During the Napoleonic wars, ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is captain of the H.M.S. Surprise. He and his crew are on a mission in the Atlantic, off the coast of South America to find and capture or destroy the Archeron, a French privateer. Right away in the film, we are thrust into an epic battle as the Surprise first encounters the bigger and more heavily armed ship. It’s a devastating battle, killing and injuring many, but Lucky Jack presses his men forward, knowing that their mission may hold the turning point for the war. What unfolds is not only a tale of courage, determination and cunning, but a portrait of the crew’s potential when they work together and their destruction when they are disconnected.
Thanks to the excellent direction of Peter Weir, the movie feels like an authentic and historical Pirates of the Caribbean. I mean that as a sincere compliment. All the action and adventure of a ship on the high seas is amped up, but the mission and realization that these men are military personnel is never lost. The stunts and CGI pulled off in this film are never overdone, but kept to a realistic level. I never felt as if they were for a simple shock and awe value, but have purpose and bring honest beauty to the film.
Master and Commander earned Oscars for Best Cinematography and Sound Editing. We’ve all seen movies with ships on the high seas, but you’ve never seen a ship at such beautiful angles as the Surprise is shown here. One of the first images that blew me away was the silhouette of the ship’s ropes criss-crossing like vines in a jungle, then we see men climbing all over them. As for the sound, just crank it up at any of the battles and you’ll understand.
Something I did not expect, but really enjoyed was the trip to the Galapagos Islands. The time onshore serves multiple purposes, both for Dr. Maturin (Paul Bettany), who’s a naturalist, the ship’s doctor and Jack’s most trusted man. It’s nice to get on land at least once in a ship movie, but to use the natural beauty and variety of strange animals as a fitting part of the story is genius.
Just as the ship’s name suggests, Master and Commander is full of surprises. I think I was expecting something dryer, more ridged and pompous feeling with a British ship during the Napoleonic wars. It was nothing like that, it was smooth, beautiful, slightly comical at some points and perfectly epic when the occasion rose. If you enjoy Crowe, Bettany, or adventures at sea, Master and Commander should be on your list.
“England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England.”
This was one of my least favorite years for nominations. This film was enjoyable enough with some good visuals…and maybe if it’s on cable sometime, I’ll watch it again. But one of the top 5 of the year? My choices that year: “Seabiscuit”, “House of Sand and Fog”, “In America”, “Pieces of April”, and “The Station Agent”. I was sorely unimpressed with the Academy’s choices this year. As for “Master and Commander” I can remember very little except the cinematography.