Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Scott Tobias on Peter Weir’s seafaring epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
A lot of movie history’s most famous “what if” scenarios are simply not true: Ronald Reagan was never considered for the Humphrey Bogart role in Casablanca. Tom Selleck’s contractual obligations with Magnum P.I. had always kept him out of the running for the lead in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Shirley Temple was never on the verge of the career-making moment bestowed upon Judy Garland for The Wizard of Oz.
Yet there is one alternate-universe that’s worth pondering: What if Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir’s extraordinary seafaring adventure, had been a massive hit in 2003 — and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, an effects-choked adaptation of a Disney theme-park ride, had quietly sunk to the bottom of the box-office ocean? What if we were still watching sequels based on Patrick O’Brian’s novels about “Lucky Jack” Aubrey, Dr. Maturin and their crew sailing through the Napoleonic Wars and beyond? What if Disney and other studios were discouraged from betting large on brand-extending spectacles dense with CGI and impenetrable mythology? (Does the Marvel Cinematic Universe have a place in that future? Does Johnny Depp?)
That’s not the world we live in, of course. In our reality, audiences awarded Pirates a hearty $650 million at the box office and four sequels (and counting). Meanwhile, Master and Commander got the consolation prize of simply being one of the great studio-produced epics of the 21st century. Stand the two films side by side, and a pitched battle of digital vs. practical effects, broad comedy vs. dry wit, a plot that could fit on a square of toilet tissue vs. one that could fill an entire roll. The HMS Surprise, that modest corvette that our man Aubrey (Russell Crowe) leads into David-and-Goliath struggle against a French privateer twice its size, could probably smash the Black Pearl into digital splinters as surely as a cannonball through a hull. But with the value of hindsight, the conflict between the two films feels more significant, like one set of cinematic values being replaced by another. The only cold comfort is that victory for the Disney film was an inevitability, a shift in the culture of moviemaking and moviegoing that was too big even for Lucky Jack and his savvy mates to overcome.
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So what are those values, anyway? The first is economy. The opening titles are pared-down sentiments (“Oceans are now battlefields,” an elegant four-word descriptor for the fight against Napoleon) and stats (“HMS Surprise, 28 guns, 197 souls, N. Coast Brazil”). There’s really not much to the story, either: Aubrey and his men are under orders to stop the Acheron, an immense and well-managed French ship, from expanding Napoleon’s reach to the Pacific. That’s it. The adversaries parry off the Eastern coast of South America, down through the Galapagos Islands and around Cape Horn and back again; they only engage in three pitched battles, with oceans of downtime in between. Though culled from three Aubrey-Maturin novels by Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee, Master and Commander is admirably stripped-to-the-bone, with zero interest in looking beyond the range of a telescope. Yet the life-or-death decisions necessary to win this conflict open up an exceptionally rich understanding of leadership, camaraderie and the advancement/destruction cycle that defines the human struggle. It doesn’t have to melt your brain to be complex.
Then there’s the film’s physicality. Much of its generous budget was poured into recreating the look and feel of an early 19th century man-of-war, including the use of full-scale replicas at sea and in large tanks at Baja Studios in Mexico. Such heavily reliance on practical effects is increasingly rare — the Mission: Impossible franchise been able to carve out a niche by seeming like a novelty — but registering the boom-crack of cannons shredding masts or ships listing from the stress of a storm is only the half of it here. Weir opens the movie with the dread-filled ambience of men sleeping in hammocks below deck, the creaking of the fixtures echoing against the sloshing of the water below. He emphasizes the penned-up livestock on board to keep them fed, the immensity of the ropes and the boom and the mainsail, the scurrying of lookouts up and down the mast on a pre-dawn shift change. The film is as interested in the culture and environment of living on a ship for months at a time as it is about steering it into battle.
Master and Commander stages three confrontations between the Surprise and the Acheron — the first a devastating sneak attack from the fog that nearly wipes out our hero’s ship, the second another clever assault that Aubrey evades through a decoy, and the last an audacious ploy to fool the enemy into attempting a capture. Each one of those battles has its own unique tension and flavor. But the film lives as much for the stretches in between the firefights, when Aubrey works to steady wavering morale and makes some hard decisions. Some play on his conscience, like choosing to let one man die to preserve the lives of many others. Others test his friendship with the ship’s surgeon Maturin (Paul Bettany), who’s more compelled by discovery than conquest.
The give-and-take between the captain and the doctor — and the opposing forces they represent — are at the heart of Master and Commander. On one level, it’s a story about the sacrifices men make for each other; on another, it’s an exploration about the conflicting impulses that drive the human species. A detour to the Galapagos Islands is, for Aubrey, an opportunity to patch up the ship before resuming the fight. But for Maturin, it’s a naturalist’s treasure, a chance to sketch and sample some unique evolutionary wonders. He bitterly accepts a shortened first visit to the islands — he believes, with good reason, that Aubrey’s pride is leading them into a fight where they’re drastically overmatched. When the officer brings him ashore for a second and longer stay, however, it’s the sawbones who willingly cuts it short after spotting the Acheron. They respect the roles they each have to play, even if it often puts them at odds. That’s real friendship.
Seen today, the film feels particularly resonant as a study in leadership. Aubrey is responsible for the lives of his men, a notion which informs big, agonizing decisions like allowing one of them to drown or continuing to fight a superior vessel. Or it can inform more nuanced decisions, like keeping the liquor flowing when it seems to be igniting bad morale. A subplot involving Midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby), a well-meaning but ineffectual leader who’s disrespected by his underlings, is a tragic counterpoint. Aubrey wants him to enforce discipline and earn respect, yet Hollom’s weakness and incompetence is viewed as a curse on the ship, one only dispelled when he takes his own life. The commander isn’t an authoritarian or an egotist, neither a brute nor a pushover. He’s a master strategist in war, but striking the right tone with his own men is arguably trickier. And if he gets them all killed, as Marturin warns, well … that’s on him.
The weightiness of these themes — and the lugubrious mass of the vessel herself — can make Master and Commander sound like a grind, especially compared to the swishy swashbuckling of Captain Jack Sparrow and the ghouls aboard a haunted pirate ship. But the film is hugely entertaining, a high-seas buddy picture that squeezes in running jokes and puns between the rip-roaring battle sequences. The two detours to the Galapagos are so unexpected and whimsical in a story of naval warfare, yet they inspire an awe that’s distinct from the tension and violence of a well-executed melee. Audiences should have wanted to see a sequel where Aubrey and Maturin continue their pursuit of the Acheron because it’s fun above all, and wouldn’t take on the baggage of franchise mythology. They’d just chase their rival over the horizon, and the thrill of adventure and discovery would follow.