2003-12-12 / Columnists

MovieScope By Robert Snyder ‘Master And Commander’ – Captain Crowe

MovieScope By Robert Snyder ‘Master And Commander’ – Captain Crowe

MovieScope By Robert Snyder
‘Master And Commander’ – Captain Crowe

Russell Crowe took his part in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" very seriously.

In a promotional interview, he said that during the filming, the cast and crew (in and out of character) had to treat him as if he was a bona fide British sea captain, with salutes and "sirs." At one point, he even ordered the actors to learn how to sew up thick canvas bags... to be used to wrap naval men killed in swashbuckling battles.

But, in a way, all this insane emphasis on authenticity works. Based on two of the 20 books in the adventure series by Patrick O’Brian, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is an exciting and fascinating look at life onboard a fighting frigate during the 19th century. Although in the books the bad guy is the United States in the War of 1812, Hollywood conventional wisdom switched the adversary to the French (presently unpopular with many Americans for sidestepping support of the Iraqi War).

Directed by Peter Weir, the film’s focus is the art of command, which is perfectly personified by Captain Jack Audrey (Crowe). No Bligh nor Ahab he, Captain Audrey is called, "Lucky Jack," whose men would follow him to the ends of the earth... and do. The only conflict is a phantom French "super-frigate," the Acheron, bent on destroying Audrey’s HMS Surprise. The problem is that the Surprise at first doesn’t live up to its name, as it is caught off guard by the Acheron and almost sunk.

After the Acheron u pstages the Surprise a couple of times, Audrey becomes a bit Ahab-esque and pushes past Brazil (beyond the area encompassed by his orders) to catch it. This doesn’t bother anyone, except his best buddy and ship’s physician, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who wants to use his skills as a naturalist on the previously unexplored Galapagos Islands. The question of whether the ship should be used for scientific inquiry or warfare is the film’s biggest debate. However, when the good doctor is accidentally shot by one of the seaman, the good captain temporarily aborts his military mission and returns to Galapagos, so Dt. Maturin can perform surgery on himself on steady ground.

"Master" has two magnificently staged battle scenes, book-ending the story, which is largely about male camaraderie and how wonderful a sea captain can be. It’s a terrific ego trip for Crowe, who appears to relish every minute of it.

But, without the whale or seriously obsessed Ahab, what would be the point of "Moby Dick"? Or, who would want to see "Jaws" minus the monster shark? Where would "Mutiny on the Bounty" be devoid of Bligh or Tahitian romance?

Because of the great skill of its actors and director Weir’s attention to detail, "Master’s" 140 minutes fly by.

Far from being a women’s movie, it is surely not "Sex and the City" at sea … notwithstanding Winston Churchill’s remark that British naval tradition was founded on run, sodomy and the lash (PG-13 film carefully avoids the second criterion).

Still, I took my two young sons to "Master and Commander," and they seemed to enjoy it. Of course, as my 13-year-old boy pointed out, "It’s no ‘Lord of the Rings.’’

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