Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
May 30, 2018 9:29 PM - Subscribe

Russel Crowe and Paul Bettany play Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, Captain & Doctor respectively of the frigate Surprise, ordered in 1805 to sink, burn, or take as prize the French Acheron. The Acheron may be a Yankee-built super-frigate of forty-four guns, but she's still vulnerable at the stern, like the rest of us. An adaptation of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin historical fiction series, directed and co-written by Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock).

"Master and Commander" is grand and glorious, and touching in its attention to its characters. Like the work of David Lean, it achieves the epic without losing sight of the human, and to see it is to be reminded of the way great action movies can rouse and exhilarate us, can affirm life instead of simply dramatizing its destruction.
-- Roger Ebert (He is a fan of the novels.)

Weir is less surefooted as a screenwriter. Having not read any of O'Brian's novels, I can't say if the fault is in Weir's adaptation or in the source material, but halfway into "Master and Commander," the friendship of the captain and the doctor begins to seem schematic, as if all the positive traits that an individual could have were divided equally between these two guys, just so they can argue. Their interaction takes on a preening quality, reminiscent of the interaction of the "Star Trek" characters four or five movies down the line. We come to realize that the specific adventure matters little except as a showcase for these personalities.
-- Mick "Often Wrong" LaSalle

All in all, Weir and his collaborators have produced a film that, despite its visual impact, is ultimately untrue to the original. There is, of course, no ban on an artist significantly reworking material for a different medium. However, O’Brian’s canvas, which contains healthy doses of intelligence, humor and compassion, has been cut and trimmed to suit the current retrograde political and cultural climate.
-- World Socialist Website

This is posted as part of the Aubrey-Maturin Book Club.
posted by fleacircus (29 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've never read the books but I've seen this film in a quiet Sunday afternoon watching whatever turns up on the telly kind of way. It's altogether enthralling except where the great leaden presence of Russell Crowe casts itself all over the other characters and the amazing cinematography like a great big blanket of alkaline porridge. It's odd because for the longest time you don't know what it is that's off, why all the assembled ingredients, which are demonstrably impressive, aren't quite hitting their mark. It's like tucking into a delicious meal where one of the crucial ingredients is just past it's 'best by' date.

I guess no one would have said that in 2003, so every other thing about the film gets blamed.
posted by glasseyes at 5:33 AM on May 31, 2018

I found this fairly forgettable in the theater, aside from impressive sound design on the cannons that gave the impression of almost being able to feel the impact of their shots. That's the only thing that stuck with me.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:45 AM on May 31, 2018

This remains one of my favourite films of all-time, although I am admittedly an enormous fan of the books, and am currently on my third read-through (currently on The Fortune of War). The cinematography and sound design are both stellar, and it is not a film that works well on the small screen. The flaws in the screenplay, I think, come down to trying to cram some 6,000 pages of material into a couple of hours--plot points, bits of dialogue, and characters from nearly every one of the 20 novels make it into the film at some point--and from focusing on what is ultimately the smallest part of the books, which is to say the naval combat.
posted by Fish Sauce at 10:33 AM on May 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

It is disconcerting to read about Aubrey/Maturing on Metafilter without once encountering the phrase "disgusting British empire."
posted by seasparrow at 10:33 AM on May 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

What I remember most about this film was a surprising phantom gut punch at the end when Captain Aubrey read the list of the dead, and came to Midshipman Calamy. His death really bummed me out and stayed with me instead of the jaunty fun adventure against the deceitful French surgeon/captain that the filmmakers wanted to stay with us.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:51 AM on May 31, 2018

Accidentally filmed this with the saturation knob down 20%.

They do a good job with the ship stuff, though they never really seem to be doing any kind of maneuver, they never quite look like they're sailing (the time when they're going along at high speed is in stormy seas at night so conveniently there's nothing to see, just darkness and rain machine stuff). That's okay I guess, but where's my bow wave, where's my phosphorescent wake etc. I loved the interior shots, I love Jack's defensiveness about the Surprise's age as he pats the lintel. The broadsides and cannon fire were good. I like the shot of the hammocks all close together at the beginning so that they don't even look like people.

