The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Master and Commander

Written by: Jonathan Lipman, CC2K Staff Writer

Ruddy complexions, real choices 

Never have so many people with bad skin been seen on the big screen (or your small screen) as in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

If I were a fan of, say, The Wedding Planner, this might bother me. After all, what are the movies for if not convincing us that all people in this world are actually made of convincingly dyed latex?

Instead, I choose to be a fan of movies that try to tell us about life, either through fantasies that exaggerate some elements of the human condition to demonstrate the underlying truth, or through the much harder task of actually portraying life as it is. 


Also the chief inspiration for Wing Commander IV


In most movies about war striving for realism, the soldiers and sailors are portrayed as gritty by giving them a beard. That’s about it. One scraggly beard on an otherwise still-movie-star face and you’re got instant grittiness.

By comparison, you’ve got Master and Commander, where it appears Russell Crowe’s face has had a close encounter with a sandblaster. I hope they wrote something into his contract warning him up front that he’d get none of the usual blemish-covering makeup that is every star’s dearest friend.

The other faces in the movie are even more wrecked than Crowe’s. There’s a bit on the DVD where the casting people said director Peter Weir sent them out to find “real” faces. For most directors, getting “real” means driving all the way from Los Angeles to, say, Encino. But Weir’s people apparently went to the actual far side of the world.

For fans of this world, this time in history, Weir’s production is a real treat. I grew up reading C.S. Forester’s much beloved Horatio Hornblower series, similar to Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, but with a more self-effacing and emotionally complicated protagonist. Watching this movie, my biggest regret was that Hornblower himself wasn’t striding the quarterdeck, rasping at his men.

But that aside, it’s exciting to finally see the epic struggle of the British navy against Napoleon get the full-on Hollywood treatment. It’s been done half-assed a dozen times, but the last time a full-budget Hollywood picture depicted this era, it was a young Gregory Peck serving as captain.

There’s a lot that can be claustrophobic about such a movie – after all, it is the story of 150 men cooped up in a very small wooden ship. Even taking into account the different spaces available in the ship, your characters will forever be stooping under deck beams.


SHIT! I thought that was the chain for the bidet.


But Weir manages to capture this claustrophobia as intimacy, displaying men’s natural ability to make any environment their home if forced to. And at the same time he captures the immeasurable freedom of an independent vessel at sea, armed to fight and equipped for speed. Exquisite blue expanses of sea, bizarre island landscapes and limitless horizons that stretch the screen give the picture a beautiful sense of dangerous adventure.

This movie deals with the choices that come with such freedom and the consequences that result from that forced intimacy. Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey has the freedom to chase his quarry, an enemy French ship, around the entire coast of South America. But in the end, he can’t escape the blood and pain of the men cooped up with him.

It’s this dichotomy that Weir exploits in his admittedly scattershot and sometimes overwrought plotting. Having never myself served in a 19th century man-o-war, I can’t vouch for how outlandish some of his plot contrivances are. But it does seem that nearly everything you’d expect to go wrong does go wrong at some point or another. Weir’s bold decision to start the story without any introduction of characters, as if this were just an episode in a really good TV series, doesn’t always pay off. It’s hard to understand why Paul Bettany’s nature-loving doctor is so upset about a canceled safari until much later in the movie. Yet while the plot seems to lurch from crisis to crisis without much of a rest (with the exception of some well-crafted dining scenes in the captain’s wardroom), Weir manages to leave his characters genuine. All the performances – Crowe’s brash yet emotional captain, Bettany’s conflicted and cerebral pacifist, and a brilliant turn from newcomer Max Pirkis, as the wounded boy midshipman whose courage inspires all of them – manage to retain a level of honesty in the melodrama.

This is possible only because Weir manages to convince us that the melodramatic is commonplace. As in his Gallipoli, Weir recognizes the maxim that the unnatural becomes natural in war. Playing cricket on a deserted island is only to be expected. Unknown lands are only as interesting as the women they contain. The crew’s greatest sadness is not for the men killed by flying cannonballs, but for the single hand lost to a storm.

For those who wish they could set sail with Aubrey, it is well to remember how many of his crew meet similar ends by the movie’s finish.