The fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels are not quite as rabid as those of J.R.R. Tolkein, but they are legion. And if Peter Weir didn’t face quite the monumental task that Peter Jackson did when adapting The Lord of the Rings, the obstacles to bringing Napoleonic-era naval warfare to the screen were formidable.
Firstly, he would be filming at least partially at sea and, as Steven Speilberg could tell you from his experience filming Jaws, that’s just asking for trouble. Secondly, the built-in audience for this film would contain a lot of naval history buffs, who would be sticklers for historical detail.
The film opens in 1803, with the British warship Surprise in pursuit of the French privateer Acheron off the coast of Brazil, with orders to “sink her, burn her, or take her a prize.” However, before the film is a few minutes old, the Acheron ambushes her out of a fog bank and nearly shoots the Surprise to splinters. The British ship barely escapes into the fog and retires to lick her wounds. Many of the ship’s officers, seeing that the French vessel is faster than them and has more guns, expect them to return to England. Their captain, “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) has other ideas. He means to refit the ship at sea and continue the pursuit. Only his men’s fanatical belief in Aubrey’s luck and seamanship enables him to get away with this. The fact that Aubrey has actually met Lord Horatio Nelson, great hero of the British Navy, only adds to his mystique.
After making repairs (and eluding another ambush by the Acheron), Aubrey and his crew pursue the French around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, eventually reaching the Galapagos Islands, where Aubrey is finally able to force an engagement with the Acheron on his terms.
By itself, the production values and attention to authentic details puts this film head and shoulders above most all others about the age of Fighting Sail. The battle scenes are loud, cacophonous and chaotic, as they should be.
Crowe inhabits the role of Aubrey as if he were born for it, with great self-confidence and authority. Aubrey’s key relationship is with Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship’s surgeon and part-time naturalist. Bettany worked with Crowe on A Beautiful Mind and I think the existing familiarity between the actors is essential to their onscreen rapport here. Together they present a fascinating duality. Maturin, the modern man of science and the Enlightenment, next to Aubrey, for whom duty to king and country circumscribe his whole existence. Yet both are learned, cultured men who lose themselves in duets of cello and violin (much to the annoyance of the ship’s cook. “Why don’t they ever play somethin’ you can dance to?”)
If you enjoy intelligent action, read O’Brien novels until pages fall out or just have a fascination with the Age of Fighting Sail, Master and Commander is worth seeing, probably more than once.