Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World--based on the 20-novel naval adventure series by Patrick O'Brian--plays to director Peter Weir's strengths. The man who made Gallipoli and The Mosquito Coast (among more commercial outings like Witness and The Truman Show) has the scrupulousness and imagination to capture the seafaring age in unflinching terms which approximate reality without infringing on our movie dreams. While letting his characters explode with patriotic pride, Weir takes the story beyond mere adventure: Master and Commander can be read as much as a shrewd accounting of natural conflict and militaristic folly as a celebration of patriotic, martial craft.
O'Brian's novels follow Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon Stephen Maturin through adventures in the 19th-century English navy; in adapting the books, Weir finds a kindred spirit in each man. Aubrey, played by the estimable Russell Crowe, turns a piercing eye to the enemy (the Napoleonic French empire) and holds fast with an obsessiveness that transcends his military imperative. He is master (demanding strength, respect, and discipline equal to his own) and commander (a leader wise enough to know his men where they live and be personable when circumstances allow). Paul Bettany's Maturin displays expertise as a doctor, but seemingly identifies more with his pasttime of zoology--he's a Darwin disciple in waiting. Weir, too, has a fascination with our nature in the world which remains "subject to the requirements of the service": he can explore his themes as long as they don't interfere with his orders. Like Aubrey, Weir charges beyond his orders: he'd rather make a great film than an exciting movie.
To our benefit, Weir makes Master and Commander both. In the historical context of the turn of the 19th century, the story exhaustively delivers all that we expect from a strenuous, sea-bound crusade, beginning and ending with underdog battles pitting Aubrey's ship the H.M.S. Surprise against a newfangled French frigate called the Acheron, with twice the speed, artillery, and manpower of our heroes. Cat-and-mouse strategy fuels the plot, the long shadow of Lord Nelson cast over a faceless enemy. Stormy weather rears its ugly head, as do high-spirited drinking songs and raucous dinners, confidently slung nautical jargon, brutal injuries, and gruesome medicine. The cutlasses also come out, but Master and Commander is decidedly not of the Flynn school. The whirling-dervish hand-to-hand combat has the dark intensity of the Braveheart school, shot close and edited quickly (to pick a nit, a more expansive view of the action sequences would not have gone unwelcome).
Beyond the purview of gut-level theatrics, Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee find humanistic grace notes, beginning with a study of the deep bond and noble gestures of friendship and compatriotism between Aubrey and Maturin (Crowe and Bettany make music together, literally, in string-duet sessions). Passing through the Galapagos Islands anticipates The Origin of Species by several decades, while inviting talk of God's hand in the world versus man's self-direction. The filmmakers consciously contrast nature and human nature, the epic grandeur of the film repeatedly telescoping down to the regarding of a beetle.
Finally, Weir quietly undermines English pride with a critique of war. Though the film celebrates the zeal for king and country reflected in battle cries like "For England, for home, and for the prize!" one might see gentle mockery of the crew's insistence on repairing the ship's figurehead when time is of the essence and pausing to raise the Union Jack before pouncing in a surprise attack. On one hand, each clash buys the freedoms of the individual and the glories of an empire at the expense of heroic self-sacrifice, but at the end of the picture, as bodies slip beneath the Union Jack unto the sea, we understand the victory to be Pyrrhic. Weir savvily takes pains to remind audiences that the enemy is us, from Maturin's comment that the enemy "fights like you, Jack!" to Aubrey's own discovery of the French captain's sheet music in the debris of a battle. One can only hope that this ideally engrossing and intelligent action epic will spawn bountiful sequels.