DIRECTOR: Peter Weir
Winner of two Academy Awards for Cinematography and Sound Effects Editing, rarely have two awards been so well deserved. But this was nominated for a total of ten Oscars, and won the two that The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King was not nominated for! Could it have done better? Without a doubt. Should it have? Absolutely.
This is a film which I rarely think of as a war film per-say, but it is, if ever there was one. This is based on the first two novels of the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey/Maturin series, with Russel Crowe as Captain Aubrey, and Paul Bettany as the ship’s surgeon and his best mate, Maturin.
Maturin is a Naturalist, serving aboard the British naval ship during the Napoleonic Wars to see the new world, in this case, taking him to the Galapagos Islands. Aubrey on the other hand is a naval man through and through, a master tactician, seaman and a dab hand at the violin, which often accompanied Maturin’s bass.
It’s 1805: The Surprise, the ship on which most the film is set, is engaged in hunting a French privateer, the Acheron, and is charged to “sink, burn or take her a prize”. Within one of the most spectacular opening fifteen minutes since Saving Private Ryan, the Surpirse has suffered an all but crippling attack from the Acheron and this should stand as proof that this is a war film to rival the best.
But it’s also a gentle film, charting the life aboard ship, whilst pursuing war and a bit of exploration and the general trials and tribulations a kin to life at sea in the 19th century. This must be one of the most realistic portrayals of both and life at sea that I’ve ever seen, with a slightly gritty sense being tempered with more classical imagery of the day.
The sound design as I’ve said, is first-rate, with the ability to completely immerse you in the time and surroundings of the film. The creaks of the boards, the wind howling, hammocks swaying, nails being driven into wood and cannon balls smashing into the hull, this is a sound scape like no other, and that is NO understatement.
Then we have the Jonah. Throughout the course of the film, the crew begin to believe that one of the younger officers is a Jonah, spreading bad luck throughout the ship, culminating with the ship lying in the doldrums, stranded with no wind. This leads to a suicide, and a change of fortunes, but this superstition is portrayed as such through the eyes of the crew, but is given more substance when the clearly intelligent Jack Aubrey expresses the same concerns, though be it, in a much more subtle manner.
Then, the wind returns. Is the Jonah curse real or just superstition? Who knows, but what we do know is that sailors of the day DID believe it, and that is conveyed so well throughout, that we can accept the possibilities more than you might think without taking the film into the realms of fantasy. A masterstroke from a master filmmaker like Weir.
In the end, this is a war film with the heart of a naturalist told through the eyes of those who were there, This showcases like few films do, the ingenuity and tactics of naval conflict during the 1800’s. The ship is a shattered wreck by the twentieth minute, but within a few days, it’s as good as new, as the press-ganged crew consisted of carpenters, tailors and a whole host of skilled labourers.
Master And Commander is one of the best war films of the past hundred years, though it wouldn’t be the first to come to mind.