Friday, May 14, 2021

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (2003)

I can't watch this movie without grinning.  And by that, I mean grinning through about 90% of it, and clasping my hands in mute, loving anxiety for the other 10%.

I grin because I absolutely adore the two main characters, love four or five others, and am exceedingly fond of most of the rest.  Hence the anxiety whenever they're in Terrible Danger, which they are pretty often since this is a tale of daring deeds and derring-do on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars.  

I also grin because I've read all 20 of the books in the series this is based on, the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian, and the filmmakers captured them absolutely perfectly.  I'd actually read most/all of the books before this came out in 2003, and I remember taking my brother to see it on his first Thanksgiving break from college and just reveling in how exactly right they got every single thing.  Every character, every personality quirk, every nuance.  Completely and absolutely true to the books.  (He probably got really tired of me leaning over and whispering my glee at how perfectly they had captured yet another tiny detail.)

Well, everything except the plot, which actually cobbles together a series of adventures from several of the books.  People who read the book Master and Commander and then hear me say this is the most perfect book-to-movie adaptation I have ever seen... usually growl at me.  Because the plot doesn't come from that book, which is the first in the series.  A lot of it comes from a much later book in the series, The Far Side of the World.  Which is why the title includes that as well, but people seem to miss that?  I guess?  Whatever.  They absolutely, positively, indisputably captured the characters and the world and the essence of the series.  

First of all, you have Russell Crowe playing Captain Jack Aubrey, a bulldog of a naval officer who unswervingly pursues his enemies in pursuit of... well, in pursuit of glory and riches as well as the good of the British Empire, it must be admitted.  That's what keeps him from being a one-note, cardboard cutout of a hero.  He's Lucky Jack, hero of many an engagement with long odds and high rewards.  But he's also very human and feels the loss of crewmembers keenly.  He's like a benevolent but steely-eyed father for everyone on his crew, basically.

And then you have Paul Bettany playing his best friend in all the world, Dr. Stephen Maturin.  Stephen is a real physician who has been to real medical school, not a mere surgeon, aka some guy who knows how to sew up wounds and dig out bullets and amputate limbs.  (His role/rank aboard ship is technically Ships' Surgeon, though.)  This makes him something of a celebrity to the crew because if they get wounded, they get to be operated on a guy who has at least a reasonable chance of knowing how to put you back together properly and isn't just guessing.  He has a quick Irish temper and tends to try to play Jiminy Cricket to his friend Jack whenever he displays what Stephen considers to be dangerously high hubris.  Stephen is an amateur naturalist and also (though this doesn't play into the movie at all) often a spy for the British government.  

In the books, Jack and Stephen met at a concert in London, where they annoy each other so much, they end up almost fighting a duel over their differing ideas of how to enjoy fine music.  I wrote a Femnista article last year (read it here) about their meeting, it tickles me so much.  Anyway, it turns out that Stephen plays the cello and Jack plays the violin, and they spend their evenings aboard ship playing duets because they think it's fun.  And eating toasted cheese, because who doesn't like toasted cheese?  (Well, aside from my ridiculous 11-yr-old daughter...)  The movie has multiple scenes of them enjoying music together, and the soundtrack is just marvelous as a result.  Russell Crowe actually learned to play the violin just for this movie, and I assume Paul Bettany took some sort of cello lessons too, since they both look pretty credible.  I do know that Bettany learned how to use 1800s surgeon's tools so he'd look credible doing bits of surgery.

Anyway, the plot revolves around Aubrey's ship, the HMS Surprise, pursuing a French ship, the Acheron, which is trying to get around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean so it can harass English ships there and disrupt their trading.  Along the way, various adventures occur.  Stephen gets to visit the Galapagos Islands, which delights him because he can collect lots of rare specimens there.  (They actually filmed most of that part on the Galapagos Islands, too!)  There are multiple naval battles, with lots of cannoneering and hand-to-hand fighting and tricky nautical maneuvering.  It's very thrilling and fun to watch, though my m-i-l found the battles really hard to follow when we watched this with her years ago, so your mileage may vary. 

Besides Jack and Stephen, I also love Barrett Bonden (Billy Boyd), Lt. Tom Pullings (James D'Arcy), and Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis).  And Jack's steward, Killick (David Threlfall), who's always grumpy and hates the music that Jack and Stephen play, and is so fiercely loyal to his captain that I want to hug him.  Plus, he's the one making the toasted cheese, and if you've ever had toasted cheese, well, you understand how that could make you love a guy.

If you like the Horatio Hornblower movies or just love stories of heroic deeds done by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, definitely give this movie a try.

