As Hollywood progressively loses touch with its audience, finding a genuinely entertaining, non-propagandizing movie made after 1997 is a rare treasure indeed. One such overlooked gem graced theaters in 2003 to critical acclaim but disappointing box office. Yet it remains a sterling exemplar of its genre and even has wisdom to share. Today, I offer a brief review of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Watch the trailer:
Based on not one but two novels in the beloved Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian–Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World–this Age of Sail war film refreshingly gives viewers exactly what it promises: high adventure on the high seas, spiced with swashbuckling action and masculine conflict.
That second element is what makes Master and Commander stand out. It can rightly be called the most masculine film of 2003 without exaggeration, even compared to the movie that beat it for Best Picture, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
If you doubt me, consider that unlike Return of the King, Master and Commander does not have a love story subplot–or even a female lead. It is 100 percent pure black tar masculinity.
The film’s premise is simple. Captain Jack Aubrey, commander of the frigate HMS Surprise, is ordered to hunt down a French privateer off the coast of South America. A deadly game of cat and mouse ensues, wherein Jack must confront an external enemy whose seamanship matches his own, while at the same time balancing his personal honor, his duty to king and country, and his loyalty to his friends.
As in the novels, the friendship between Jack Aubrey and his polar opposite chief medical officer Stephen Maturin forms the heart of the movie. Whereas Jack is a man of action and a paragon of leadership, Stephen is Jack’s conscience–the voice of reason that tempers his flights of pride.
Leadership is a central theme of the movie and a major source of conflict between characters. A lesser film would mishandle this conflict by making Jack a cartoonish autocrat whose tyranny foments unrest among the crew. Thankfully, Master and Commander shows a deeper, more accurate representation of male power dynamics. The viewer buys Jack as an able leader because he acts decisively after considering his subordinates’ advice, he praises in public but rebukes in private, and he maintains a firm line between himself and the men under his command. It’s lonely at the top, the crown weighs heavy, and real men want a real leader worthy of their respect–not a buddy to pal around with.
The film emphasizes Jack’s skill as a leader by contrasting him with a junior officer who’s his polar opposite. He tries to befriend the crew instead of leading them. The result serves as a grave warning.
Vying for the crown jewel with the movie’s excellent portrayal of male hierarchies is its rare respect for Christianity. Master and Commander garnered universal praise for its historical accuracy, and accurately staging a period piece set aboard a Royal Navy ship in 1805 means portraying Christian men who take their faith seriously. Aubrey presides over more than one funeral–it’s a war movie, after all–and naturally offers invocations to God, including leading his crew in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Other instances of prayer, snatches of Scripture, and the pious–and sometimes impious; again, war movie–use of the name of Jesus Christ occur as a matter of course.
Even Dr. Maturin, a naturalist in the mold of Charles Darwin, takes it as a datum that God created the newly discovered species of the Galapagos Islands. And in a subtle but masterful touch, he easily reconciles natural philosophy and theology with the Thomistic principle of secondary causation.
Which goes to show that this movie is surprisingly deep.
Like its namesake novels, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World contains lavish attention to detail. The production used not one, but two, full-scale sailing ships. Both are replicas of HMS Rose, the first of which was built in the 1970s based on authentic Admiralty plans. Fox bought Rose and refitted and renamed her to portray HMS Surprise on film. They then built a non-seaworthy replica of the replica in the same giant wave tank used for James Cameron’s Titanic.
Surprise’s adversary, the Acheron, is largely a digital creation. However, she is based on painstaking scans of USS Constitution. The novel’s American antagonists were changed to French at the studio’s insistence–another rarity in our increasingly woke age.
Master and Commander comes highly recommended. It’s worth owning, especially if you can find a used copy. This disappearing species of masculine military fiction should be given a prized place in every Western man’s collection.
The same goes for high-T adventure set in the post-future.
Originally published here.