Master & Commander:
The Far Side of the World

directed by Peter Weir
(20th Century Fox, 2003)

It took only seconds before I felt I was at sea.

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World does a superlative job of recreating the look and feel of a British naval voyage in the early 19th century. From the creak of the rigging to the roll of the deck, it feels real -- and, speaking as a lifelong landlubber, that's saying a lot.

This compelling movie, adapted loosely from Patrick O'Brian's novel of the same name, doesn't flinch from the realities of long sea voyages in those proud wooden ships -- up to and including weevils in the food, dangerous superstitions, brutal shipboard discipline and the gory finality of the ship's surgery.

The mission in the movie is to intercept and capture or destroy the Acheron, a superior French frigate that's taking Bonaparte's war to harry British whalers in the South Pacific. The Acheron and HMS Surprise play a tense and deadly game of cat-and-mouse as they cruise the oceans east of South America, 'round Cape Horn and through frigid Antarctic waters and, finally, in the mysterious seas surrounding the Galapagos Islands.

Played by Russell Crowe, Jack Aubrey is a staunch and noble sea captain, resolute in his duty, solicitous of his crew and determined to find his foe at any cost. A brilliant strategist, he can be tender -- for instance, in his care of an injured boy in his command -- and ruthless, as when he orders the lines cut that threaten to founder his ship but cost the life of a loyal crewman.

Aubrey is balanced by the scientific-minded ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin, who is played with sensitivity and equal determination by Paul Bettany.

The ship is manned by a diverse lot; while only a few stand out distinctly, the ensemble combines forces to give the ship a sturdy and credible crew. Some of the more memorable member's of the Surprise's complement include James D'Arcy as 1st Lt. Tom Pullings, Lee Ingleby as the luckless midshipman Hollom, Richard McCabe as surgeon's mate Higgins, Chris Larkin as the blustery Capt. Howard of the Royal Marines, David Threlfall as captain's steward Killick, Billy Boyd as coxswain Bonden and Max Pirkis as the young, uncommonly brave midshipman Blakeney.

With so many characters, it's a testament to director Peter Weir, who (with John Collee) adapted O'Brian's novel, that we come away from the movie feeling that we know them so well. This movie is about ships, yes, but people, too.

The movie is oddly paced, with long periods of inactivity punctuated by flurries of action. But, while some have complained about the pacing, it helps bring home the feeling of long days at sea when, truly, little would be happening besides whatever minor entertainments (music, dancing, games) the men could produce. It's hard not to share their frustration when the wind suddenly stops blowing, when rain (and fresh water) is a distant memory.

When action does occur, usually following the sudden appearance of the Acheron, it's intensely fast, furious and devastatingly real. This is no shipboard fantasy or faux pirate adventure; it's an exhilarating recreation of life and war at sea, and it features some of the most grand, realistic seafaring scenes ever filmed. Master & Commander is a glorious epic with a human heart and a grand sense of style.

Highly recommended!

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 26 June 2004

Buy it from