"Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? Do you want your children to grow up singing the Marseillaise?" This is Jack Aubrey, commander of HMS Surprise, rousing the patriotism of his men as they prepare to engage a faster, larger French vessel somewhere off the coast of South America. This ship is England, he proclaims, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which opens nationwide today, makes his point with magnificent vigor and precision.
This stupendously entertaining movie, directed by Peter Weir and adapted from two of the novels in Patrick O'Brian's 20-volume series on Aubrey's naval exploits, celebrates an idea of England that might have seemed a bit corny even in 1805, when the action takes place. The Surprise is a stiffly hierarchal place of pomp and ritual that is nonetheless consecrated to ideals of fair play, decency and honor and ruled by a man whose claim on the words in the film's title comes, if not by divine right, then at least by demi-godlike force of character.
Of course, life on the Surprise is not all high-minded talk and principled action. Winston Churchill once said that the foundations of British naval tradition consisted of rum, sodomy and the lash. Master and Commander settles for two out of three.
It is tempting to read some contemporary geopolitical relevance into this film, which appears at a moment when some of the major English-speaking nations are joined in a military alliance against foes we sometimes need to be reminded do not actually include France.
The Surprise may be England, but Master and Commander is something of an all-Anglosphere collaboration. Both the director and the star, Russell Crowe, are Australian (Crowe by way of New Zealand), and no fewer than three American studios (Universal, Miramax and 20th Century Fox) paid for the production. The spectacle of British imperial self-defense has been made more palatable for American audiences by a discreet emendation of the literary source: the story has been moved back seven years from the War of 1812, when the British were fighting ... but never mind. Bygones are bygones.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Directed by: Peter Weir
Starring: Russell Crowe (Jack Aubrey), Paul Bettany (Dr. Stephen Maturin), James D'Arcy (First Lieutenant Thomas Pullings), Edward Woodall (Second Lieutenant William Mowett), Chris Larkin (Captain Howard), Lee Ingleby (Hollum), George Innes (Joe Plaice), Robert Pugh (Mr. Allen)
Running time: 140 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
And in any case, the appeal of O'Brian's books to modern audiences goes deeper than their coincidental intersection with present-day diplomacy or politics. Since 1970, when the first instalment was published, the series has gathered a fervent and loyal following that mere topicality could hardly account for. Weir's movie, which follows Jack's command of sharp word and quick action in transporting O'Brian's information-packed pages onto the screen, distills the essence of Aubrey's charisma.
Aubrey (Crowe) is an ideal personification of modern executive authority -- the Harry Potter of the managerial class. His adventures are salted with arcane technical lore and administrative wisdom that resonate deeply with even the most landlubberly middle managers and office workers. Master and Commander, were it not a movie, could be a Powerpoint seminar advertised in an airline magazine: Leadership Secrets of the Royal Navy.
This is not by any means to slight Weir's accomplishment (or, for that matter, O'Brian's); it is, rather, to explain why, in his expert hands, the smallest details of shipboard behavior become so breathlessly absorbing. The battle sequences are filmed with impressive coherence and rigor, but Master and Commander is, if anything, most thrilling between skirmishes, when the complex system of authority and deference that runs the Surprise -- and the personality traits needed to keep it running -- is at the center of attention.