Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

"Name a shrub after me. Something prickly and hard to eradicate." - Captain Jack Aubrey

Director: Peter Weir

Writer: Patrick O'Brian, Peter Weir, John Collee

Principal cast members:

Wooden Ships; Iron Men

The Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian are beloved by any student of Napoleonic era British naval warfare. Like any good series, they are heavily dependent on good character development. The key recurring characters must be colorful but believable and must be characters with whom the audience can identify and empathize. The novels do this splendidly which explains their popularity. It naturally doesn't hurt that they are set in one of England's proudest historical periods - the Napoleonic wars.

It is not surprising that American audiences aren't as apt to find this series as inspiring and entertaining. The Royal Navy's triumphs over France and Spain in the early 1800s aren't quite the same stuff of legend here in the US. In bringing the O'Brian books to life and making them appeal to an American audience, Peter Weir faced some stiff challenges. In fact, in the first novel of the series, the Americans are actually the bad guys which naturally resulted in some rather wholesale changes to the plot. Instead of facing off with an American frigate terrorizing the British colonies, Weir places them at odds with a French ship built on the very dangerous American frigate design. While purists among the O'Brian fans might be outraged, the fact is this film still retains the essential ingredients that make the books so wonderfully appealing.

Character is everything and Russell Crowe perfectly captures the essence of Captain Jack Aubrey. He is fearless, cool under fire, fair and just with his men, but passionate in his love for his ship, his crew, and his duty to king and country. While his friendships with his first lieutenant and his best friend, the ship's surgeon, are true and solid, they are also secondary to his duty. Russell Crow nails this iconic character. He has Aubrey's steel, but also his sense of humor. He has his coldness and aloofness as captain and leader, but also his warmth and kindness as a friend and mentor.

Paul Bettany delivers an outstanding turn as the naturalist and ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin. The Maturin character was always used in the books as contrast to Aubrey's implacable sense of duty. Maturin is human, compassionate, and intellectually curious. While he loves and admires Aubrey, he is also quick to express his disagreement with Aubrey's more dispassionate and unyielding side.

While actually combining major plot elements of two O'Brian novels, this film shows Jack Aubrey at his most determined and inventive best, taking on and defeating a dangerous French foe who, at first, seems invincible. As Aubrey's ship, the HMS Surprise, and her crew determinedly stalk their deadly foe, we see the loyalty and earnest devotion of the officers and men of the ship.

James D'Arcy is excellent as Aubrey's first lieutenant, Tom Pullings. These are young, inexperienced men who realize how lucky they are to have such a superb leader and mentor and Pullings is obviously trying to impress his captain even as he learns from him. The relationships of the younger officers-in-training, the midshipmen, are especially revealing as we see them try to figure out how to lead the older, lower-class shipmates who make up the crew while also learning from and impressing their senior officers.

Max Pirkis, who would go on to an impressive starring role in the HBO series Rome, turns in a touching and inspiring turn here as Midshipman Blakeney. Blakeney is an adoring admirer of Aubrey but also deeply inspired and thrilled to be working with the 'fighting naturalist,' Maturin. He is also a close friend of his struggling and troubled fellow Midshipman Hollum. Pirkis makes a wonderfully human touchstone for the aspiring ship captain inside all of us.

The film, like the books, provides a beautifully authentic look at turn-of-the-19th century sailing ships and the life of the men who crewed them. It also features some breathtaking cinematography of the ship's voyages around the coast of South America. The battles between the Surprise and her adversary, the French ship Acheron, are shockingly violent and destructive which still offers only a hint of how horrific naval battles in wooden ships could become. All in all, the end result is a very satisfying and highly entertaining adventure film.

Weir's direction and script do great credit the venerable book series. Crowe and Bettany are outstanding at bringing these literary friends to life on the big screen. Russell Boyd's Oscar-winning cinematography is beautiful, especially in widescreen aspect. The film also won an Oscar for sound editing and won nominations for art direction, costume design, editing, makeup, sound mixing, and visual effects to go with the major nominations for best director and best picture.

Even without an appreciation for the significant history of naval warfare around 1800, one can definitely enjoy this movie. It is entertaining action, moving human drama, and beautifully filmed sailing combat with excellent acting performances throughout. And if it inspires more Americans to read and appreciate the outstanding Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian, so much the better.

Coolness factor: 7

Writing: 8

Acting: 8

Overall entertainment: 8