This week, we get on a boat (with our flippy-floppies!) and get three sheets to the wind with Betsy Cass in her re-view of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
We might not ever see a film like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World again. If we do, it certainly won’t be in the very near future. The very fact that this film was made at all is slightly preposterous. While it’s bizarre to think of in retrospect, it was supposed to set up a franchise. But despite critical acclaim, including a pair of Oscar wins and a nomination for Best Picture, and success overseas, the film was considered a modest failure and sequel plans were scrapped.
Before we get to really talking about the movie, I’m going to play a game of “list all the reasons this movie never should have happened.” Firstly, it was so expensive that multiple major studios had to co-fund the production. It supposedly cost close to $200 million. That budget might not shock so much now, but ten years ago it would have been one of the most expensive productions of all time. For a movie with a proven, built-in audience, it might be an easy decision to spend that much, but for a historical epic with a limited existing fan base, it’s a huge risk. That’s the second reason Master and Commander shouldn’t have happened: Spending that much on a movie that won’t appeal to teenagers is unimaginable. Movies that have adults as their target demographic don’t tend to earn much money, which should be a good tip-off that the movie won’t make back what was spent on it. Thirdly, historical movies about boats don’t exactly appeal to the broadest number of adults. While the movie was clearly riding the “adult historical epic” success of Gladiator, it didn’t have the same widely appealing promise of exoticness and brutal combat. Finally, as it was made, the movie had a completely irrelevant plot, which is the only thing movies of this size tend to rely on (yes, aside from big SFX-y action sequences).
Why several studios chose to ignore these rather obvious warnings and proceed with production, I do not know. Maybe they just really thought it would be a good movie. No matter the reasons, I’m glad they acted so stupidly. The movie is expertly made in every respect. No expense seems to have been spared. While some digital enhancements were made (although, they’re invisible as far as I can tell), the film was largely shot on water (in studio tanks and on open water). The costumes feel more authentic to me than anything else I can remember, the cast is impeccable as a unit, the cinematography is both phenomenally beautiful and natural (it won longtime Peter Weir collaborator Russell Boyd an Oscar). In fact the whole film feels exceedingly natural, which is the last way I would normally describe a massive, high-seas epic.
When I saw the film in the theatres I was initially impressed. Not that I had expected the movie to be bad, but I suppose I expected it to falter in some sort of clichéd way. I was happily flabbergasted to find that the implied romance edited into the trailer was nowhere to be found. I was impressed at the overall look of the film and the strength of the cast. And I was delighted to find that the whole affair was enthralling, if not exactly exhilarating.
I probably didn’t give much more thought to any specifics back then. Now I’m even more impressed by the way the filmmakers stuck to their guns and made the movie exactly as it should have been. While it’s likely partly a credit to the source material, I can’t imagine any major film that wouldn’t at least include cutaways to long-suffering sweethearts back home, or introduce some alluring native lady. I can’t fathom something being made now that wouldn’t have pursued the action element further. With the intentions of a franchise well-defined, and in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean, studios today would likely push a main character that’s really a “character.” Instead, Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe provide performances that are subtly full of life.
The lack of a strong plot also stands out to me now in a way I never noticed in the past. Somehow the fact that I couldn’t remember what the plot was never tipped me off to this fact. The film apparently takes story elements from 13 of Patrick O’Brian’s books, which does a lot to explain this, but it never manages to feel disjointed. The main antagonist was changed from an American ship to a Napoleonic vessel (seemingly one of the few concessions made to Hollywood so as not to offend the main audience), but other major moments are culled from throughout the series. I wouldn’t quite say the film feels like a series of vignettes as a result. More like moments. Yes, our heroes are chasing an evil, French privateer, but that’s not really what the movie is about. It’s about a relationship between two old friends, the way a captain leads a crew and what life was like on an early 19th century man-of-war. This is portrayed brilliantly in quiet moments, especially in those that involve music. For something produced on such a large scale, it seems far more concerned with small moments between men.
Rewatching the film, and thinking about the loving production that seems to have gone into it on every level, gives me something just short of nostalgia for when it was made. Few who played a large role in the film have produced any quality work since. I would argue Crowe hasn’t made anything worth seeing, Bettany has mainly toiled in awful studio fare with only a few respectable indies dotting his career, and Peter Weir has only churned out a single disappointing feature (a decidedly less epic adult epic). It’s a shame because these people, especially Weir, have done such wonderful work in the past. It’s hard not to wonder whether he has another great film left in him. At nearly 70, it seems unlikely he could tackle a large scale aquatic production, something that became sort of a signature skill of his. This may be the last film in which Crowe’s acting prowess wasn’t eclipsed by his personality. And Bettany, for his part, has become more of a C-movie staple than a vaunted, classical Brit.
While it’s easy to be enamoured with the movie for being an adult drama that’s not an indie talkie, that’s not to say it’s a masterpiece. The film doesn’t fill me with any sort of awe. It’s just rare that you encounter something so solidly made on so many levels. I respect it endlessly, but it’s not a film that could ever be a favorite. Nothing resonates very long past the actual viewing. Although maybe that’s a good thing. Despite its skill, the film has a strange sort of instant forgettableness. Ten years ago I walked out of a theatre thinking what I good time I’d just had, yet held little of the film in my memory. Ten years on from now, I can likely have a similar experience. Not all films need to reveal new layers on subsequent viewings, or grow with the viewer. Some films have achieved their goal by being reliable. This is one of those films. It will always remain largely the way I left it, which is just the way I want it to be.
• One thing I do remember from ten years ago is Russell Crowe’s snarky request to Paul Bettany:
Name a shrub after me. Something prickly and hard to eradicate.
Even back then, this sentiment seemed to resonate with me.
• Also, the “lesser of two weevils” scene might be my favorite bad movie joke of all time.
• It’s a bit ironic that a sequel was never made because I think this movie has the absolute classiest set-up for a sequel of all time. The British aren’t the only ones who can set up a cunning ruse!
• One of the hallmarks of a great period piece is making sure no one looks out of place in their period garb. The whole cast performs admirably, but Russell Crowe earns extra merits for being completely believable with those long, blonde locks.
• Speaking of being believable, Max Pirkis gives one of the best child actor performances I can recall as little Lord Blakeney.
• No one will ever shoot better on water than Peter Weir, so they should all just stop trying. I’m looking at you, Wolfgang Petersen.