Master and Commander is based loosely on the novel of the same name by Patrick O’Brien. It follows a voyage on board HMS Surprise commanded by the unyielding but well respected Captain Jack Aubrey. The ships orders are to hunt down the vastly superior French frigate Acheron, it is believed that this in turn will hamper Napoleons presumed attempt to capture Britain. I believe that in the original story the hunted ship is American or possibly Spanish, but this was changed to a French ship for the film adaptation for Hollywood reasons. A classic example of an insanely deluded nation rewriting history to it’s own ends, anyway that’s for another time.
There are two main reasons that this film is not just another Hollywood blockbuster, the first and probably most important is the absence of the ‘Love interest’ storyline. Women appear only briefly in the film, and even then only for a few seconds with no speaking roles. As I sat down to watch I was hoping that producers wouldn’t squeeze Nichole Kidman into the captains cabin and turn the whole thing into the Far sodding Pavilions. No girls allowed, I wasn’t disappointed. Secondly was the tasteful use of special effects. I think that the reason that so many modern films appear so formulaic is there reliance on explosions and ridiculous stunts. Older films tended to use a combination of suspense and insinuation that tend to wear less on the viewer. In this film the storm and battle scenes are subtle, expertly created and entirely plausible.
Apart from diverting from the original storyline as noted above, the attention to historic detail pays off handsomely in this film. When I was younger I always wondered why canon balls exploded when they are made of solid Iron. The answer is of course that they don’t, it’s just easier to make an explosion than to depict what actually happens when a canon ball makes contact with wood. All this is presented as a refreshing change from the usual tiresome end of film explosion sequence.
Captain Jack Aubrey is played by Russell Crowe, who despite the odd dodgy bit of musicianship brings the character to life in an expert manner. In fact the acting is good throughout, and I think a lot of this is the result of the welcome lack of silly humour that can find it’s way into films. The Captain’s relationship with the ships surgeon is also worth mentioning considering that they play off each other throughout. Dr Stephen Maturin, played by Paul Bettany, is a hobby naturalist who longs to immerse himself in the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. This rubs continuously with Aubrey’s more straightforward Naval role and makes for a good storyline. My favourite character was Lord Blakeney, an inquisitive child officer of no more than 12 who has his arm removed without an anaesthetic. As the film progresses he becomes a competent officer whose unbroken voice can be heard shouting orders in the heat of battle. Brilliant.
Ultimately it’s the romance of it all that did it for me, it’s all I could do to hold the tears back when Aubrey orders “An extra ration of Rum for that man…” . Okay, it can get a bit silly, men charging about with flowing hair and swords shouting about honour and defending England. But I couldn’t help but get sucked into its carefully constructed storyline, characters and the romance of Navy life. It reminded me a bit of playing war in the woods as a child, and there was no girls allowed the either! The soundtrack is superb too, there being no better composer to accompany the high seas than Ralph Vaughan Williams. Best scene? Lord Blakeney boarding the French boat and fighting off a gun crew with one arm – unbelievable but fantastic at the same time.
Okay so it’s not going to win any prizes at Cannes, but who cares when it’s a fine piece of well crafted entertainment.