"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"
(20th Century Fox/Miramax/Universal), 139 minutes, PG-13
Directed by Peter Weir.
Written by Peter Weir and John Collee, based on the novels of Patrick O'Brian.
Russell Crowe: Captain Jack Aubrey
Paul Bettany: Dr. Stephen Maturin
Max Pirkis: Lord Blakeney
Billy Boyd: Barrett Bonden
Peter Weir's "Master and Commander," based on the Patrick O'Brian novels, is a wonderful return to the world of 18th-century naval warfare, especially the tactics. Single-shot cannon, muskets, cutlasses, and considerable ingenuity guide Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crow) to victory. His ship is the HMS Surprise ("28 guns, 197 souls"). His men trust him like a god—he can preach, exhort, condemn to death. The ship is his kingdom. And he drives his men to superhuman achievements, against their own doubts. He has mastery of all science, religion, and politics. But is the captain driven more by pride than duty? Is this the ship on which Jonah attempted to escape God? Is he an Ahab? After all, when we see the captain in his cups, we are not impressed.
The Surprise is engaged in Britain's war against Napoleon, who threatens the entire civilized world. "Do you want your children to sing the Marseillaise!?" Captain Jack roars to his men. They pursue their French prey in the southern Atlantic and then the Pacific, far away from the main front.
Command of Aubrey's kingdom requires mastery of nature. Raging storms, treacherous currents, dead calm all threaten his suzerainty. His specific opponent is a seemingly mysterious French warship, a technological marvel that twice gets advantage of his Surprise. Captain Jack does get knowledge of the American-made vessel's vulnerabilities. But this chance knowledge is not what will lead him to triumph.
The key lies rather in his friend Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon. They play Mozart and Bach on violin and cello together. (Crowe has a face that can play a gladiator or a nerdish professor.) The captain can speak with this naturalist as a friend—something impossible with any other member of the crew. He will put his friend in his place when the ship's fate is at stake.
The naturalist will guide the way to victory. Some 40 years before Darwin, the Surprise makes port in the Galapagos, but it must depart before valuable animal specimens can be put aboard. Seizing on a chance remark about a specimen insect the doctor recovers, the captain devises a victorious strategy. Locke's student will outwit Rousseau's. But each captain has learned his nation's philosopher's lessons well.
We are looking upon a dead era and the emerging knowledge that will favor technological wizardry. Those old virtues will remain essential of course, but today a one-armed man (or woman) can be the master. The naturalist will evolve into the true commander of nature. Technological advance will determine who survives. Yet we still need prudent commanders who know how to use that knowledge. After all, knowledge crosses borders and can be applied by clever imitators. Moreover, the ideology of Darwinism will guide the rise of the worst tyrannies of the history of the world. It remains alive in myriad forms today.
"Master and Commander" comes across as an enjoyable movie about courage and above all the classical virtue of prudence. That it is. Beyond that, we see how those virtues enable us to rediscover the meaning of nature and the unending need to master her. We are led to rediscover ancient virtue's way into philosophy.