In light of the other more commercially successful film about swashbuckling, this Russell Crowe vehicle, I think, stands up to all three Jack Sparrow adventures and still comes out ahead. Further I think this is vastly under appreciated and although not as marketable or appealing to children as Depp’s Sparrow, it is still a solid and(at times) equally exciting film. In short, it is slow but still paced well and is a rousing, seemingly accurate and impressive sea-faring adventure.
Strip this down to it’s core and you’ve got a oceanic game of cat and mouse. Rooted in a historical period finding France as the “bad guys” commanding the seas like a tyrant, little old England is the single force standing up to them. So with tried and true sailing methods, Capt. Jack Aubrey and crew seek to find and destroy the most notorious ship in France’s Navy. It’s hard to put yourself in the mindset of what it’s like to be on a ship, but while other films focus on the glamor and high times of being a naval captain (or pirate) Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World does a lot to put focus on those “in between times” where it’s pretty much just waiting things out. Funny as it sounds, those sequences prove to be the most engaging.
Capt. Jack Aubrey is such an interesting and charismatic character. As this is 90% “the Jack Aubrey show”, the film has much less to do with the crew. Crowe commands the role which has a likability on par with Maximus (although admittedly his hair is ridiculous). Aubrey walks a tightrope of sternness and kindness to great success leading his men and keeps them battle-ready and their morale high…even in very dismal and gruesome times/conditions. Bettany’s Dr. Stephen Maturin plays very well off Crowe and their polar opposites as far as views and hobbies make them unlikely friends but they play off each other so well. Stephen provides Jack the one bit of true companionship as he sometimes has trouble deciding on making his navigating the waters of his friendship vs. his orders.
While Master and Commander never tried to be Michel Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer in a boat, what Peter Weir did was take a slower, tighter and more brooding look at an oceanic period piece. The film progresses slow but the pacing is actually quite terrific. Aside from Bettany and Crowe, going the lesser known/unknown route to round out the cast was a good choice. That way the crew kid of faded to the back putting more prominence on the stars and their interactions. Those sequences, shot in the cabin, felt cramped and later the wide shots worked gloriously to take in the abundance and magnificence of the ocean. While much of the film was void of action, the sounds (e.g. creaking timbers and the waves lapping on the boat) went a long way in selling the feel of the film as well as the stunningly simple score.
With a budget of $150 Million (and you might not think it was that high watching this) the production crew did the damn near impossible task of recreating the ships of that era. Vintage looking uniforms, and props that look to stolen from the Smithsonian and every element on screen oozing with seeming authenticity Master and Commander successfully made a convincing period piece. Similarly the action pieces (though few and far between) were gritty and on par with something like Saving Private Ryan. This all worked and contributed to completely envelope you in the experiences.
I may be making more of this than most others think about Master and Commander (this film lost money after all) but I adore this film. Not one for period pieces, and further period piece “chess games”, Master and Commander still works. The huge catalyst though, I believe, is Crowe and what he did in the role. This isn’t “Gladiator on Water” as I think some might have expected but actually it’s one of his very best roles. Even if he wasn’t acting I could see Crowe being a leader of men. The only thing holding this film back from getting more attention is in fact the presence of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. As the vast majority in 2003 was hypnotized by Depp’s hybrid of Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew, Master and Commander is the superior oceanic film…even if I’m the only one that thinks so.