Killick came across best. D'Arcy can be Pullings I guess. PIPPIN IS NOT BONDEN. Allen was bizarre casting but a completely different character anyway. Higgins was also a completely changed role, but w'ev since the whole love triangle of death was discarded, and his sticking his hand in the firing mechanism of the cannon was quite funny. Everybody loves Lord Blakeney, the one armed Lord who loves milkshakes. But that was never Joe Plaice. Hollom (the guy who drowns himself) would have been good casting for the book Hollom too IMHO, though he's not a midshipman aboard, and ultimately he's not the one who goes down a Jonah, and the wind certainly does not go back into the sails the moment people make nice to God about it. And so on and so forth, etc. PIPPIN IS NOT BONDEN THOUGH.

Beyond that stuff... the tonal difference between the books and the movie is so deep that it's really a difference of meaning. It's almost like Starship Troopers but flipped. I wouldn't call the books pro or anti anti anything, exactly, but they are subversive in their honesty and cynicism. The movie is propaganda by comparison.

I didn't like the yielding Maturin in this, and I don't like this Jack Aubrey, glowing with light and fatherliness, instilling sincere lessons about leadership everywhere he goes. They even had to give Jack the kill shot on the Acheron's mast which was coming it a bit high. In 2018 Jack reminds me too much of Jordan Peterson.
posted by fleacircus at 12:50 PM on May 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

I enjoyed the movie so much, and while I had heard about the books previously, it was the movie that finally nudged me over to the point of reading them. The movie Aubrey and Maturin don't mirror the book characters but they get close in several ways and it makes me happy.

I'll also disagree with glasseyes about Russell Crowe.
posted by PussKillian at 12:53 PM on May 31, 2018 [6 favorites]

I disliked most things about the movie except I still remember the sound design, which is amazing.

I think Crowe could have been a good Aubrey if they'd developed his character more. As it was, he could do no wrong- it made him a very dull character.

Bettany was just not Maturin in any way. I don't know who could have been but maybe Tim Roth or someone.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:31 PM on May 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I adore this movie, due largely to the magnificent score. The film is stuffed with gorgeous music played amazingly well, and it brings me to tears every time I watch it.

I also found the ship-to-ship combat to be fascinating - it feels REAL and DANGEROUS in a visceral way.
posted by coriolisdave at 2:29 PM on May 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I spent a lot of the movie during the Crowe and Bettany scenes chanting, ".. . aaand kiss!"
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 4:15 PM on May 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

i love this movie bc i want to enter into a federally recognized civil union with the actual ship
posted by poffin boffin at 4:17 PM on May 31, 2018 [9 favorites]


i will still be yelling about this on my deathbed
posted by poffin boffin at 4:18 PM on May 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

> i love this movie bc i want to enter into a federally recognized civil union with the actual ship

Sorry, but I saw her first.

I love these books and I love this film and I still resent whatever overlong movie about hobbits won Best Picture that year. My kids and I watched it recently, and I was pleased with how engrossed they got.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:09 PM on May 31, 2018 [7 favorites]

Reviews always say that this movie is made up of the plots of two of the books, but ever since I've seen the movie, whenever I re-read the books I'm struck by how lines from the movies are quotes from a great many of the books. The movie doesn't strike me as following the plot of any of the books very closely, but in some ways I think it captures the tone really well, and in that feels faithful.

I like the little bits that are going to have extra meaning for fans of the books. Maturin: "They have their do we."

I like D'Arcy as Pullings. And I'm very fond of Lord Blakeney.
posted by Orlop at 12:30 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I loved this when it came out and have seen it again multiple times since It was only a few years ago that I was reading that it was seen as a flop, I was astounded! Maybe this got a lot of coverage and did better in the UK because of the topic so it looked more like a success. It apparently took $212M against a $150M budget. IIRC Weir had already said he wouldn't do a sequel but I guessed that ruled it out completely.

