The swashbuckling Master and Commander.

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Nov. 13 2003 7:11 PM

Naval Gazing

Peter Weir's swashbuckling Master and Commander.

Fun on the high seas
Fun on the high seas

The national mood could hardly be more right for Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (20th Century Fox), a rousing and magnificently crafted 19th-century warship saga that handily dispenses with pesky questions about ulterior motives, civil liberties, and recalcitrant indigenous populations that bedevil our country's present-day engagements. Oh, to be in England, when the seas were high, the seamen higher, and the enemy plundering Frenchmen—led by Napoleon Bonaparte, bent on lining Piccadilly Circus with guillotines. See you in hell first, rude Frog!

It's 1803, onboard the HMSSurprise, and Capt. Jack Aubrey (a manly Russell Crowe, in a blond ponytail) is awakened by a young officer who might have glimpsed a fearsome French frigate through a frogbank—I mean, fogbank. Before we see Crowe's face we see his boots, his sword, and his belt buckle, which locks into place with the satisfying clank of steel against steel. Then he strides onto the deck and peers into the sea mist, as stalwart a captain as any in Christendom—and his crew knows it, too, every man-jack. We see the flash of a distant cannon before we hear the boom, and Aubrey yells, "DOWN!" as a ball rips through the mizzenmast. He cries, "Stand tall on the quarterdeck!" and "Lay me alongside at pistol range" and "Hold steady, boys! Courage now!" And I daresay, I was with him, and I daresay so will you be, every man-jack, woman-jack, and little-kid-jack.

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Weir has loosely adapted the 10th book of the late Patrick O'Brian's 20-part adventure series, which friends of mine have been rhapsodizing over for at least a decade. Seven years ago, at their prodding, I managed to get through the first volume and portions of the second, but all I can remember are whole pages about knots; and with my landlubber's impatience I had a hard time keeping hold of the narrative. But God's my life I enjoyed that seafaring patois—and so must have Weir. He and his co-screenwriter, John Collee, have kept O'Brian's relish for antiquated English nautical talk and veritable fetish for antiquated nautical bric-a-brac. The shots might be cluttered with ropes and pulleys and masts and mizzenmasts, but the storytelling is lean and shapely—even with long stretches in which the swashbuckling stops and the characters debate the up- and downsides of their military adventurism. Master and Commander hooks you from its nifty opening salvo to its nifty closing punch line.

That salvo, it turns out, comes from a newfangled French supership called the Acheron; and the film that follows consists of Aubrey's Surprise alternately running away from the thing or chasing it around Cape Horn to prevent it from sinking or pillaging more of His Majesty's ships. Aubrey, nicknamed Lucky Jack, is simultaneously lost in admiration for the phantom French captain (never shown, at least until the final moments) and vexed by the way in which the Surprise is constantly surprised. He'll go to the ends of the Earth to stop the Acheron, with the lone check on his authority his pal Stephen Maturin, the ship's doctor, played by the charismatic Paul Bettany—who was Crowe's imaginary friend in A Beautiful Mind (2001) but who functions here, amusingly enough, as the voice of reality.

As Aubrey drives his small and ramshackle ship—with boys on board who look barely pubescent—through scarily raging storms and even more scarily windless calms, Weir hints that the captain is becoming something of an Ahab in his quest for the Acheron. Truth be told, though, he's only mildly obsessed, only gingerly Ahab-esque. This is one level-headed martinet. A king-and-country authoritarian, he counsels an unpopular midshipman, Hollom (Lee Ingleby), against befriending the crew—men need governing, he maintains—yet quickly adds that one must never be a tyrant, either. (When he orders a sailor flogged for insubordination, he seems pretty squarely within his 19th-century rights.) Dr. Maturin, meanwhile, is a humanist who nonetheless understands the necessity of occasionally slicing people up for non-medical reasons.

Taken together, the pair embodies just the sort of balanced, exquisitely nuanced military that ought to be the rule instead of the (fictional) exception—and Crowe and Bettany are extremely comfortable together. (Or perhaps it's that we're comfortable seeing them together.) As Aubrey and Maturin debate the finer points of their mission while sawing away on a violin and cello, you can see how O'Brian influenced Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its French-English-liberal-humanist-authoritarian aesthete Capt. Jean-Luc Picard—who also flirted with Ahabism, but so guiltily that the actor, Patrick Stewart, had to make a TV-movie of Moby Dick to get the role out of his system.

There are other ways in which the film of Master and Commander will remind Trekkies that for all the loopy sci-fi contrivances in that series, it's the naval-adventure template that holds it together. This is the ur-Star Trek. Here, too, a captain barks out, "Damage report!" and the exchange of information that follows is gratifyingly lickety-split. Here, too, is a spirit of wonder on a planet that in the early 19th century seemed almost as vast and unknowable as our galaxy does now. In the second half, the HMSSurprise arrives in the Galapagos, where Maturin begs the captain to let him linger and carry back a sampling of never-before-seen (but ancient) species: We are led to believe that had the Acheron not sailed lumberingly into view and the call of science been rudely elbowed aside by the call of war, then Darwinism would be, uh, Maturinity.

Weir often brings a dash of artiness and a liberal conscience to what are essentially high-toned genre films: The Last Wave (1977), Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), Green Card (1990), etc. This is a genre film, too, with martial fervor finally swamping any larger questions about England's own none-too-savory imperialism: The movie's point of view is in Aubrey's misty eyes when he speaks of Adm. Lord Nelson ("With Nelson, you felt your heart glow …"). For all its ruminative patches, Master and Commander lacks that measure of ambivalence: We grieve for the men who fall, but never doubt that this war, or any war backed by elites the caliber of Aubrey and Maturin, is often imperative—or, as Aubrey puns, watching insects writhe on a dinner plate, the lesser of two weevils. That might not be enough to put this up there with the greatest war movies, but, given the thrilling Dolby-ized sound-scape and JMW Turner compositions and wonderfully evocative old Navy-speak, you'll hardly care. Even confirmed peaceniks will regard Master and Commander as a necessary weevil.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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