils?”
In my view Master and Commander is an under-appreciated masterpiece of 21st century film-making. It was nominated for many awards upon release, but as with all other movies released in 2003 it was greatly overshadowed by The Lord of the Ring: The Return of the King. Additionally it was eclipsed by 2003’s other big swashbuckling maritime adventure Pirates of the Caribbean. With incredible visuals, extraordinarily accurate sound effects, a classically-infused score, wonderful performances both for English gentlemen as well as gruff seamen, and a pitch-perfect script, Master and Commander is a cinematic experience par excellence. We get a sense of the gritty, cramped, seasick lifestyle aboard a British Naval ship during the Napoleonic Wars. We see sorrow, injustice, and tragedy, as well as victory, humor, and satiety. Here is a film that reaches for lofty heights, showcasing the full range of the human condition, and indeed it forces us to contemplate and appreciate the complexities of successful leadership in an unpredictable world.
The plot is based on three novels in Patrick O’Brian’s famous twenty-book nautical adventure series often called the “Aubrey-Maturin” series. The film follows the H.M.S. Surprise, a ship in the Royal Navy headed by a charismatic and respected sea-dog named “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), a man who once sailed with the revered Lord Nelson. Captain Jack’s austere respect for discipline and authority is contrasted with his friend, the eternal skeptic-yet-idealistic surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). The film opens with the Surprise in the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean. Silhouetted frames of men raising the sales and claustrophobic cabins with cannon preparations indicate to us the Surprise is prepping for battle. The Surprise has been tasked with intercepting a French man-of-war called the Acheron (in allusion to Greek mythology), however the Acheron quickly ambushes the Surprise off the coast of Brazil. The destruction is widespread, and the Surprise is only able to escape in a thick fog bank by using a decoy boat. The success of the escape is attributed to “Lucky” Jack.
The crew of the Surprise makes repairs and prepares to head round the storm-tossed seas of Cape Horn at the tip of Southern America, hoping to arrive at the Galapagos islands where Captain Jack correctly predicts the Acheron is headed to attack British whaling vessels. However, this is merely the overarching plot, there are many delightful vignettes that give us a sense of 18th century life on the high seas. Master and Commander‘s pacing allows us to experience meals with the crew, rumors that spread about an ill-omened “Jonah” named midshipman Hollom, discipline and punishment for recalcitrant crewmen, a variety of different boys serving as midshipmen, various forms of music played aboard the ship, sea chanties sung by the men and boccherini played by the officers, brutal amputations following scenes of battle, and an accidental near fatal injury to Dr. Maturin that follows an ordinary day of hunting. In response, Captain Jack abandons the chase of the Acheron. He returns to the Galapagos where Dr. Maturin receives proper medical treatment for his wound (as well as an opportunity to indulge various Darwinian inquiries at the Galapagos). As it happens the Surprise soon discovers the whereabouts of the Acheron. They disguise themselves as a whaling vessel before springing a trap and attacking the French ship. When the assault is complete, Captain Jack is informed by the ship’s doctor that the French captain has been killed. The Acheron and the Surprise make repairs as the Acheron is sent back to Valparaíso, but Jack is soon informed that the French Captain has once again deceived him -he was in disguise as the doctor the whole time. The Surprise makes haste to escort the Acheron to Valparaíso, and Dr. Maturin is once again denied the chance to study the flora and fauna of the Galapagos (Captain Jack coyly remarks that the flightless bird Dr. Maturin seeks is not going anywhere).
Master and Commander is meditation on the nature of political leadership in the vein of Lord Nelson, as reverence for duty and tradition are contrasted or perhaps compared with the natural world of Dr. Mturin’s studies. In the film the H.M.S. Surprise becomes a metaphor for the ship of state, and as the amusing joke at the outset of the film indicates, a leader must regularly consider the “lesser of two weevils.” The path is not always clear cut. Sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (such as losing a shipman in a storm, or allowing a chastised “Jonah” to take the blame), and sometimes the needs of the few outweighs the needs of the many (as in the case of Dr. Maturin’s injury). Sometimes survival requires disguise (as in numerous encounters with the Acheron). A capable leader is a rare breed, as exemplified in the case of Captain Jack contra Mr. Hollom. Even out at the far side of the world, there is a kind of natural law and order that must be maintained, however Master and Commander is not an explicitly message-driven movie, it carries no vulgar lecture or cheap moral lesson. Instead Master and Commander subtly introduces us to complex ideas and allows us to consider them, weigh their merits, and better understand the burden of leadership in the face of unknown outcomes. There are many allusions throughout the film to Bligh, Cook, Treasure Island, Horatio Hornblower, and even Western-themed episodic stories like Wagon Train or Star Trek. All things considered Master and Commander is really a wonderful film.
As of June 2021, a prequel to Master and Commander is being planned by 20th Century Fox Studios.