The movie Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World often pops up on lists of “Most Underrated Films,” and I agree, it’s a fine movie that deserves to be seen more. But coming out at about the same time as Pirates of the Caribbean (late 2003), it got scuppered, or whatever is the nautical word for getting lost in the backwash of another ship.
The movie is based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian, who was known for his detailed portrayals of 19-century naval life. The books Master and Commander and the Far Side of the World are part of a 20-novel series.
The title signals that we are going on an adventure, and the sense of being whisked away to another world and time is one of the things I love about this movie. As a Russell Crowe fan, I loved seeing him as Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, master and commander of the HMS Surprise, and enjoyed seeing life aboard this early nineteenth century man-of-war. An Oscar for Best Sound Editing went to Russell Boyd, who recorded realistic sound effects for the battle and storm scenes. So not only are we seeing this other world, we are hearing it.
Plot-wise, Master and Commander is set during the Napoleonic Wars, when England was under threat of invasion. The captain plays a cat-and-mouse game with the French war vessel, the Acheron, pushing his men and his ship to their limits, as they sail around South America, often on stormy seas. On board is Dr. Stephen Maturin, an amateur naturalist, who hopes to stop at the Galapagos Islands to study their natural history. The growing friendship between the captain and the doctor forms an enjoyable subplot to the naval adventure.
At the end of the movie, the captain and the doctor sit in the captain’s quarters and play music on their cello and fiddle, indicating that peace has returned to the ship. Then, suddenly omnipotent, we see the ship, sails billowing, turning to the far horizon. What adventure will be next?
To learn more about nineteenth century naval life and history, read Jack Aubrey Commands: an Historical Companion to the Naval World of Patrick O’Brian by Brian Lavery, and Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: the Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World, edited by Richard O’Neil.
Note: The sound track of Master and Commander is worth borrowing–over the years it’s earned four and a half stars at Amazon–so that you can listen to the music again . . . and again.