Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, by Albert W. Vogt III

Okay, this one is a little bit of a passion review for me. In many of the films I have written about thus far, I critiqued the historical events where pertinent. In thinking about what I should look at next, I thought I would turn to an example of a film that gets the history right. Thus I give you Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (henceforth Master and Commander).

I will not give you a history lesson here. Suffice to say, Master and Commander follows the events of the crew of the HMS Surprise, a twenty-eight gun frigate of the British navy captained by Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the ship is tasked with the mission to find, and capture or destroy the French frigate Acheron, which, as it turns out, is a heavier armed ship. Aubrey has a reputation of being a lucky captain, which endears him to his men. It must be noted, though, that the love his men have for him does not mean there is a cozy relationship between captain and crew. It is very much a military vessel, and as the title of the film implies, the decisions that Aubrey makes are final. The only one that can question him is the ship’s physician, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who also is on the voyage as a naturalist (an old school term for an environmental scientist). Yet even his scientific pursuits take a backseat to the prerogatives of confronting the Acheron, much to the tension of the friendship of Aubrey and Maturin. In the end, when the climactic battle comes between the Surprise and the Acheron, Aubrey is able to get his crew properly trained and united to defeat an opponent that outnumbers them.

Master and Commander is based on a series of novels written by Patrick O’Brian, which follows the adventures of Aubrey and Maturin on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars. They are not real people, but instead were invented in order for O’Brian to tell extremely detailed tales of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century naval warfare. I cannot emphasize enough the lengths to which the author went to get right the minutiae of the running of a period ship. Seriously. I have read most of them, and half the time I had no idea what was going on. However, I am happy to report that this all translates well to moving pictures. It is not just the various ropes and the people assigned to man them. Director Peter Weir truly captures the spirit of the times with the language and the lack of privacy in such a setting. If you want to understand what it was like to be a British sailor at the time, I cannot think of a better example than this one.

Christianity, believe it or not, does not well countenance warfare. Anything that results in the loss of life is not a good thing. And there is the whole concept of turning the other cheek. While Master and Commander does not glorify armed conflict, there is a certain enthusiasm Aubrey has for his craft. There is also the kind of anachronistic allusion to evolution made by Maturin when young Midshipman, Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis), asked whether or not God makes animals change in their environment. Maturin responds with an affirmative, but then wonders aloud whether they decide to change themselves. I roll my eyes a little every time I see this scene. Still, I feel compelled to mention that the concept of evolution is not incompatible with Catholicism, either.

Though there are exciting moments in Master and Commander, it does not keep up the excitement throughout. What I am really trying to say is that kids would probably be bored to tears, unless they are history nerds like me when I was younger. You are dealing with a boat that is powered by nothing but the wind, and the wind does not always blow. There is also the non-starter that history usually is for little ones. But if you are looking for a film that can transport you to another time, then this one gets my recommendation.

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