Herald Journal Columns
Nov. 24, 2003 Herald Journal
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'Master and Commander,' The Far Side of the World


I love a good historical film, especially one that goes to great pains to present the period accurately - movies like "Elizabeth" and "Restoration".

But I also like a good swashbuckler, such as "Indiana Jones" or the aptly named pirate film "Swashbuckler", even though they usually sacrifice historical accuracy for action.

So I was excited by the previews for "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." It held the promise of the best of both genres. I saw it opening weekend while in Topeka, Kansas, in an older theater that was reminiscent of the grand cinemas of the 40's and 50's, with a wide screen and seating for nearly 1000 people. For me, this added to the ambiance of the whole evening: an old style film in an old style theater.

I was not disappointed.

"Master and Commander" is based on a book in the extensive "Aubrey-Maturin" series by Patrick O'Brian. These epics, which have a dedicated and growing following, are so detailed in nautical terminology and historical detail that O'Brian also wrote companion books with illuminating illustrations and a glossary.

They revolve around the friendship between Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin, played by Russell Crowe ("Gladiator") and Paul Bettany ("A Beautiful Mind").

As the film begins, we learn that their ship, the H.M.S. Surprise, has been ordered to South America to track down a mysterious French privateer who has been raiding British ships. But when they find their prey, they also find themselves under surprise attack, and barely survive.

This sets them off on a seemingly hopeless quest to destroy the more modern and more heavily armed French ship, the Acheron. Both the battle and the personal conflict between

Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin climax in the Galapagos Islands, amid beautifully photographed scenery.

There's plenty of daring-do and battle scenes, but director Peter Weir takes enough time to thoroughly acquaint us with these fascinating and complex characters. Some of my favorite scenes take place at the captain,s dinner table, with well written dialogue and fine acting.

But I was also fascinated with the ship itself. Director Weir ("The Truman Show", "Fearless", "Dead Poets Society") has created an entirely believable environment for the story, so rich in detail that we are thoroughly convinced that these men live and work here. Nautical terminology abounds, as well as the intricacies of shipboard discipline and tradition.

"Master and Commander" may well be the finest yet in the genre of pirate and sailing ship/sea battle films.

Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, related images (including a couple of fairly graphic surgery scenes), and brief language.

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