Is this movie family friendly?  Well, it's rated PG-13 for "intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language."  There's a LOT of violence because it IS a war movie.  Characters you care about get hurt.  Surgical things get not-entirely-graphically portrayed, such as an arm getting amputated just out of shot, or a guy getting his brain operated on.  And there's a very tense scene involving extracting a bullet from someone's abdomen.  The language is overall pretty mild, but there's one F-bomb.  There's a drowning and a suicide, and a pretty intense storm sequence.  I would say it's fine for older teens.  There's no innuendo or steamy scenes because there aren't any female characters at all, aside from a couple of native women briefly seen selling fruit and parrots from canoes.  They're all decently clad.

This has been my final contribution for the Epic Story Event hosted by Heidi at Along the Brandywine, which has been going for weeks now and ends today.  Nothing like squeaking in at the last minute with one last post, eh?


  1. Ack this movie! I saw it for the first time over the winter and found it to be great fun, and now I kinda want to try the books/watch it again.

    1. Miss Megan, I don't blame you for wanting to see it again and try the books! It's soooooo good.

  2. I haven't seen this one in forever, but I remember that it was really good.

  3. "This makes him something of a celebrity to the crew because if they get wounded, they get to be operated on a guy who has at least a reasonable chance of knowing how to put you back together properly and isn't just guessing."

    Apologies for my dark sense of humor, but this line made me cackle. xD

    Also, is that YOUNG Paul Bettany? He is ... very handsome?? I did not know this???

    1. Katie, well, I *meant* it to be funny, so... yay?

      And yes, that's Paul Bettany 18 years ago. I actually think he's quite handsome now, but he started to be really good looking right about here. If you want reccs for other earlier (pre-Avengers) movies of his that are worth watching, I totally love him in A Knight's Tale and Inkheart. Wimbledon is a quirky and fun romcom too.

    2. It was indeed funny, I enjoyed it ;)

      I think he's handsome nowadays, too! I just hadn't imagined him younger and with more hair, haha.

      A Knight's Tale looks fun! I might watch it.

    3. Katie, lol! Yes, more hair indeed.

      A Knight's Tale is really fun. Light and funny and quirky.

  4. I loved this movie! My dad, who is a huge fan of the books, watched it with me a couple of years ago. I think it was the beginning of my OBSESSION with ship movies.
    I read most of the first book, but stopped right before the last chapter, for reasons that I now don't remember??? I mean to read it again, it just...keeps getting pushed out of the way by everything else on my TBR.
    (Also. I had no idea that the guy who played Stephen is also Vision, and I am tickled to DEATH.)

    1. Samantha, well, if anything was going to kickstart an obsession with tall ship movies, I can imagine this would be it!

      The guy who played Stephen is also Vision/the voice of the Jarvis AI... AND the guy who plays Lt. Pullings played Jarvis the butler on Agent Carter. I find that awesome.

    2. Ha! That IS really awesome!!

  5. You know, I've only seen this movie once, when it came out in the theater. Odd, considering how much I love Russell Crowe. I also find it odd I never read these back when I was burning through all the Hornblower books, etc. Somehow they didn't cross my path!

    I, of course, went, what on earth is toasted cheese and had to google it. Um,yeah... I don't know about that! Unless it's sort of like a grilled cheese sandwich?

    Fun review!!

    1. DKoren, but why? It's Russell! On a ship! I'm kind of shocked. Maybe something else came out right then that nabbed your attention instead?

      So, the toasted cheese I've had is actually called "bread cheese," and it is kind of like a grilled cheese sandwich, except you replaced the bread with more cheese.

  6. Randomly reporting confirmation of Dana Andrews perching in Assignment-Paris, which I watched last night.

    Also, I think I went to see Master and Commander at the cheap-ish theatre where I used to live about a year after it first came out (since it was the second-run cheap-ish theatre.) And I seem to remember that yes, it was fun! Last year I read two books in the series and would have read more except I didn't have any more. (This was during the no-library stage of pandemic stuff here and I was delving into the dusty boxes of neglected somewhat older books in the family library.) I'd add the rest of the series to my library list now that the library is open again, but I've forbidden myself from adding anything until I can read down the virtual stack on my 'to be read' pile significantly!

    1. VT, hahaha! Dana Andrews and his perching. Watch Laura and look for all the perching sometime -- it's like, every scene he's in, practically. He will toss his hat onto the seat of a chair or a sofa and perch on the arm. It busts me up.

      I miss second-run theaters! When I was in high school, my friends and I saw stuff for like $1 alllll the time. So lovely.

      I hope you love the series, when you read the rest :-)


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