|Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World (Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 20 April 2004|
A movie that seemed somewhat ponderous and a little slow in theaters comes to vivid, exciting life on home video. Even though the giant wide screen was the best place to see the handsome photography, somehow viewing the film at home enhances the claustrophobic feel of the movie, and enables the viewer to get closer to the characters. This now seems like the best movie of 2003, a high water mark in Peter Weir’s notable career.
It makes excellent use of surround sound. It did in theaters, too, but again, the more confined area of a living room seems to better match the confined area below decks of the HMS Surprise. You’re enveloped in the creaks of the wood, the groans of the ropes and the sounds of the men, awake and asleep. The ocean, just outside those oaken planks, is always nearby, and always makes itself known. In the well-chosen handful of deleted scenes, the men aboard the Surprise are terrified by mysterious wails and moans coming from the sea. Today we recognize them as the songs of whales, but in 1805, few knew whales made noises like that, and the echoing sounds are mysterious and terrifying.
Weir wanted his movie to be as close as you could get to experiencing life aboard this relatively small warship (28 guns, 197 aboard). In the supplementary material, he explains that on each set, he wanted objects actually from British ships that served in the Napoleonic wars, to serve as touchstones for his crew. He also explains that he chose the cast with great care, trying to avoid “modern” faces as much as possible. A brief supplemental scene shows how good modern teeth had to be darkened to look like the frequently rotting teeth of the early 19th century. Costumes were made of specially woven fabric; props were aged, and an entire ship was built to use in that giant tank in Mexico constructed for Titanic. A separate ship, the Rose, was redressed to look like the Surprise for scenes shot at sea.
It will come as a surprise to many to learn that the company shot at sea for only five days; the movie takes place almost entirely aboard the Surprise, but the waves and even the ship itself were created by the use of miniatures and computer graphic effects. There are, in fact, more CG effects in “Master and Commander” than there are in “Van Helsing.”
It’s all to bring to life on screen the characters created by the late Richard O’Brian in his well-loved series of novels, twenty in all, about Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and ship’s surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin. Weir and his dedicated team have achieved this splendidly, but since the film only did well rather than being a major hit, it’s not likely that any of the other O’Brian novels will be given this epic treatment.
Like all great epics, “Master and Commander” is both sweeping and intimate. The movie begins after the Surprise has sailed to the coast of Brazil; Captain Aubrey’s orders are to seek out the much larger French privateer the Acheron and capture her for King and Country. But though Aubrey is a great seaman, the captain of the other ship knows his way around the sea, too, and emerges from the fog unexpectedly to attack the British ship, badly damaging it.
After the Surprise makes her getaway, the officers assume that Aubrey will return to port for repairs, but instead he lays over in shallow shoals and has his ship’s carpenters make emergency repairs. Then he sets sail in quest of the Acheron, which is heading around stormy Cape Horn to the Pacific. If it is successful in controlling Pacific shipping, Napoleon will win.
The story of the movie is very simple and straightforward: Aubrey’s ship seeks out the other and, at the climax, meets it in battle, an amazing scene. There are no false human dramas, no one who’s about to retire but gets killed instead, no scenes aboard shore except in the Galapagos Islands. Maturin has been wounded, and Aubrey, knowing his friend is a dedicated naturalist, has put ashore for Maturin to recover and to do a little biological research. Some of these scenes really were shot in the Galapagos, a first for a fictional movie. Unexpectedly, a discovery that Maturin makes enables Aubrey to come up with a means of tricking the French captain.
The story could hardly be more straightforward or more plainly told; it’s in the details and his perspective that Weir triumphs. We do get to know other members of the crew, on their own terms; they are all thrown together in this enterprise, and for the most part handle it well. But they’re superstitious men — one of the deleted scenes depicts this — and they soon come to think of the eldest (30) of the midshipmen as a Jonah, a cursed soul who brings bad luck to his shipmates. Even Aubrey, and finally the midshipman himself, come to believe this, tragically.
Some of the midshipmen are as young as 12; Blakeney (Max Pirkis), who’s at least that young, loses an arm in the early battle. Weir keeps him around as an important supporting character, a way of depicting certain elements. When Maturin has to cut off the boy’s damaged arm, we see sand strewn on the deck to sop up the spilled blood. To ease the boy’s suffering, Aubrey — who is always attentive to his crew, and loved by them — he presents him with a biography of the worshipped Lord Nelson, another seaman with only one good arm. Blakeney goes ashore in the Galapagos with Maturin, and in the big battle at the end, Aubrey turns over command of the Surprise to the awed boy.
But the film really focuses on the friendship between the very dissimilar Aubrey and Maturin. Aubrey is so much a sea dog that it’s as if the ship itself were his kith and kin, so much of his blood has been spilled on her decks. He’s a masterful commander with one goal in sight: to accomplish the ends of his assignment. He’s not sentimental about his men, but he does care for them, looking after them, taking part in some of their activities; in a deleted scene, he helps turn the capstan to raise the anchor. He’s always present in every battle; this is what he lives for, and wherein his genius lies.
Maturin is another type altogether; he doesn’t much care for the military life, but is instead a modern man, doing the kind of research Darwin became famous for some years later. Yet he and Aubrey are good friends — it’s obvious in every scene they share — and at times play duets, Aubrey on the violin, Maturin on the cello. (Amusingly, the crew is not fond of this music.) The result is that the score for the film, by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti, matches in style the music by Bach and Mozart (and others) played by Aubrey and Maturin. It’s not the sweeping, salty, song-of-the-sea score that you’d expect from a movie of this nature, but it’s entirely appropriate.
Russell Crowe is excellent as “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, as good as he has been in any film. It’s not an easy role to play, partly because the script by Weir and John Collee requires him to be something of an actor on stage at all times. It’s never clear if Aubrey relaxes thoroughly at any time, other than when he’s playing the violin. (Crowe did learn to play it for the movie, but that’s not his playing on the soundtrack.) Perhaps at the dinners for the ships’ officers, where he occasionally makes silly jokes (“The lesser of two weevils”). But that too is part of what Aubrey has to do to maintain command of the ship: he must be seen as human, but in charge.
The DVD comes equipped with well-produced, even witty, supplements — the lettering announcing each is exactly in the style of books of the early 19th Century — but, oddly, there is no commentary track by Weir or by anyone else. The deleted scenes are especially well chosen, and anyone buying or renting this disc is urged to check them out, particularly the one entitled “Shipboard Life,” which shows many details of the men’s life aboard the Surprise. There are segments on the special effects, on the concept of adapting the novels — Weir says he first had to shake out most of the words — and the usual stills, trailers and production art work. One segment is particularly interesting: Weir shot many of the sequences with multiple cameras; the DVD allows you to view the footage shot of some battle scenes by each of the many cameras involved, or to see all the footage at once for the scene.
I hope that those who were somewhat disappointed at seeing “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” in a theater will give the DVD a chance. It’s an outstanding accomplishment in every regard.