The year is 1805. Thomas Jefferson is inaugurated for his second term. Lewis and Clark get their first views of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3,” the Eroica, premieres in Vienna. Napoleon defeats the Russians and the Austrians at Austerlitz and is crowned King of Italy.
In the South Atlantic, the captain of HMS Surprise, JackAubrey, is charged with preventing the French from controlling the waters off Brazil.
Aubrey is a fictional character, the hero of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved 20-volume series of naval exploits — two of which have been adapted to the screen as “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” The film will be shown Tuesday, March 29, in the Gill Patterson Community Room downstairs at the library.
Directed by Peter Weir (“Gallipoli,” “Witness,” “Dead Poets Society”), the film centers on Aubrey (Russell Crowe) as the man of action, possessed of a keen tactical mind, and Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship’s doctor, a man of ideas and a gifted naturalist. Each is the other’s opposite, yet each has some qualities of the other. They relax together by playing classical duets — the captain on the violin, the doctor on cello — and by exploring philosophy as often as naval warfare strategy in their conversations. Their entire world is the Surprise. It’s a coherent society in which order is achieved by custom. Every member of the crew understands his duty and his place, none of them better than Aubrey, who is both a strong leader and a fair-minded man.
His quarry is the French warship Archeron, a larger, faster, better armed vessel than his own. As the two ships approach each other in battle, Aubrey exhorts his crew to patriotism. “Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? Do you want your children to grow up singing the ‘Marseillaise’?” When the fighting is done and he rewards the men with an extra tot of grog, they feel well led and well paid.
But “Master and Commander” is not so much a film about empire-building exploits as a character study. Aubrey’s task is brutal and dangerous, but he clearly loves it. Maturin is an intellectual but no sissy. Indeed, he is so cool under pressure that he directs the removal of a bullet from his own chest by looking in a mirror. Other members of the crew are also deftly drawn. One, a high-born teenager (Max Pirkis) who’s been sent to sea to learn leadership, is actually put in command of the deck during a skirmish. Under Aubrey, he learns to think clearly in battle. With Maturin, he discovers a passion for biology.
Gorgeously shot — largely in the Baja, California tanks constructed for “Titanic” — the film delivers a fine sense of the privations, dangers and loneliness of life at sea. A.O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, called it “a stupendously entertaining movie.” Roger Ebert deemed it “an exuberant sea adventure told with uncommon intelligence.”
“Master and Commander,” he wrote, “achieves the epic without losing sight of the human, and to see it is to be reminded of the way great action movies can rouse and exhilarate us, can affirm life instead of simply dramatizing its destruction.”
“Master and Commander,” released in 2003, was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The Golden Globes gave it three nominations: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Performance by an Actor. It runs 2 hours 18 minutes. Come see this well-crafted seafaring classic. Bring a pal; you’ll both enjoy it.