Master and Commander is based on Patrick O'Brian's series of novels called Aubrey/Maturin about the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The film takes place in 1805, when the French rule the high seas. An English vessel, the HMS Surprise, roams the same oceans looking to carry out the official order of intercepting any French ship they encounter. The captain of the Surprise, Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), refuses to accept defeat at the hands of the French and is willing to carry out his assignment at any cost.
Director Peter Weir wastes no time getting the action started. As the film opens, a Surprise midshipman thinks he has spotted a distant object in the fog-shrouded sea, yet when he calls this to the attention of Captain Aubrey, he can't find the object. Flashes of fire suddenly appear in the distance, and cannonballs strike the bow of the Surprise. As the fog slowly clears, the object in the distance becomes known: the French super-frigate Acheron. Aubrey quickly readies his men and cannons for war as cannons continue to puncture the aging British fighting vessel. The Surprise fights back, but their cannons cannot pierce the superiorly built Acheron, and they only succeed in pushing the French further out to sea.
This intense opening battle is simply an appetizer for what's to come. Surprisingly, there are only two key battles, and they serve as bookends for the many outstanding and gripping scenes that typify the fine interior craftsmanship of this film. As the injured are attended to, we meet Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the Surprise's Surgeon and Aubrey's most trusted friend. Maturin is also a naturalist who is not dedicated to war; rather, he is devoted to the discovery of animals and phenomena that will advance the human race. When Maturin is accidentally wounded in his pursuit, there is no one else to remove the damaging bullet from his stomach. In one of the film's most dramatic moments, with the help of Aubrey and a mirror, Maturin amazingly operates on himself to save his own life.
Master and Commander could have easily become a stereotypical action picture where every scene is punctuated with explosions and other big budget special effects. While the film's budget does exceed $100 million, Weir refreshingly concerns himself most with the relationships between all classes of seamen, from cook and carpenter to midshipman and lieutenant. This camaraderie is easily apparent throughout the film and in one key scene, the crew must work together to keep the Surprise afloat when they find themselves in the middle of a severe rainstorm.
Crowe is brilliant once again, just as he was in A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator. Each of those films earned him Oscar nominations, and with his performance here, he is primed to earn his fourth nomination in five years. But the real credit here should go to Weir, whose transformation of O'Brian's novels into a completely literate and engrossing on-screen drama deserves nothing short of the highest honor. Master and Commander is a masterpiece.
The far side of the dinghy.
Run time: 138 mins
In Theaters: Friday 14th November 2003
Box Office USA: $93.9M
Box Office Worldwide: $212M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation., Miramax Films, Universal Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn Films
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Fresh: 176 Rotten: 32
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin, James D'Arcy as 1st Lt. Tom Pullings, Billy Boyd as Barrent Bonden, Joseph Morgan as William Warley, Cpt. of Mizzentop, Edward Woodall as 2nd Lt. William Mowett, Chris Larkin as Capt. Howard, Max Pirkis as Blakeney, Jack Randall as Boyle, Max Benitz as Calamy, Lee Ingleby as Hollom, Richard Pates as Williamson, Robert Pugh as Mr. Allen, Richard McCabe as Mr. Higgins, Ian Mercer as Mr. Hollar, Tony Dolan as Mr. Lamb, David Threlfall as Preserved Killick, Bryan Dick as Joseph Nagle, George Innes as Joe Plaice, William Mannering as Faster Doudle, Patrick Gallagher as Awkward Davies, Alex Palmer as Nehemiah Slade, Mark Lewis Jones as Mr. Hogg, John DeSantis as Padeen, Ousmane Thiam as Black Bill, Thierry Segall as French Captain