I am also in the camp of thinking Crowe was an excellent choice for Aubrey. Bettany though, who I generally like as an actor, was quite a bit too dashing for Maturin.
posted by biffa at 10:00 AM on June 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wait. So they did a novelization of the film? Was it any good?

I kid, I kid. I haven't read any of the 100 novels in the series, so even I saw this on the big screen I was very impressed. It was a beautiful film, with a realistic feel, and a great soundtrack. I enjoyed it immensely, which I suppose I might not have if I'd read all 200 books.
posted by happyroach at 9:40 PM on June 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

You should read the books, and comment along in the book club. I'm only book 10/500, so there's plenty of time to catch up!
posted by fleacircus at 11:45 PM on June 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

You all can joke, but one day you'll finish book 749 and realize that wittles isn't up and never will be again.
posted by The Gaffer at 7:14 AM on June 4, 2018 [7 favorites]

So, after rewatching: I'm still swimming against the tide here because I still like Paul Bettany as Stephen. He's kinda angular, slightly pinched, a slight touch weaselly; seems right to me.

It seemed fundamentally wrong, though, that he fought in the boarding party; has this ever happened in the books? It feels like Maturin's place and role during action is always down in the orlop handling casualties as they're brought down.

If anything I was somewhat surprised this time by thinking that maybe Russell Crowe wasn't quite right, at least if you're going strictly by the book. He's too handsome -- Jack by this point is carrying multiple scars -- and if anything not beefy enough; a running gag in the books is people noting Jack's bulk, and Jack being more or less offended by it.

The movie also feels somewhat shallow compared to the books: the books invest a lot of time in characterization and into the characters' inner thoughts -- both directly and often via their diary- or letter-writing; the movie is necessarily all external.


OH MY GOD YES. So distracting. I did think their Killick was very good, though.

Also very striking in the movie, and in a more visceral way than the book: how terribly young the youngsters are.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:46 AM on June 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh, and the Wikipedia page for the book links to this review by Christopher Hitchens of the movie; he wasn't a fan:
The summa of O'Brian's genius was the invention of Dr. Stephen Maturin. He is the ship's gifted surgeon, but he is also a scientist, an espionage agent for the Admiralty, a man of part Irish and part Catalan birth—and a revolutionary. He joins the British side, having earlier fought against it, because of his hatred for Bonaparte's betrayal of the principles of 1789—principles that are perfectly obscure to bluff Capt. Jack Aubrey. Any cinematic adaptation of O'Brian must stand or fall by its success in representing this figure.

On this the film doesn't even fall, let alone stand. It skips the whole project. As played by the admittedly handsome and intriguing Paul Bettany, Maturin is no more than a good doctor with finer feelings and a passion for natural history. At one point he is made to say in an English accent that he is Irish—but that's the only hint we get. In the books, for example, he quarrels badly with Aubrey about Lord Nelson's support for slavery. But here a superficial buddy movie is born out of one of the subtlest and richest and most paradoxical male relationships since Holmes and Watson.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:36 PM on June 4, 2018

> I'm still swimming against the tide here because I still like Paul Bettany as Stephen

I like him, too, but he's not the Stephen of the books. Which I'm fine with.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:28 PM on June 4, 2018

As I recall, this came out around the same time as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and a friend of mine -- trying to remember the former's title -- conflated the two and frustratedly blurted out "Master and Commander: Guy of the Air."

We still laugh about it, nearly 15 years later.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 6:53 AM on June 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

When we finally saw this on Blu-Ray at home, we were AMAZED -- we just loved it, and couldn't imagine why it hadn't won more Oscars, given its 10 nominations and obvious appeal.

Or, at least, we WERE -- until we went to look at the wider picture for that year's Academy Awards.

