Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World was released late November 2003 and was a relative box office failure, paling in the shadow of a much bigger, more family-friendly sea-faring adventure known as Pirates of the Caribbean released earlier in the summer. Whilst the buccaneering exploits of a young blacksmith on a quest to save his lady love from a ship full of ghost pirates became an unexpected success, audiences were apparently less inclined to see the real perils of naval warfare on screen.
Set in 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, Master and Commander follows the ordeals of the HMS Surprise after it is attacked by the much larger French ship Acheron. Led by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) the Surprise pursues the Acheron round South America, testing the strength of his ship, his crew and his friendship with the ship’s Doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Sitting firmly on the side of historical accuracy, Master and Commander omits ghosts and curses for the gritty reality of naval surgery and exploding frigates. And whilst the actualities of life on board a ship may at times appear less spectacular than un-dead pirates, Master and Commander is peppered with a Boys Own confidence that forgives these moments all the way to an exciting climatic battle.
Unlike Pirates, the film doesn’t act as an origin story for its heroes. Aubrey is an old hand at warfare, a steadfast figure of bravery, sometimes carried away by his own intelligence and pride. The only one on board the Surprise that matches these qualities is Maturin, who questions Aubrey’s decisions with the respect only the oldest of friends could command. You don’t know how their friendship developed; you only know that it is textured and pragmatic. Crowe and Bettany play beautifully off of each other (and not just in scenes where they play the cello) reminding us that in a lot of ways they are underrated as actors. With these two we only just touch the surface of the characters, which can at times leave Master and Commander adrift in motivation-less sea, but in truth actually leaves a lot of room for them to be revisited.
Perhaps the only downfall here is that whilst the characters are interesting there are periods in the film where they just sit around looking thirsty, or are simply hauling ropes. One thing you could never call Pirates is minimalist in its action, as each sequence is constantly revving up for the next big spectacular moment. Pirates has a youthful, cheeky energy that is absent in Master and Commander and which sets them poles apart. Whilst it is obvious that they are made for different audiences, and Master is not what you would consider a ‘blockbuster’, that does not mean that it is required to be dour. It is after all entertainment, no matter how much you strive for historical accuracy. Maturity, (though commendable in almost every other facet of the film from the direction to the photography) should not be something exclusive from fun, especially when the plot revolves around chasing a ship across the Pacific Ocean.
There was of course a point when the fun was lost from Pirates, where too many plot threads and overwrought battle scenes became tangled in a storm of whirling disappointment. Not even Jack Sparrow could save them from mediocrity; the most recent film in which he starred was somewhat lifeless, ironic considering they were searching for the fountain of youth. What Pirates came to lack was strong characters you were invested in, and whose actions you could champion. This is where Master and Commander needs to step in and steer the high seas genre back into friendly waters. There is a spot for a sophisticated naval adventure which is begging to be filled and the stories of Aubrey and Maturin are perfect for the job.
It may be a case of transferring these stories to a cable network like HBO, AMC or Showtime or working in conjunction with the BBC. If Band of Brothers and The Pacific are any indication of the type of military series capable of being made on television there is no reason something such as Master and Commander would not work equally well. Evidence is in the successful adaptation of the Hornblower series (similarly based upon novels set during the Napoleonic Wars) ITV produced in the late 90′s early 00′s. Whilst it would be probable that the original cast would not return, the characters of Aubrey and Maturin are meaty roles for any fine actor to take on. Currently we are bereft of a historical war stories not set before the First World War, and as much as I love Birdsong or tolerate Downton Abbey, men and women did fight before the invention of the motor car.
There are over twenty books chronicling the journeys of Aubrey and Maturin by the commendably authentic author Patrick O’Brian so it’s not as if studios are lacking material. Sure the box office receipts weren’t great domestically, but internationally the film performed fairly well. It’s also been almost ten years since the film came out, with word of mouth always growing about the quality of the film. With the success of cable drama series’ like Game of Thrones, Homeland and Mad Men there is obviously an audience for grown up storytelling that would be equally great to see on the big or small screen. It’s not often that I actually want to see a sequel to something, and it’s not often that a film deserves one, but with Master and Commander you get the feeling there is still more to give. For me, it’s about time the HMS Surprise came out of retirement and set sail once more.