Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Reviews
The story starts of seeing Aubrey (Russell Crowe) of the HMS Surprise under attack from the French vessel (Privateer) Acheron, the very vessel Aubrey is under orders to seek and destroy basically. The French ship is stronger and faster leaving the Surprise heavily damaged, nevertheless Aubrey carries on with the hunt. The British follow the ship to hell and back through savage storms and freezing weather conditions trying to stop the French from attacking British whaling ships. Eventually whilst docked within the Galapagos Islands they stumble across the French and see an opportunity for attack, but in order to secure victory Aubrey must come up with something devilishly cunning in order to get in close to the French vessel.
Now admittedly this plot might seem dull if you think about it, blokes on old galleons, old fashioned Euro politics, period costumes, stiff upper lips everywhere etc...but you'd be wrong. The movie starts with a bang as Aubrey must fend off the French frigate that appears out of a thick sea fog like a ghost. The flash of multiple cannons is seen in the fog and the Surprise is hit seconds later in an explosion of timber. Men and boys scurry for their lives as various wooden features across the ships main deck are torn apart by the blast, showering everyone in splinters. The frigate emerges from its advantageous position to the shock and annoyance of Aubrey, hundreds of men toil feverishly to get the ships guns primed and ready before the frigate can come about for another attack. Aubrey remains cool and collected as he prepares himself, [i]sharp shooters to the top Mr Howard[/i], [i]stand tall on the quarter deck son, all of us[/i], [i]Mr Boyle, run up the colours[/i], [i]note for the log Mr Watt[/i]...as he is handed his tricorne. The Surprise is hit again and again, men are blown inwards by the shells, cut to pieces by the shrapnel. Those that are still alive are dragged down below for the ships doctor Maturin (Paul Bettany) to try and keep alive in his blood soaked quarters. The two warships are now virtually on top of each other, the Surprise heavily damaged with a smashed rudder. In desperation boats are dropped full of men to tow the lame Surprise as the French Acheron closes in. With luck the Surprise is pulled into another fog bank and manages to evade the French frigate, all is calm.
From this one sequence you can see how much of a rip-roaring epic this movie is gonna be, it also highlights the immense levels of realism and authenticity on display. So lets talk about that, the realism. Well for starters most the of scenes were filmed on a huge full scale replica of the HMS Rose (later renamed Surprise in honour of this film), a ship based on a 17th century 20 gun frigate. Now admittedly you can tell this, or I could, by the way the camera always pans around the hull of the ship and never drops below to actually show the sea, but apart from that this large set on gimbals is amazingly realistic looking from bow to stern. At other times the cast were shot on-board the real HMS Rose to capture some awe-inspiring panoramic shots at sea. Sure I don't exactly know how an 18th century vessel would look, but I have a rough idea like many people would, and what we see here is really impressive right down to the tiniest details. The main deck is a mass of ropes, rope ladders and knots, draped, hanging and looping all over the place. Everything is of course made of wood which naturally seems very fragile but rigid (the fear of splinters plays on ones mind), the doctor uses sand on the blood soaked floor to get a better grip when dealing with injuries, hourglasses are used as a measure of time, and everything is generally very dim because only candles light the way.
Its not all about battles and blood though, much of what we see is simply natural life on-board ship as they sail from point to point. The officers quarters are, as you would expect, spic-and-span with a grand but not overly lavish trim. The ships top gentry may enjoy a fine drink in the Captains quarters whilst discussing their next move, or they dine together whilst surrounded by their lower ranking officers, or the Captain and the doctor might engage in some classical music renditions utilising cello and violin. This one aspect shows their upbringing, their well-rounded, cultural backgrounds, as does their boardroom-esque arguments which often swing from strategy to philosophy again displaying the wealth of knowledge both men have. On the flips side the lower sections of the ship are a much darker, bleaker affair where the grunts sleep in hammocks, space is limited, the air is probably pungent and where sickness most probably spreads very easily, although the top decks wouldn't escape that either. Yet despite this its clear to see that Aubrey is a decent man, a well-rounded, genuine, good Captain who cares for his crew no matter which station. He is of course stern but fair, displaying strength and leadership when needed to keep his men in line and loyal to him, but the crew clearly show they are happy to follow their Captain.
Overall on a visual standpoint this film is damn near perfect as far as I'm concerned. The sets and props are all faultless, the costumes are authentic, every actors hairstyle looks actually genuine, the workings of an old 18th century ship seem spot on, the knowledge of the day medically and universally, and distance shots of the Surprise at sea at various times of the day are breathtaking. The fact they managed to film on the Galapagos Islands was also a notch on the movies belt for sure, the film is chock full of money shots.The film also teaches and informs you along the way too. Its amazing to think so many men managed to all cram on-board a ship like this, that there was actually enough room for them, enough food and water etc...It also shows you how strong men must have been back then, when you see the pitch battle between vessels, wood being blown into millions of deadly splinters, bodies flying, blood, limbs, smoke, the noise etc...How on earth did the Captain manage to keep control?! its incredible how every man knew what to do, each and every one of them all very important cogs and gears in a large machine.
It also gets you thinking about the little things, like what did they do with wet clothes? did they have other spare clothes or were they often wet? Did they really manage to rebuild parts of their damaged ship as we see in the film? At the start the Surprise is hit hard and badly damaged, yet the men toil like worker ants and get it all shipshape again, is that accurate? I did also wonder about the whaling ships too, like why were the French so obsessed with sinking British whaling ships? I'm guessing because they were carrying precious blubber which would later be transformed into oil? Did these ships really have many young, high ranking boys on them? You see a good historical film makes you want to know more.
Director Weir definitely captures the essence of a long period at sea, the loneliness, desperation, boredom etc...But this is alleviated by the addition of subplots which allow us to get to know the various crew members better. This being another of the films plus points, the fact that all the characters are well fleshed out, we see small story arcs , we care about them, from the bottom of the barrel, to the officers. On one hand we have the situation where one of the young officers is having real problems instilling discipline amongst the men, he is weak willed and at times shy, the men do not respond to him and refer to him as a 'Jonah'. Then we have a situation where the good doctor is accidentally shot by the Marine officer (who was trying to shoot an Albatross), and must undergo surgery, performed by his own hand with the help of his friend Aubrey. We also see the doctor performing major surgery on an elderly sailor whom we follow throughout, and we see the conflict between Aubrey and Maturin as one wants to defeat the French, and the other wants to push science. [i]'I command a King's ship, not a private yacht, we do not have time for your damned hobbies, Sir!'[/i]. Finally there is the young officer Blakeney who comes under the tutelage of Maturin and Aubrey but for very different things. The young boy shares a passion for biology which Maturin is happy to encourage, where as Aubrey is slowly instilling a sense of authority and honour into the boy, so he can himself, one day, captain a ship. Both main leads show their true character with this development whilst at the same time showing how they play off each other and the crew.
It may sound a tad boring to just follow this band of men around the seas on-board an old galleon, especially as the movie does have that strong vibe of passing time, but this passage is so thoroughly engaging I fail to see how anyone could not get caught up in the adventure. Especially seeing as the producers even went as far as to change the setting from the 1813 Anglo-American war to the 1805 Napoleonic wars so as not to offend any American audiences (ugh!). Nevertheless this film has pretty much everything you could want, its virtually perfect in every field from visuals to acting to score. A rousing high seas adventure with tense, realistic, heart-pounding action. Grand in scope, and deep on human character.