The tl;dr is that in nearly every category, it was up against Peter Jackson and Return of the King, which basically won awards as a proxy for the whole LOTR trilogy. It was up for 11 that night, and won them all.

Master and Commander was nominated for Cinematography, Sound Editing, Best Picture, Best Director, Art Direction, Costumes, Film Editing, Makeup, Sound Mixing, and VFX.

In all but 2 of those categories, it was up against the unstoppable Return of the King. Master won only for Cinematography and Sound Editing -- the only categories in which ROTK wasn't also nominated.


By way of footnote: the other 3 Oscars ROTK won that night were for Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, and Original Song. In retrospect, I'm kind of shocked Master didn't get a nod for its adapted screenplay -- it was at least as good as the others in the category (American Splendor, City of God, Mystic River, Seabiscuit) -- but it would've clearly made no difference due to the Jackson-Tolkein Express Train running that evening.
posted by uberchet at 2:26 PM on June 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

to revisit this comment:

It seemed fundamentally wrong, though, that [Stephen] fought in the boarding party; has this ever happened in the books?

He does go on the cutting-out party in The Letter of Marque -- and fights ferociously -- but is there mostly to ensure that the French intelligence officer on the Diane is captured.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:21 PM on June 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Surprised at the mixed reviews. In my mind, this is the most perfectest of movies and I could probably quote every single line in order, is how many times over I've seen it. I couldn't get into the books, however. It was just much too technical for my tastes. That might explain my fascination, probably.

But movie!MATURIN <3 <3 <3

I blame this movie for my crush on Paul Bettany.
posted by MiraK at 4:28 PM on September 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Trending on Twitter today because of:

Ian McNabb @empiresend
Lots of folk complaining about lack of sleep during the Pandemic. May I recommend Master And Commander starring the usually captivating, attention-grabbing Russell Crowe. I've never made it past the ten minute mark. You're welcome. And thanks Russell.
and yes he *did* tag Russell Crowe in that tweet and:

Russell Crowe @russellcrowe:
That’s the problem with kids these days.
No focus.

Peter Weirs film is brilliant. An exacting, detail oriented, epic tale of fidelity to Empire & service, regardless of the cost.
Incredible cinematography by Russell Boyd & a majestic soundtrack.
Definitely an adults movie.
And if nothing else, McNabb's "puts me to sleep by 10 minutes" is a weird assertion here because the first big and LOUD ship-to-ship battle starts at pretty much the 10-minute mark, no?

Also unrelatedly in the "PIPPIN IS NOT BONDEN" thing: it doesn't help that Movie!Bonden is kinda written like a pile of sand? He has only a few utilitarian lines; Billy Boyd does his best but there's really no character there for him to inhabit so yeah, he's unable to overcome the BUT YOU'RE A HOBBIT AREN'T YOU associations.

(And thinking about it, I don't think Book!Bonden isn't particularly deeply written either. Stoic, loyal, ever-present, yes; but do we ever get to see or imagine much of his inner life?)

Streaming on Prime at the moment and I can think of worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:09 PM on January 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

I mean… it worked? Like, pass/fail, it’s a pass. I thought both leads were fine ish, but Bettany is just not Maturin. Or Irish.

Here’s hoping for seven seasons of prestige TV to go with it… or maybe just skip straight to Temeraire since HBO already bought digital dragons.

In closing, with apologies:

“What is beef if not salt, preserving?”
posted by sixswitch at 9:32 PM on August 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Rewatched today and to touch briefly on fleacircus' comment above:

I like the shot of the hammocks all close together at the beginning so that they don't even look like people.

That below-deck opening scene is shot like a horror movie! it's dark and disorienting, things glimpsed briefly in the light of the lantern; sets up the brighter-lit but equally terrifying walk through the same space that Hollom makes later in the movie.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:05 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]

This is possibly the most dudes rocking picture of all time. I thought Boyd was fine and good, although not a big part of the film (obviously I haven’t read the books so have no nerd rage about miscastings).
posted by rodlymight at 8:50 AM on April 16

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