MASTER AND COMMANDER:
THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

Directed by Peter Weir. USA. 2003.


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After a certain roman epic, whenever antagonistic antipodean Russell Crowe bestrides the silver screen like a colossus we will be treated to the same tired comparisons: "It's Gladiator in the jungle!" (Proof of Life) "It's Gladiator in Harvard!" (A Beautiful Mind) and so on and so forth.

Fortunately, perhaps, Crowe is actually a decent enough actor for these convenient synopses to one day drift away like so many Napoleonic frigates. For now, though, it is hard to resist declaring: "Master and Commander? It's Gladiator on water!"

This film is definitely a return to the good old-fashioned Hollywood epic storytelling which Ridley Scott exhibited so successfully in Gladiator, rather than the dull, unconvincing Oscar-baiting of A Beautiful Mind. Moreover, its director Peter Weir is similar to Scott in that he comes very much from a background of cult success (for Scott's monolithic Blade Runner read Picnic at Hanging Rock) which ushered him gradually into the mainstream.

He is not as prolific as Scott, though, with an almost Malickian record of three pictures in the last decade. The general impression was that, post the so-so romcom Green Card (hey, every auteur should have at least one stab at revivifying such a supposedly inferior genre, viz Punch Drunk Love), Weir is only setting his stall out to make films with a capital F, which qualify as art with a capital A.

So does the $135-million, two and a half hour M&C qualify as such? Well, maybe.

It is superbly crafted: the battle scenes are as proficient as they all are these days (witness the gruesome beginning to Cold Mountain); the photography, particularly when the ship reaches the Galapagos islands, is beautiful; and the acting is superb, from chubby old Russ himself down to the excellent Max Pirkis as Blakeney, a young amputee Lieutenant (oh, thankyou whoever discovered anaesthetic...), more of whom later.

It's a Film then, yet the film's attempts to qualify as Art might be seen to fall agonisingly short. The Truman Show managed to be moving, satirical and prophetic, whilst Fearless was existential in the extreme. M&C certainly displays an interesting dialogic central theme: Jack Aubrey's headstrong pursuit of the superior French ship versus the inquisitive epistemological stance of his surgeon Maturin dramatises the classic Action/Thought dilemma (with the two meeting halfway to play string duets.) Yet, ostensibly, the film does not explore this thread sufficiently: Maturin's persistent rational opposition never really enlightens us as to why Aubrey is so driven to reckless action; he simply remains a wilful, proud and, importantly, lucky leader.

There is also a concurrent theme of seafaring superstition, but this could also be dismissed, as it seems nothing more than a plot device, as well as a brutal reminder that you are EVER so lucky not to die at sea clutching a cannonball.

However, it is when these thematic strands overlap that the film becomes far more provocative. Shortly after the unfortunate Hollom has plunged to his doom and it finally rains again, we see an officer attempting to shoot down an albatross, the undoing of the Ancient Mariner. Bizarrely, he accidentally shoots Maturin ("The bird flew too low!" Yeah, right...), drawing obvious parallels with Coleridge's fateful bird. Would the mission be doomed were it not for Maturin's presence? Is the man of letters presiding over the fates of the able seamen?

Thereafter, Aubrey does end up compromising to save Maturin, and even utilises natural tactics to finally defeat The Acheron. Perhaps he ultimately recognises the alliance of brawn and brain is essential for success; perhaps he embraces his own albatross, as it were. The impression certainly is that he, and therefore the ship, would indeed be lost without the surgeon.

Where these themes find their ultimate synthesis, though, is in the aforementioned Blakeney, a protege of both men being groomed as a future captain. Indeed, he is predicated as more than this: a great future captain. Parallels are clearly made between him and the deified Nelson by Blakeney's early amputation. Furthermore, not only is he going to be the greatest captain and a budding naturalist, when it comes to superstition he places himself squarely in the field of rationalism by rejecting the final stitch through the nose that was traditional for sailors being buried at sea. (Then again, this might just be plain squeamishness, but that undermines the argument somewhat...)

Blakeney, with his future as a rationalist yet swashbuckling neo-Aubrey mapped out, ties up the central themes of M&C neatly and crystallises its message or, indeed, dilemma. Thought and action must be balanced for a successful military career and, by extrapolation, life. Rationalism vs. Impulsiveness: it's a theme that resonates through Hamlet and beyond and one we can't escape.

We might also supplement this argument by examining the implications of the proto-Darwinian theme and seeing how the most adaptable men come through, but this does not hold water. The ship conveniently acts as a microcosm, but here it is not survival of the fittest by any means - it is pure luck whether the cannonball hits you or your partner, or whether the mast you've been posted on blows off in the storm. Maybe this illustration of chaos serves to add a postmodern twist, counterbalancing the humanist-animalist-superstition triumvirate by illustrating you can choose either A or B, you can touch wood or not, but control will forever be just an illusion.

Unless of course, you happened to be Russell Crowe - he's not going to get hit by a cannonball is he? Unless he actually does play Hamlet next ("It's Gladiator in Denmark!").  There are no Elysian fields in Shakespeare, that's for sure - the best you're gonna get is a couple of ghostly hauntings.

Anyway, most might argue that M&C cannot rise above the constraints of its source material and format and be anything other than a ripping yarn, but if you look hard enough there is food for thought alongside the fruity storytelling. Whatever we conjecture, it's a good Film. And if elephant dung and flickering lights are Art, then so is this. Go see.

Peter Anderson
 
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