Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) — Supreme naval excellence

“England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England.”

Justin’s rating: Twenty leagues of ship-pounding excitement

Justin’s review: Far from any support from their governments, two ships of war battle for superiority. Our hero’s ship is crippled, limping away… but not toward home. A gutsy can-do spirit and a pinch of revenge give our good captain all the motivation he needs to continue the pursuit of the enemy vessel, cause, you know, he’s boss. The two ships tangle a couple more times, the good guys gain the upper hand through some sly trickery, and all the while our captain gets an earful from his rational confidant and chief surgeon.

So tell me: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World? I can’t decide.

While probably far from intentional, Master and Commander kept reminding me, time and again, of that great Star Trek flick. The similarities can probably be traced back to Star Trek’s origins in the fiction of Horatio Hornblower, a sea captain with many of the same spunky qualities that Kirk possessed. So while Star Trek was a futuristic evolution of the military ship epics, Master and Commander seems to draw on the strengths of the best that the old Star Trek had to offer.

While Russell Crowe’s face looks to stretch and shatter any time he puts on an expression other than “determined scowl,” I liked him here more than any other film he’s done to date. It probably has to do with the environment and story more than the actor. I just needed a good seafaring battle flick at this point in my life, even if I didn’t recognize it.

From the get go, Master and Commander rams action directly in your face, keeping the pace hot and heavy for most of this flick. At the start, the H.S.S. Surprise is ironically ambushed by the very ship it was hunting. Brutally damaged, only Captain “It’s a very respectable manly name, thank you” Aubry’s sailing skills keep them alive to fight another day. To the dismay of his crew and best friend/surgeon Maturin (Paul Bettany) — some of whom have newly acquired holes in their body — Aubry announces that they’ll keep after their better-armed prey instead of returning home. Only Aubry’s superior Captainy School education and the crew’s resilience give them any chance other than becoming shark chum. I, on the other hand, have jumped ship in my jet ski, and am scooting away from these rum-guzzling loonies as fast as I can.

In the framework of this chase between the Surprise and the Frenchie Man of War, the filmmakers present us a series of smaller episodes that give us a good flavor for life aboard a military vessel in these times. Young pre-pubescent officers are trained to command the loyalty of men three times their age and weight class; delicate brain surgery is performed to the amusement of all; the Surprise picks up stranded Pippin (Billy Boyd) and makes him their new navigator; new islands are discovered; and the complex relationship between Aubry and Maturin is explored.

Really, I had a great time throughout this whole film. While Aubry never went the whole Kirk yards by shaking his fists and yelling “FRENCHIEEEEEEEEEE,” he’s an admirable character who rises to greatness as the opportunity calls. The atmosphere ranges from the cramped bowels of the ship during a storm to the relieving expanse of shore leave, while thousands of wonderful period details are included to really draw you into it all. The best parts — the battles between the two vessels — are displayed in roaring intensity, and there’s nothing quite like the visceral impact of photon torpedoes, er, cannonballs punching through ships’ hulls.

Major thumbs, toes, noses, and some other body parts that remain nameless under conditions of anonymity up. “The French say that revenge is a dish best served cold… and it is very cold… in the seaaaa.”

Sue’s rating: Smellivision hasn’t been invented yet. Praise be!

Sue’s review: Ah for the days without OSHA, child labor laws, radar, sonar, GPS or HMOs. When a man could leaf through Gray’s Anatomy, have a stiff drink, and call himself a doctor. When pre-adolescent boys had sextants and shoulder boards instead of PlayStation or skateboards. When men were men, kids were men, weevils were part of a well balanced breakfast, iguana-y type lizards swam the Galapagos and albatrosses were a really really poor choice for skeet practice. (Didn’t those sailors ever hear of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”? Duh!)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is everything an ocean-going yarn should be. It has violence, gore (but not too much gore), mizzenmasts, breeched hulls, rum rations and do-it-yourself surgery. Avast, Ahoy, Yo Ho Ho and Woohoo!

But before I go… well, overboard, I want to impress upon you that this flick never made me want to haul out a cutlass and join in the fun. Just the thought of the projected body odor of 197 unwashed souls in a pre-deodorant era was more than enough to scuttle any romantic notion I might have harbored during the opening credits. Old Spice issues aside though, it really was an interesting glance into life on the sea, circa 1805 or thereabouts. Despite the prominent role of Russell “Take me out to the Academy Awards” Crowe, Master and Commander had somewhat less of a Hollywood taint than many an ocean-based tale. (Leo, get down from there. You look absolutely ridiculous.) Crowe’s not exactly my favorite actor or person, but the character of Captain Aubrey fit him like a glove. A glove with extra padding around the middle and reinforced seams, but still a glove. In fact, there was good casting all around, although I didn’t recognize most of the shipboard ensemble. (Not necessarily a bad thing at all!)

I have to give the design and special effects people extra credit too. The finished product looked enough like the real deal to make me want to pop a Dramamine and chug a bottle of Sunny Delight™ to ward off placebo-effect scurvy.

Not that Hollywood didn’t rear up its ugly, unimaginative head, mind you. An enemy bigger, stronger and faster than you are? The amiable aw-shucks secondary character destined for a terrible fate just because the audience likes him? The iron-willed character, the sensitive character and the character with deep psychological issues? An insurmountable task that, hey guys, just might be surmountable after all? The soul stirring “Do it for God / Country / the kids / laboratory animals / the Gipper / (insert inspirational item here)” speech? All present and accounted for, SAH! But that’s fine and expected. I don’t want to pick on this movie too much when it did such a fine job of telling its story and demonstrating just how miserable and complicated things must have been back in the day. The whole rigging sails thing is beyond amazing to someone who can just barely figure out the mechanics of a latch hook rug with Tigger on it.

If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t take the time to catch this one on the big screen. I bet those ocean scenes were probably impressive as all heck. On the other hand, a movie theater is a really bad place to exhibit a predisposition to seasickness, so maybe it’s just as well.

Didja notice?

  • Open-brain surgery is a spectator sport
  • That knuckle-oriented salute had a certain gorilla-like quality to it.
  • If ropes are hemp, and they’re burning lots of ropes… uhm…
  • There’s nothing like kicking back and strumming on the ol’ cello.
  • Broad-leaf parasol. Very trendy and makes an environmental statement too!

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