There was a time when Hollywood made big pictures. Wide panoramas filled large, curved screens. Those big screens held larger than life characters driven by ambitious ideals and values.
But, as Norma Desmond declared in “Sunset Boulevard,” “It’s the pictures that got small,” for movies became smaller and less dominated by a big screen. Now, movies get cut down to fit the size of our televisions screens. But we find new hope for the big picture with “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”
“Master and Commander” is a return to the big picture epic. It is the tale of HMS Surprise and her commander, “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). Aubrey is called Lucky Jack because of his mythic ability to come out on top of any situation. He is an early-19th-century version of James T. Kirk. He may be down, but he is never out, as he always seems to have the right tactical maneuver to get him out of any situation.
The movie is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. We are informed, through title cards, that Napoleon has captured Europe and only the British fleet stands between him and control of the world. We are then taken inside the workings of Aubrey’s ship, whose orders are to find a French privateer ship that is better equipped and faster than the Surprise. The French ship has the advantage of her guns, but the Surprise … has Aubrey.
Director Peter Weir gives us details that fill the screen with a history lesson of what it was to be a part of a British warship in 1805. We see the medical practices of the day in great detail, along with the galley and crew sleeping quarters. The movie takes place over a long period of time, and in the passage of time we learn of long days of waiting and watching, and how those lonely days could lead to illogical thinking. We see how men survive land depravation and the absence of home’s creature comforts.
Weir shows us how warfare was waged in the microcosm of two ships that embody their respective countries. Aubrey wisely points out to the men, as they prepare for battle, that the ship is England afloat. They are to fight as if they were fighting to save their homes. With today’s technology, the time period comes to powerful life, and the novels of Patrick O’Brian become a visual and audio wonder.
Russell Crowe plays Jack Aubrey with all the determination of a man of duty and honor. His principles are on his sleeve, and he does not apologize for doing what he thinks is right. Paul Bettany plays the ships physician, Stephan Maturin. Bettany’s performance as the man of science and conscience acts to counterbalance Aubrey’s bravado. Theirs is a relationship of unequals, in terms of rank, but equals in terms of friendship and respect. Their banter over issues each day helps us see how the ship’s system works. Maturin holds up what he thinks is right, but Aubrey always leads by making the final decision.
The men on board are also quite diverse. We are taken into the crew’s quarters to hear their discussions, and we see the officer’s mess. Weir develops these characters and allows them to contribute to the large story unreeling before our eyes.
The movie’s ending sets up an easy sequel, but Weir has said he will not pursue one. It is a pity. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is one of the finest films made this year, and in a long time. It will take its place alongside other great sea epics like “The Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Go and see this big picture before the next small one comes to the multiplex.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Peter Weir and John Collee (based on novels by Patrick O’Brian)
Cast: Capt. Jack Aubrey: Russell Crowe; Dr. Stephen Maturin: Paul Bettany; Lord Blakeney: Max Pirkis; Barrett Bonden: Billy Boyd; Lt. Thomas Pullings: James D’Arcy; Mr. Hogg: Mark Lewis Jones; Marine Capt. Howard: Chris Larkin; Mr. Higgins: Richard McCabe.
Visit the movie’s official Web site.