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"Master and Commander" - Movie Review

  • Holly McClure Movie Reviewer
  • 2003 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
"Master and Commander" - Movie Review

Genre:  Action

Rating:  PG-13 (for intense battle sequences, related images and brief language)

Release Date:  November 14, 2003

Actors:  Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D'Arcy, Lee Ingleby, George Innes, Mark Lewis Jones

Director:  Peter Weir

Special Notes:  A Canadian named Gordon Laco was the historical consultant on this $200 million dollar film shoot and frequently had to stop the action to make sure the action was “historically correct”. Known for details, Weir did in an extensive search for an authentic ship to be his Surprise, finally finding it an American tall ship called the Rose – a 20th century replica of a 19th-century British Royal Naval ship. The filmmakers also built a second 60-ton Surprise from scratch for the more complicated battle scenes. And since this is a period piece, there were over 2,000 19th century uniforms made for the ships' crews.
Plot:  The story is based on Patrick O'Brien's 20-book series with characters introduced in the first novel, "Master and Commander," but using a broader narrative outlined in the tenth installment, "The Far Side of the World." The story revolves around Captain Aubrey (Crowe), the British Navy’s greatest fighting captain and the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin (Bettany). The action takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, when "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, the "Master" of the Surprise and "Commander" of his men, is suddenly attacked by the French Privateer Acheron, one of Napoleon's best ships. The battle almost destroys his ship and crew but Aubrey isn’t defeated. Known for never backing down – and against Maturin's advice – the headstrong captain decides to beat the Acheron at her own game and sets sail across two oceans to intercept and capture his enemy.

Good:  I love period, action, adventure movies like this one. Not only does the film succeed because it attends to every historical detail (like the books), but director Weir ("The Truman Show", "Dead Poet’s Society") is known for exploring his characters (as much as the action) and that’s what makes this movie enjoyable. Right from the start there’s a realistic battle that ignites the story with action, details, characters and dialogue that make you feel as if you’re reliving history. Tending to the wounded takes place in the belly of the ship in grisly and rudimentary fashion with rusted tools and limited resources. Maturin even performs skull surgery on a wounded sailor, using a primitive metal plate as a patch. Crowe is perfectly cast as a leader with a heart for his men who keeps his crew's loyalty even while sending them into almost impossible situations. Although his charismatic performance is the driving force to the story, I don’t believe it's necessarily an Oscar-worthy role but still, his performance is excellent. In addition to tending the wounded aboard the ship, Bettany's Maturin is also a naturalist who enjoys exploring the new territory when the ship is in port. Maturin’s amusing annoyance at Aubrey is what keeps the story intimate and interesting and clearly illustrates how the actors, who starred together in the Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind," complement each other; their rapport is immediate and genuine. Other than the two main characters, I enjoyed the young boys who hold apprentice positions aboard the ship and clearly look to the men on board for mentoring and (in a way) fathering. One in particular, 12-year-old midshipman Lord Blakeney (played by newcomer Max Pirkis, who looks like Mark Lester, the boy who played “Oliver”) actually embodies qualities from his two mentors, Aubrey and Maturin and captures the audience’s heart from the beginning. The special effects are believable and impressive, and there are few lulls in this high sea adventure which keeps the story engrossing. The final showdown between the warring ships is exciting and satisfying, making this an authentic and Oscar-worthy masterpiece.

Bad:  The rating for this movie is mainly due to the battle scenes and injuries that take place. As far as language, even with this being a period piece, there's some profanity and one use of religious profanity as well as exclamations of "My God," and "For God's sake." The violence consists of scenes of maritime battles between the two naval crews. The hospital scenes below the deck are realistic and crude with bloody results and in one scene, men hold a boy down so the doctor can amputate his injured arm (nothing is graphically shown). A boy falls off the ship, and the crew is forced to leave him in the ocean to drown. Another scene shows a young man jumping overboard to commit suicide. The ragged crew of sailors is definitely a “yo ho, yo ho” bunch who like to drink, tell jokes and are loyal in the fight to the end.

Bottom Line:  This is definitely a movie for mature audiences, but I think teenagers (especially boys) will enjoy watching a story about men (and young men) who united, overcame odds and achieved victory. This story is nothing like last summer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean," so don’t expect that kind of adventure or humor. Instead, this is a piece of history that will introduce you to interesting characters and let your imagination sail on an adventure.