Seafaring movies, like westerns, are the beneficiaries of nostalgia: No matter how timeworn or silly they may seem, their basic appeal remains. The familiarity of the tales and settings can be a kind of balm; the epaulets and gold braid and extra rations of rum, the mizzens and broadsides and bosuns are essential elements of that storybook that has been playing out in our minds since childhood. Over the summer, Pirates of the Caribbean, though cluttered and hyper-frenetic, brought back some of the lush and spooky beauty of the genre and served up Johnny Depp’s gloriously fey brigand, who satisfied and confounded our pirate-movie expectations all at once.
Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, adapted from two of the twenty novels in Patrick O’Brian’s marvelous naval saga set during the Napoleonic Wars, is about Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his engagements with an enemy French ship off the east coast of South America and around the Galápagos Islands. It’s not as imaginatively freewheeling a swashbuckler as Pirates of the Caribbean, and it never achieves the visual elegance or majesty that a David Lean might have provided. The story line isn’t the freshest. And yet the film is satisfying all the same. Modern action movies, made at a time when astonishing special effects have become commonplace, usually favor computer-generated derring-do over character, but Weir strikes a healthier balance. The sea battles, while exhilarating, are subordinate to the shipmates’ stories.
Master and Commander presents itself as a civilized entertainment about (mostly) civilized people; Aubrey is no Bligh, though I am happy to report that, despite his steadying, benevolent presence aboard the good ship Surprise, he does order a mate flogged for insubordination. (All swashbucklers should contain at least one flogging scene.) Aubrey regards war as a kind of gentleman’s bloodsport; when he first clashes with the Acheron and pronounces himself “solidly beaten” by the French, there’s a trace of admiration for the enemy in his admission. Aubrey’s close friend and ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), cautions the captain that his desire to capture the Acheron borders on obsession, but Aubrey is never in danger of going Ahab. That would have made for a very different (and to my mind, richer) movie. In this one, Aubrey and Maturin cool down by playing classical violin and cello duets. Somehow they keep their instruments in tune in the briny air.
Looking chunky, his hair in a ponytail beneath his voluminous hat, Russell Crowe takes easy command of the movie. He’s not an actor of great depth, but he has a gift for revealing the subtle gradations of feeling in staunch, closed-off characters. When Aubrey presents a book about naval legend Lord Nelson to a boy officer (Max Pirkis) who has just had an arm amputated, there’s intelligence, and a tender indulgence, in his gesture. (Nelson had an arm amputated as well.) Other times—as when Aubrey explodes at Maturin for jeopardizing the pursuit of the Acheron by lingering in the Galápagos to collect flora and fauna—we can see quite clearly the captain’s flicker of remorse following the outburst. Aubrey and Maturin are a classic combo: the old-school warrior and the man of the Enlightenment. Except that the captain’s martial temperament is complicated somewhat by his sensitivities, and the doctor swings a mean sword—and scalpel. (At one point, with no other surgeon available, he successfully treats his own bullet wound.) The men’s friendship is the heart of the movie, as it is in O’Brian’s books.