Peter Weir’s seafaring film turned out to be the last gasp for a bygone genre: the historical epic
In the annals of 21st century blockbusters, there is a film that stands out among the slew of superheroes and wizards and Jedi that have come to define modern Hollywood tentpoles. It’s a film that in the 15 years since its release has earned a small but passionate following of cinephiles ready to champion it, but was meant to become something so much more.
“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which opened in theaters on Nov. 14, 2003, was Peter Weir’s detailed, gripping adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novel series. Taking its name from two of the 20 novels released by O’Brian in the second-half of the 20th century, the film tells the story of Jack Aubrey, a captain in the British Royal Navy played by Russell Crowe, who was still riding the heights of his “Gladiator” action star popularity.
And it was intended to be the first in a series of films.
Aubrey is the captain of the HMS Surprise, a ship that has been tasked with apprehending the French privateer ship Acheron during the Napoleonic Wars. His main companion on the ship is Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon, played by Paul Bettany. After the Acheron not only evades capture but repeatedly ambushes the Surprise, Maturin confronts Aubrey over the possibility that he’s continuing the chase out of ego as much as duty.
The film alternates between engrossing dialogue, brought to life by Crowe and Bettany, and some of the most intense maritime battle scenes ever filmed. At sea, there is no such thing as a hasty retreat. The chaotic, indiscriminate death that pervades war is compounded by the claustrophobia of being on a ship bombarded with cannonballs that, even if they don’t kill you, can still send the watercraft on which you trust your life to the bottom of the sea.
Upon signing on as director, Weir decided that the film needed to take that sense of being on a 19th century Navy ship that O’Brian evoked in his books and translate it to film. That would require a painstaking, high-budget production with several months of shooting on a tank soundstage, 10 days of shooting on a replica ship at sea, and extra attention to detail in the design of the film’s ships, costumes, and the sounds of war. The price tag to reach this goal? $150 million, a budget larger than the $139 million spent on the first “Spider-Man” released a year before.