Master and Commander, directed by Peter Weir from the first of the late Patrick O’Brian’s 20 naval adventure novels, is a spectacle at once burly and detached. Set almost entirely on an early-19th-century British frigate helmed by “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), the movie resounds with muffled shouts and thundering cannonballs; it pre-supposes a certain nautical interest or at least a taste for salty sea-dog sing-alongs.
After Aubrey’s craft, the HMS Surprise, is set upon off the coast of Brazil and clobbered by a superior French frigate, the captain wants nothing more than to refit his boat and pursue the Frenchies. Superstitiously imagined by the crew to be a “devil ship,” the French craft mutates into Aubrey’s white whale, although Lucky Jack is less a Captain Ahab than a kind of Texas Ranger who believes himself right and just keeps a-comin’ after the bigger, faster ship. Lured by his wily foe into sailing around Cape Horn in a digital storm, he takes a swinging strike two.
The protracted and wide-ranging British struggle against Napoleon Bonaparte has been described as the real first world war; unlike O’Brian’s novels, Master and Commander is fastidiously detailed yet fundamentally ahistoric. (Substitute “the Empire” for “Napoleon” and the introductory text might have been written by George Lucas.) For all the spray-drenched bonhomie, Master and Commander—as its title suggests—is a movie about the agony and the ecstasy of leadership. Weir places as much emphasis on procedure as action. No less than a big-time movie director, Lucky Jack has to balance his obsession with hearty good humor, exhibit self-control, and administer discipline. Lucky Jack is unflappable, even when the mast crashes and the boat is breaking up; Crowe delivers a star performance in his trademark incarnation as the thoughtful roughneck.
While the crew gets jiggy, as the Surprise heads north toward the Galápagos Islands, Aubrey and his sidekick, Dr. Stephen Maturin, swap tales of the great Lord Nelson or play Mozart duets on their fretted instruments. Maturin (Paul Bettany, the similarly sensitive intellectual in Dogville) is the more interesting character, who, almost ridiculously accomplished, might have written The Origin of Species if only he’d had the time. However, once the Surprise puts in at the Galápagos, his majesty’s duty calls. “We do not have time for damned hobbies, sir!” Jack explodes. (But wouldn’t you know that, when the chips are down, Captain Jack employs an adaptive trick learned from one of Maturin’s specimens.)
Technology itself has evolved since the days of Jaws, but given that few things are more difficult than shooting a movie at sea, Weir can scarcely be faulted for running an emotional tight ship. Master and Commander is an eminently practical movie. “Steady now, lads!” Captain Aubrey cautions as his men engage their enemy for the third time. Master and Commander (why not Belt and Suspenders?) is amply stocked with rote characterizations and conflicts; it alludes to the fantastic discomfort of life at sea and delicately looks away.
O’Brian’s admirers see him as being closer to Jane Austen than C.S. Forester. Perhaps Weir does as well. After leading his men to victory, Lucky Jack playfully strums his viola as though it were a ukulele; Maturin looks askance, and then rotates his instrument and . . . cello! This is an exercise in civility—a tasteful Boy’s Life adventure with plenty of boys aboard to express their appreciation.